Jack Knox: How a Victoria cop kept the Great One safe 10 years ago

The opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics was 10 years ago today, which means it has been exactly that long since Tony Parks stopped Wayne Gretzky from falling out of a pickup truck.

VicPD’s Parks was one of five officers who, starting in Victoria, crossed Canada with the Olympic flame as it passed from hand to hand in the 106-day torch relay leading up to the 2010 Games.

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Running and cycling alongside 180 excited torchbearers each day was a wonderful, uplifting experience, but one that was supposed to end before the opening ceremony. No, said Vancouver Games boss John Furlong. Those five officers, including Vancouver Island Mounties Rob Sweetland and Roger Plamondon, deserved to see the journey through to the end.

So there they were at the dress rehearsal the day before festivities at B.C. Place, with the secret final torchbearer — Gretzky — who was to light the Olympic cauldron at the waterfront after being ferried there from the stadium in the back of a pickup truck.

Hold on, Parks said, what about security for Gretzky in that open vehicle? Don’t need it, he was told. We don’t need a bunch of cops crowding the TV shot. The whole truck thing is hush-hush. The drive will be over in minutes.

Except that when the opening ceremony was held on Feb. 12, 2010, things didn’t go to script.

First, a malfunction with a temporary cauldron in B.C. Place caused a delay of two or three minutes. That was embarrassing enough, but almost led to a second glitch. Gretzky’s torch had been burning the whole time.

The torches only have so much fuel. Parks says it was Sweetland who had the presence of mind to pass Gretzky a fresh one as he ran out of the stadium, ensuring that the Great One didn’t show up at the cauldron bearing a cold, useless chunk of metal.

(As Gretzky neared the waterfront, CTV’s Brian Williams said on air: “This is obviously a very special torch that Wayne Gretzky is carrying through downtown Vancouver tonight because it has been burning for a lot longer than 15 minutes.”)

Also, by the time Gretzky emerged from the stadium, it was obvious the secret was out. Exuberant, well-lubricated fans poured out of side streets, grabbing for Gretzky and trying to climb in the box of the truck. There was no malice, but it was still a security nightmare. “I thought: ‘This is bad,’ ” Parks said.

So he made a decision.

“I deputized myself,” he recalled this week. “I hopped in the back of the truck.”

Good thing he did, because overly enthusiastic fans weren’t Gretzky’s only worry. As the truck slowly slalomed through the drunks and around corners, Gretzky, holding the torch aloft in one red-mittened hand, was in danger of losing his balance whenever he raised the other to wave.

“Every time he did that, he would start to fall back,” Parks said. “He didn’t have a harness. He had nothing.”

So, Parks stuck his hand on Gretzky’s back to keep him upright. OK, maybe it was lower than his back.

Video from the time shows Parks crouching in the back of the truck, along with a technician he had told to hop in with a spare torch. As an icy rain poured down, all Parks could think of was Gretzky taking a header with the whole world watching on television. The television cameras had just shown Rick Hansen, who had ended up in a wheelchair after falling out of the back of a pickup truck. Parks maintained his vigil.

“The king of hockey was not getting hurt on my watch,” he says.

The whole pickup-truck thing was bizarre from the get-go. In an updated end to his book Gretzky’s Tears, author Stephen Brunt contrasted what happened inside B.C. Place with the truck trip outside: “What followed, in the midst of an event that was planned and choreographed to the second, was something like happy, glorious, unscripted chaos.”

Yahoo Sports writer Jay Busbee described Gretzky being “paraded through the streets like a small-town homecoming queen.” Scott Feschuk, writing in Maclean’s, called the pickup a “redneck Popemobile.”

Through it all, Gretzky stayed calm.

“He never flinched. He never said a thing,” Parks said. “The guy was a rock star in a really uncomfortable situation.”

By the time the truck got to the waterfront, the crowd was so thick that Parks had to act like a football lineman blocking for a running back in getting Gretzky to the fenced-off compound in which the cauldron and 400 invitees were corralled. “It was like a fish swimming up stream.”

After seeing the final torchbearer inside the compound, Parks headed back to the truck, only to find 30 people standing on the hood, the roof and in the box.

“They were all singing O Canada. I thought: ‘How can I get mad at these people?’ ”

And with that, the torch run was over and the Games began.

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