AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   January/February 2000

Ghostwriting for The Great One   

Wayne Gretzky hung up his hockey skates last year, and now he has other stats to think about--like the word count on his syndicated hockey column.

By Sean Mussenden
     


IN HIS PLAYING days, former hockey star Wayne Gretzky churned out some memorable statistics: 894 goals and 1,963 assists, making him the all-time leader in both categories.
But The Great One hung up his skates last year, and now has other stats to think about, like the word count of his syndicated hockey column and the number of papers running it.
The column, ghostwritten every week by National Post columnist Roy MacGregor in collaboration with Gretzky, runs in the Toronto-based paper and is distributed in the United States by United Features Syndicate. It discusses Gretzky's playing days, current social issues and, of course, hockey, hockey and more hockey.
Since the column debuted in September, Gretzky, 39--and MacGregor--have touched on an array of topics, from bone-crushing checks to ethnic prejudice. Now that the oft-quoted Gretzky is the one holding the pen, sort of, he claims journalistic objectivity, saying in a recent column: "I have no allegiance to any team now. I'm just a fan of the game."
"I think he's full of shit," exclaims Bill Tuele, vice president of public relations for the Edmonton Oilers, a team with which Gretzky won four Stanley Cups. "He's definitely still cheering for the [New York] Rangers or the Oilers, and there's probably still a hint of the [Los Angeles] Kings in there," Tuele believes. Gretzky played for all three teams in his 21-season career.
Only a few media outlets are running the column thus far, including the Denver Post, TotalSports.net and two small daily newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota.
Most subscribers admit that the column's celebrity byline was the primary reason they picked it up, but for Ruth Newman, the writing style was also very important. "If it was poorly written, we don't want that," says the editor of the 17,000-circulation West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minnesota, a city of 19,000 residents that boasts two hockey rinks.
Though MacGregor, whom the Washington Post recently called "the closest thing there is to a poet laureate of Canadian hockey," writes the column, "he writes in Gretzky's voice as Gretzky speaks," says National Post Sports Editor Graham Parley.
MacGregor, who jokes his new nickname might be "ghost laureate," has mixed feelings about writing the column. "It's a job. I certainly like Wayne Gretzky as a person but...it takes away a day or more a week of my own work," says the daily columnist, who writes on politics, sports, culture and other topics.
Gretzky, through his agent, requested MacGregor, Parley says, and the two trade phone calls and faxes during the weekly writing of the column. It is well known in Canada that it is ghostwritten, Parley says, although MacGregor's byline does not appear with the column.
But U.S. readers should be informed of the practice, says Philip Meyer, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "If a mainstream newspaper in the United States [ran the column], they would have to disclose the ghostwriting...in order to be ethical. There should at least be a credit at the end or Ćas told to by,' " Meyer says.
UFS does not disclose the fact that the column is ghostwritten when selling it. Lisa Klem Wilson, vice president of sales and marketing for United Media, the parent company of UFS, says she was not aware of the collaboration, but does not find it that important. "I don't think that any editors are concerned with the issue.... If [they] were, I think they'd ask," Wilson says.
Not true, says Newman of the West Central Tribune, after AJR informed her of the ghostwriting. "That's very frustrating. The syndicate did not tell me that. It's still a good column, but I will put an editor's note on it," she says.
Ghostwritten or not, some editors simply weren't swayed by Gretzky's cachet. Dave Schwarz, managing editor of the 7,000-circulation People's Press in Owatonna, Minnesota, is considering picking up Gretzky's column, but says, "I think most of our readers would rather read about their kid in pee-wee hockey every week."
The Great One, whom National Post columnist Cam Cole recently described as being harder "to get an audience with [than] the Dalai Lama," could not be reached for comment.

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