Wayne Gretzky scores assist on 99th birthday

Vernon family surprises grandmother on Vancouver Island with special gifts from The Great One

For his beloved grandmother’s 99th birthday, Vernon’s Craig Howard thought of Canada’s most famous No. 99.

Through his parents – mom, Billie, and dad, Brian – Howard decided to try and contact Wayne Gretzky to send his grandmother, Lucile Palsson in Lake Cowichan, on Vancouver Island, a special birthday greeting as both share the same big day – Jan. 26.

The Great One did more than send simply a greeting.

“He sent her the greeting, an autographed Edmonton Oilers jersey and an autographed copy of his book,” said Howard, who teaches chemistry and physics at Vernon’s W.L. Seaton Secondary, and whose mom and dad delivered the special package in person on Thursday.

“It just made sense to contact him for her 99th birthday.”

Howard’s father was co-editor of the Victoria High School newspaper with legendary B.C. sportswriter Jim Taylor, who penned a couple of books on Gretzky, including his autobiography. Howard and Taylor reconnected at a recent Vic High reunion.

Brian and Billie contacted Taylor, who got a hold of Gretzky to see if the hockey Hall of Famer would send Palsson a birthday greeting.

“It was quite astonishing; I was very, very surprised,” said Palsson. “He signed the book: ‘Happy 99th birthday. Love, Wayne Gretzky.’

“I tried on the jersey and had my picture taken with it.”

Palsson was born Jan. 26, 1918, in Vancouver. She admitted she wasn’t much of a hockey fan but grew up listening to games on the radio.

“You know, players like Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe, long before Gretzky,” said Palsson, a retired school librarian (who was very excited by the book in the package).

A primary school in Lake Cowichan – Palsson Elementary School – is named after her and her late husband, Oscar, a former principal.

A class from the school visited Palsson on Thursday, and sang her Happy Birthday and the Palsson School Song.

The Great One – born Jan. 26, 1961 in Brantford, Ont. – proved to Palsson and the Howards that the moniker applies to more than just his hockey prowess.

“It was very kind of him to send me a birthday present,” said Palsson.

Added Billie Howard: “It made her day and showed he really is a very nice guy.”

Craig Howard said his grandmother deserved it.

“She’s pretty awesome. You wouldn’t believe she’s 99,” he said.