When two prides of Brantford collided
The late Phil Hartman was years ahead of Wayne Gretzky in many places.
Both beloved Brantfordians moved to the Lower 48 and dispensed their talents in Los Angeles and New York. They would each earn a spot on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
Only one of them had remained in his homeland long enough for his departure to spark any outrage. Naturally, that was the Great White Northern side of the story when, 30 years ago Thursday, the Edmonton Oilers dealt Gretzky to the L.A. Kings.
But nine months after that day of polar press conferences, one southwest Ontario city saw its greatest athletic and acting products consummate the former’s cultural impact on their new country. Gretzky became the first NHL player to host Saturday Night Live amidst Hartman’s third season on the cast.
And for four minutes, the two had the screen all to themselves. What preceded and followed that path-crossing yields several common Gretzky-Hartman threads beyond Brantford.
The last time “The Trade” had an anniversary divisible by five, The Sporting News’ Sean Gentile retroactively reviewed the episode. He was apt to highlight Mike Myers’ gushing enthusiasm for the May 13, 1989, guest host. Besides having one Wayne meet another, Myers sported his Maple Leafs jersey and a Canadian flag during the curtain call.
Then there was one other Ontario connection in executive producer Lorne Michaels.
But just as Hartman was always a somewhat unsung hero, “Fishing with the Anal Retentive Sportsman” deserves more words. As it happens, it is the episode’s only sketch archived on NBC’s website.
Whether it is SNL, taped programming or movies, critics sometimes evoke the fish-out-of-water adage when athletes attempt acting. The all-Brantford sketch not only typified how aptly that applied to Gretzky, but illustrated the metaphor.
In most installments of this recurring bit, Hartman performed solo in a kitchen as Gene, the Anal Retentive Chef. Here he takes his show to the waters of Montauk and brings The Great One on board.
Great premise. Many sports stars have gone on fishing shows before, have done so since and will continue to. If Gretzky was going to keep playing himself and making more out of less, the subjects of satire might as well be realistic.
As he humbly stated in his monologue, Gretzky garnered the SNL gig solely on his hockey-generated fame. His double-act with Hartman offers the same acknowledgment. In character as Gene, Hartman introduces his guest as “celebrity sportsman Wayne Gretzky.”
From there, the Brantfordian expatriates treat their NBC audience to an amusing juxtaposition. While Gretzky is simply himself in a setting other than where he works year-round for a comfortable living, Hartman lives up to his “Sultan of Smarm” title.
Gretzky’s first line is a polite filler. “Hello, Gene. Great day to fish, isn’t it?”
“It’s a perfect day,” Gene specifies. It would have to be in his view, otherwise they would not be out there.
Upon taking Gretzky’s request for a “mullet” hook, Gene loses himself in his trademark meticulousness. Apart from setting up No. 99 for a pointless, patronizing trivia question-answer-very-good!-compliment pattern, he describes every detail of his tackle-box contents and discards anything he deems aesthetically out of place.
Meanwhile, Gretzky’s would-be catch of a gargantuan Montauk bluefish turns the tables and pulls the guest in. Consider that a callback to Chevy Chase’s deceptive old landshark from SNL’s inaugural season.
His fishing partner could help, but is too busy demonstrating his care not to “scratch the finish” with his rod.
It’s all about the organization, a word Hartman pronounces with his homeland’s distinctive long I.
Hartman, who was 13 years Gretzky’s senior, never overlapped with the skating prodigy in Brantford. His family moved when he was 10, and spent the balance of his upbringing in Connecticut and Greater Los Angeles.
While Gretzky was competing against 10-year-olds as a six-year-old back in Brantford, Hartman was flaunting his future money-maker at school. Both men, however, rose to mainstream status in their respective professions around the same time.
At the end of the 1970s, Gretzky was breaking into the WHA, then transferring with his Oilers to the NHL. Hartman was in the middle, and reaching the peak, of his 11-year tenure with the Groundlings, an L.A. comedic talent factory.
Both men savored a personally groundbreaking victory in 1984. In May, Gretzky captained Edmonton to its first Stanley Cup. Two months later, one of Hartman’s works was selected for the 1984 L.A. Theatre Olympics, coinciding with the city’s hosting the Summer Games.
By 1986, Hartman had gone cross-country to join the SNL cast. Two years later, after winning a fourth Cup, Gretzky succeeded him as Brantford’s most famous transplant in Hollywood.
They even had a pair of American networks in common. Beyond their shared evening in Studio 8H, NBC became the NHL’s first U.S. non-cable carrier of Gretzky’s career in 1992.
As it happened, that partnership ended in 1994, the same year Hartman called it quits at SNL. But the man many called the “glue” of the cast soon returned to the network, playing Bill McNeal on NewsRadio.
Alongside that and several film appearances, Hartman endeared himself to Fox viewers as a recurring voice actor on The Simpsons. Beginning in 1990, he enlivened 19 characters in 53 episodes over nine seasons. Hapless yet sunny lawyer Lionel Hutz and mediocre actor Troy McClure, who appeared posthumously four months after Hartman’s death, were his signature roles.
Concomitant with The Simpsons’ peak years, Fox scored the broadcasting rights to Gretzky’s league after NBC parted ways. That alliance would last through the final five years of The Great One’s career.
Gretzky appeared in 27 regular-season Fox telecasts, scoring four goals and 20 assists. The network carried seven of his playoff outings, catching five goals and seven helpers. Highlights on that front included a hat trick against Philadelphia and a loss in the same series that proved his last postseason game in 1997.
Gretzky’s last competitive contest of all, on April 18, 1999, was also Fox’s final regular-season NHL game. But nearly 18 years later, the two reunited when No. 99 guest starred on Hartman’s animation alma mater.
Not surprisingly, he was the first representative of his sport on The Simpsons, which enlisted him expressly for his puck legend. Just as it was with SNL when he and Hartman made their fellow Brantfordians beam.