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Editor’s note: We don’t usually post personal essays on MI’s website, but we couldn’t pass on this one. Whether you’re a hockey fan or an entrepreneur looking for a fresh business perspective, we hope you’ll agree.

Last Wednesday, I was meeting an old friend for lunch in downtown Toronto. We’re both from Edmonton; we were classmates at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. And we’re hockey fans. So I said, “Let’s have lunch at Wayne Gretzky’s.”

We didn’t expect to meet Wayne himself, but that’s what happened. One minute I was eating fish tacos. The next minute, my friend’s pointing with his fork: “Dude, Wayne Gretzky’s right behind you.”

Wayne Gretzky (centre) and MI's Hassan Jaferi (right) with X.
Wayne Gretzky (centre) and MI’s Hassan Jaferi (right) with Matthew Killick.

I was in Grade 2 when Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1987. One of my classmates was the daughter of Andy Moog, the team goalie. He brought the cup into class after the Oilers won so we could all touch it. I grew up playing street hockey in Edmonton and idolizing Wayne. We all did.

So you’ll understand that we had to stop him and say hi. We just had to.

And then we were stunned when he put his glass down on our table and spent 20 minutes talking to us about his various business activities.

My hands were shaking as we left the restaurant an hour later. But here’s five things I managed to take away from this surreal and wonderful experience.

  1. Respect your first customer base; they’re the foundation for everything else. Wayne Gretzky carries a Sharpie in his pocket, possibly at all times. During our conversation and afterwards, he signed pictures, napkins and even hockey sticks for one enthusiastic diner who ran across the street to buy some for his kids. Gretzky was friendly and welcoming to everyone who asked for a piece of his time. No one was turned away. And why should they be? The people who love Gretzky for his phenomenal hockey ability made everything else that followed possible for him.
  2. Understand your brand and your relationship to it. Wayne Gretzky and his hockey prowess is the core of the brand for his restaurant, but it goes deeper than the sign and the sports memorabilia. He told us he drops in a couple of times a year to check in and see how things are going. But as I kept babbling, “That’s Wayne Gretzky” to the wait staff like the crazed hockey maniac that I am, they smiled and just nodded. “Yeah, he’s part of the team.” I could tell that Gretzky being in the restaurant wasn’t unusual. I didn’t sense, and they didn’t act, like there was a velvet rope between him and the rest of the staff. I’m not sure a restaurant run by Kanye West or Simon Cowell would have the same vibe.
  3. Take organic risks that make sense. Gretzky told us about some of his future plans; some of it’s public, like his work with his clothing line for Sears Canada. Other parts don’t appear to be, so I won’t get into those details. He did tell us about branching out into wine for his restaurant and about his hockey school’s summer camp, which is kicking off its next session. On his Twitter feed, I saw a tweet with a photo of him signing personalized welcomes to each and every camper, probably with that same Sharpie. (I dug around a bit on the camp website and it sounds like a pretty intense training experience. Is it lame to be jealous of kids? Then I’m lame.) But I was impressed by the logic behind his various business ventures, and how they seemed to connect to either hockey or his passions. I mean, here’s a guy who could proudly sit back on his laurels and play golf all day, but who clearly wants to win at other things. The researchers I work with through MaRS Innovation are similar: brilliant people who’ve experienced extraordinary success in one field, but want to translate that to another area through commercialization. Canada needs the kind of restless energy Gretzky personifies: a guy who’s doing a lot of diverse, challenging, interesting things.
  4. Be in the moment. There were loads of people competing for Gretzky’s attention—us included—and this was only a snippet of what I imagine he experiences every day and has done for the last 30-odd years. What was remarkable was how present he seemed: he didn’t brush off any of our questions, made full eye contact and was completely engaged for the length of the conversation.
  5. Make the people you do business with feel comfortable. You know that saying about how it’s better not to meet your idols? Icons like Gretzky shatter it. Interrupting him to say hi could have been extremely awkward, but he turned it into one of the most interesting and personable business conversations I’ve had all year. It’s the hardest thing to quantify, but emotionally was the most powerful.

And as a boy from Edmonton who still loves the game Gretzky made famous around the world, I’ll take that last lesson with me for the rest of my life.

Hassan Jaferi is a commercialization manager for MaRS Innovation’s Technology Transfer & Scouting program. Elizabeth Monier-Williams is MI’s director of marketing and communications; she interviewed Hassan and wrote this blog post with him.

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