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Wayne Gretzky this week signed up with a pain relief company to pitch the virtues of an arthritis medication. It's not certain that the used-to-be Great One actually has an arthritic condition, only that he might someday have one. That's led to a lot of confusion the past few days.

First rule of journalism: Wayne, get the facts straight.

I bring this up not because I'm concerned that Gretzky might some day be walking around with the kinds of aches and pains so many of us suffer after having taken hits while writing checks for tickets and stadiums over the years, but because I've noticed that Gretzky is entering into my bailiwick.

He's embarking on a career as a sports columnist for the National Post, a fledging newspaper in Canada.

Now I was never one to try and tell the greatest player the game has ever known how to play hockey. Heck, I had a tough enough time teaching Bruce Smith how to tell the difference between the markings on a stop light. You know, red means stop, yellow means caution, green means go and all of the above means it's best just to sleep on it and wait for the police to show up.

That kind of advice has its own inherent danger, and as you will come to learn Wayne, journalism -- and especially the commentary side of the business -- is different than taking your kind of shots.

For instance, you might be surprised to know that editors won't share your pulse-pounding anticipation whenever a game goes to overtime, especially in the playoffs. This might come as a shock to most any hockey player, but in the media business the word "deadline" has a two-fold meaning. It means that once it passes and your column didn't make it into the paper, it won't be read. It also means you are dead.

Then there's the glory thing, old buddy. When you did your job well, people cheered, teammates raised their sticks in tribute, red lights flashed, sirens wailed and there was magic in the air.

Nice, but in the sports writing business the rewards are a little different. Most often it means writing to the early morning hours, leaving the building to the muted snarl of a guard dog and then getting up somewhere around 5 a.m. to return the "luxury appointed" subcompact to the rental car corral in time to catch that predawn flight -- via the middle seat -- to the spot on the map where Commissar Bettman threw his last dart.

But enough about the good parts, Wayne. There are some tricks to the trade that you may not have realized being on the other side of the notebooks and tape machines all those years.

For instance it's important that you become well-schooled in the subtleties of official pronouncements.

For example, when the Commissar tells you that everybody in hockey knows Brett Hull scored a legitimate goal to win the Stanley Cup, despite the fact it violated every known rule, you need to know how to deal with that.

By tradition, you're obligated to write it down and print it as a statement of fact. It is acceptable to mumble a little something under your breath, perhaps words that start with a B and S, but don't laugh right out loud. Save the humor until you get back to your humble writer's garret and then lambaste the poor
man for being an arrogant, self-serving, stone-walling demigod who wouldn't know a puck from the back of Michael Jordan's head.

At this point I guess I should bring up the issue of money.

This may come as a shock to you Wayner, but keeping up with market value has a whole other meaning in the sports writing business. A $6 million to $8 million a year contract might be the norm for a star player in your world, but even the better sportswriters usually see their salaries tied to a complex formula that takes into consideration the market value of No. 2 pencils, the cost of bad sports coats and the owner's desire to return to the days of indentured servitude.

But as any journalist will tell you, Wayne, it's not about money. It's about our love for the game. And you can quote me on that.

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