T here he is on the ice before the NHL All-Star Game in 1988, taking slap shots beside Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. He’s there at Michael Jordan’s first charity golf tournament in the Bahamas, staying up into the wee hours to best His Airness at the poker table. He books an in-his-prime O.J. Simpson on Bobby Vinton’s variety show, and he transforms Phil Esposito into a pop star with the novelty hit “Hockey Sock Rock.” He gets aced by Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and John McEnroe on the hard court; he’s paired with Jack Nicklaus on the golf course; and he skates around the ice with Barry Bonds (while praying the slugger doesn’t fall). He even plays a pivotal role in “The Trade,” helping to smooth the way for Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles, and he becomes so important to his beloved L.A. Kings that he’d perhaps be more accurately described as a team operative than a fan. Who is this Zelig of the sports world? Alan Thicke, of course.
Star of the hit sitcom Growing Pains (he was dubbed “America’s Favorite Dad,” despite hailing from small-town Ontario); host of The Alan Thicke Show and Thicke of the Night; writer for the TV shows and comedy specials of everyone from Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor to Bobby Darin and Barry Manilow; and composer of the theme songs for Wheel of Fortune (the Chuck Woolery version), Diff’rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life, Thicke realized from the start of his career that he could parlay his C-list showbiz fame into A-list sports access. At first glance, the pairing seems deeply incongruous: Thicke — the affable entertainer with a Borscht Belt wit and a scotch-before-dinner voice — buddying up with the likes of Gretzky, Jordan, and Bonds. But Thicke has always been irresistible to jocks. He’s their own personal late-night host on the putting green and the charity banquet, offering up jokes and jibes, deep sports knowledge and modest athletic ability, and a hard-baked regular-guy charm. “Alan Thicke, in my recollection, was just another Canadian,” says retired NHL defenseman Dave Maloney, whom Thicke recruited to sing backup on “Hockey Sock Rock.” “He was a guy that liked hockey and just happened to be in Hollywood. I say that with respect.”
I. 1970s: The Lonely Canadian
Thicke grew up in the Ontario mining towns of Kirkland Lake (gold) and Elliot Lake (uranium), before attending Canada’s Western University, where he played football until a knee injury forced him off the field and into a sportswriting gig with the student newspaper. After college, he caught on with the CBC music-and-comedy troupe the Good Company (Lorne Michaels frequently booked them on his pre–Saturday Night Live shows), before moving to Los Angeles in 1970 at the age of 23. From the start, Thicke sought out the company of athletes.
Alan Thicke: When I first came to Los Angeles — literally the first week when I was still staying in a motel — I was looking to establish some element of familiarity. And as a lonely Canadian, I looked in the newspaper to see if the Kings were playing Saturday night. You couldn’t imagine in Toronto or Montreal that you could get tickets at the last minute, but it was like the old joke: You call up to say, “What time does the game start?” and they say, “Well, what time can you get here?”
I knew a couple of the guys — I had played at the high school level with a guy named Mike Corrigan, a forward for the Kings, and then there were guys, like Dick Duff and Ralph Backstrom, who were a little older than me, but I knew them from my little hometown. It was just part of me feeling homesick that the first calls I made in Los Angeles were to Canadians that I either knew or was familiar with as a hockey fan. Right away there was a bond: We were guys from small towns in Canada in the big city.
Phil Esposito (Hall of Fame NHL center; Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers): Alan had me on The Bobby Vinton Show, that he was a producer on. I got on that and sang. I did one of the Anne Murray specials that he produced. There was a guy named Rene Simard, who was a Canadian kid that sang very well, I did his show too. Alan always said to me, “Man, you should come out here and we should do something.” But I was playing, you know? I wasn’t interested in all that crap. I mean, it might have been a good thing. I had a chance in 1972 to test for a part in The Godfather. Alan said, “You should do it, give it a try.” I said, “What am I gonna do? Tell the Bruins that I can’t play for four games?” And the money wasn’t any good. I wasn’t going to give up playing hockey for five grand.
Thicke: It was important to have personalities to sell hockey in the States, and Phil is a boisterous, loud, warm, friendly Italian. He has a great sense of humor. And that led toward me thinking, Hey, he should be one of the faces of hockey, and right at the forefront in helping to sell the game. I’ll take credit for being one of the first guys who really promoted the combination of pro athletes and variety television shows.
Ron Duguay (retired NHL center; New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings): I met Al through Phil Esposito. Don’t ask me where we were at that first meeting; all I know is I was invited to be part of this select group that was going to put the “Hockey Sock Rock” together as a song and video. I know Al was in New York quite a bit, and, because he loves hockey, was at a lot of games.
Esposito: Alan called me and he said, “Phil, I’d like to do something for diabetes,” because his son Brennan had juvenile diabetes. And I said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “I wrote this song. I want you guys to sing it.” One thing led to another, and we ended up doing it, and singing it, and recording it.
Dave Maloney (retired NHL defenseman; New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres): When we were in the studio recording the song, I remember different Hollywood types popping in to say hello. I remember Robin Williams kinda bouncing around. At one point, he did a five-minute stand-up routine on a hockey player with a French Canadian accent where he pulled his shirt over his head. It was a total blast.
Duguay: Phil did all the lead [vocals], and the rest of us were backup, and you kinda got a sense of what it was like to record a record.
Esposito: Alan told me, “You can carry a tune.” I said, “I can?” When I first heard it, hell, I didn’t even think it sounded like me. But my wife said it sure did, and people told me you can hear my voice through the singing and everything else — that’s because Doogs and Maloney and J.D. [John Davidson] couldn’t carry a fucking pail!
Thicke: I had gone to Sonny Werblin with the Rangers and Jerry Buss with the Kings and I said, “Will you fund this for me?” God bless ’em, they each wrote a check for $25,000, which was essentially 25,000 records — we were selling 45 rpm records back then. That really launched the project.
II. 1980s: The Kings’ Confidante
By the end of the ’70s and into the ’80s, Thicke was increasingly stepping in front of the camera. He hosted the talk shows The Alan Thicke Show and Thicke of the Night before landing the role of lovable dad Dr. Jason Seaver on the ABC sitcom Growing Pains. A loyal fan of the Los Angeles Kings since his arrival in the city, he would play a pivotal role in one of the franchise’s defining moments.
Thicke: When I came to L.A., Jack Kent Cooke owned the Kings, and he couldn’t get anyone to show up and certainly couldn’t get any celebrities to show up. Somehow he found out that I knew some celebrities, because I was writing for them, and he said, “Please drag them down here. We’ll buy them a new house, a car, whatever.” And so I started unofficially being the celebrity liaison of the Kings. When Jerry Buss took over, he understood the value of celebrity involvement. Because I had done such a good job running with the “Hockey Sock Rock” project, Jerry said to me, “Look, we have control over the All-Star banquet with the game being in L.A. [in 1981]. Will you produce it?” And I said, “I’ll produce it if more funds go to diabetes.” The banquet was a big success: Esposito was singing the “Hockey Sock Rock.” I had George Burns. I had Gordon Lightfoot. We did a pretty good show.
Wayne Gretzky (Hall of Fame NHL center; Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers): That was the first time I met him. Jerry Buss had just bought the L.A. Kings, and we played the NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. In those days, the day before the game, there used to be a big, black-tie gala dinner, and Alan was really the guy that jump-started the charity push behind the All-Star dinner.
Thicke: It happened to be one of Wayne’s first years in the league, and he had seen my TV show in Canada, so he was familiar with me. I was, of course, familiar with him. He had been legendary in Canada since he was sperm. And we had kind of a mutual fondness immediately.
Gretzky: Alan was a mentor. He really guided me as far as things I did away from hockey, whether it was hosting Saturday Night Live or being a special guest on Canadian TV shows. You know, Alan is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met. He’s one of the most talented people in North America. And for someone like that to give you guidance is special.
Thicke: I was one of the first guys who made Wayne feel comfortable in L.A. when he was coming down with the Oilers. It would be, Let’s go out, let’s have a meal, or We’ll go to a club, or You’ll come to a studio — just enjoying the environment, enjoying what L.A. had to offer for visiting teams. Wayne and I had gone to a Celtics-Lakers playoff game in 1987, and there was Janet Jones at the game with a friend. The four of us went out for a bite to eat afterward. This wasn’t the first time Wayne had laid eyes on her, but they’d never hung out together. A year later, they got married. So I’ll take credit for nurturing that relationship.
And I think I somewhat nurtured Wayne’s relationship with Bruce McNall. That level of nurturing was all unofficial and unstated. It was just sort of like setting the table, you know? You set the table and people decide what they want to order.
Bruce McNall (former owner, Los Angeles Kings): I met Alan when I bought the Kings in ’86. He was one of the few people coming to the games at all. And he was Canadian. He knew the sport, he loved it, and we became very close friends. Occasionally I would run something by him and tell him, Hey, I am trying to get such and such. Hey, we are trying to get Jari Kurri — that kind of thing. And when this Gretzky thing became a possibility, I told Alan, “I don’t believe this, but I think there is a possibility of getting him.”
Gretzky: I was obviously still an Edmontonian, and [Janet and I] were down in California sort of summering a bit. Alan was kind enough to say, “Come stay in our house.” We were going to stay a couple weeks there, and in the middle of that first week, the whole thing seemed to ramp up, and over probably a 48-hour period it took on an energy and a life of its own.
McNall: Wayne was sort of hiding out there more or less when we were cutting this deal. Nobody really knew that Wayne was as involved with the transaction as he was, and I would be calling Alan’s house constantly for Wayne. So I let Alan know: “We got to keep this really on the QT because if any of this gets out to the press, it will probably get killed because of the backlash.” Alan was intimately knowledgeable about what was going on well before almost anybody else. I trusted him 100 percent. Wayne and I agreed that if there was one person that we could rely upon, it would be Alan.
Gretzky: Outside of the Oilers and the Kings and my wife and I, he was the first person that knew the trade was going to happen. I knew he wasn’t going to say anything. Most importantly, he was probably the biggest L.A. Kings fan in town, so he probably wanted it to happen more than anybody.
Thicke: Nobody really had to say [keep quiet]. I had respect for the Oilers and for the Kings and for Wayne.
McNall: I remember calling when the deal was finally done. It was early in the morning and I had to get Wayne to the airport with me to fly on to Edmonton, and it was [his son] Robin who answered the phone. I said, “Robin, I need Wayne,” and he said, “What’s going on, what’s going on?” And I said, “The deal is done, we got him.”
Thicke: Yeah, that’s all true. I was in Norway with my son Brennan, and Wayne and Janet were taking care of Robin. Robin answered and said, “I’m sorry, Wayne is asleep.” And McNall said, “Well, you better wake his ass up.”
McNall: A lot of celebrities showed up after we got Wayne, but Alan was a fan and a friend and everything else way before the Gretzky trade ever took place. When Alan was in town, I always had him to our pregame dinners, and he would bring his sons to the locker room. He had carte blanche. He was sort of a mini celebrity captain. He and John Candy split up duties. All the players knew him — it wasn’t just Wayne. They loved him.
Luc Robitaille (Hall of Fame NHL left wing; Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings): He did this bit whenever we’d have a Kings event where he used to come in and act like a priest. He does this entire prayer. He uses players’ names, their wives, and the management, and it’s the funniest bit I’ve ever seen. He always made fun of Wayne. And he always made fun of Janet and the fact that she spends all Wayne’s money. He’d make fun of Bruce McNall. And he’d always do me as this French Canadian who couldn’t speak French. You couldn’t shut him up.
Gretzky: In ’93 when we went to the Stanley Cup semifinals against Toronto, most people who were Torontonians kind of made that leap to cheer on and root for the Maple Leafs, which is normal and natural. But the two guys to stay in our corner were Alan Thicke and John Candy. They came on the charter sometimes and came to games. They stuck by us pretty strong.
Thicke: I was writing corny messages of inspiration to the team that they were hanging up on the walls in the dressing room during that playoff run. And I joined them for the last game of the Stanley Cup finals in Montreal when they lost it.
In those successful years in L.A. with Wayne, we were constantly raising the show-business profile of the Kings. McNall always had bigger and better plans for hockey in Los Angeles, and he became even more lavish in his courting of celebrities. He would throw a banquet every home game for 50 people, all of which cost him a lot of money — and probably landed him in jail.
In January 1997, Bruce McNall was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison for orchestrating a scheme to defraud six banks, the securities firm Merrill Lynch, and the L.A. Kings out of $236 million. He served his time at a low-security federal facility in Santa Barbara County.
McNall: Alan was one of the guys who came constantly. In the federal prison system you have to have a job, and I got a sweetheart deal working at the Vandenberg Air Force Base. I was able to have Alan come visit me there.
Thicke: I would go there, and Bruce would be running the prison pretty much like he ran the team, showing the same qualities that got him in trouble. He was a very charming guy, and he would have the guards running out for milk shakes and burgers, setting a picnic table for me when I came to visit. He’s a master.
McNall: Here we are having a picnic in prison, so to speak. I would tell him the funny crap that was going on there — which is pretty insane — and he loved that stuff. I think he still uses it in his material.
III. 1980s-1990s: The Star
As Growing Pains became a major network hit, Thicke’s face became one of the most recognizable on television. And he rode his fame into competitions against the era’s most celebrated jocks — among them Michael Jordan.
Thicke: In ’88 NBC did a special that all took place on Kenny Rogers’s property in Georgia. The idea was they’d get a few musicians, a few television people, a few athletes, and they’d put together a few teams to compete in various pursuits — golf, tennis, bass fishing. Michael [Jordan] was one of the athletes along with Jimmy Connors, Dominique Wilkins, and Larry Bird. I had been friends with Kenny, and that’s how I got invited. It was me, Woody Harrelson, Smokey Robinson, and Kenny. We had a great old time for a few days and Michael and I kind of hit it off. I’ve been at every one of the golf tournaments for his foundation over the years.
Now, I won’t play in his foursome on the golf course because it’s too expensive. My only serious competition with him was the first year of his event in the Bahamas. They had a poker tournament and a lot of these guys take their gambling fairly seriously. I had to have a cheat sheet beside me to remind me of the sequence of hands — the pecking order of hands. They weren’t sure if I was that stupid or that sly. It was a long evening, the whole thing took about four hours to unfold, and you can imagine the surprise when Alan Thicke was the big winner. I won $20,000 — once again for my diabetes charity.
Robitaille: In the early ’90s, Alan’s knee was really bad, but he was still trying to play [hockey]. We would play games just for fun, and he still wanted to be on the ice, especially if Gretzky was playing. We’d kind of chuckle, trying to tell Alan, “With your knee being so bad, you shouldn’t be skating that much.” But he was a pretty intense competitor. He was always pushing to play more. I think he really believed he was going to make a difference playing against the pros.
Thicke: I was playing in a game in Hartford with no less than Gordie Howe, and I took an elbow in the nose. It wasn’t Gordie’s elbow, but he was on the ice at the time. Anyway, it broke my nose, and while they tried to reset it, I had guys looking at my nose and saying, “That looks bad.” These were guys with no noses at all or their nose is over by their ear, so I knew that I must have looked bad. They adjusted the shooting of Growing Pains over the next two weeks to make sure there weren’t any extreme close-ups, because I needed to get it fixed. When I see reruns, I can always see which was the pre–Gordie Howe nose and the post–Gordie Howe nose.
Ed Snider (NHL Hall of Fame founder/owner of the Philadelphia Flyers): Alan gets hurt, and he bounces back. Nothing can stop him. He loves to play, he loves the game. I mean, he’s a pure Canadian.
Thicke: I know plenty of owners of sports teams, and some of them do very well and others are sorry they got in the business, but after Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky and John Candy bought and operated the Toronto Argonauts, I had overtures to see if I would do a similar thing — round up a couple of guys to become the faces of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. We were going to buy it for a dollar and basically be the PR front men. That was ready to go — David Foster, myself, and, famously, O.J. Simpson. But that fell apart one infamous morning in L.A.
O.J. had been another one of the guys I had booked on these variety shows. It was The Bobby Vinton Show, the Polish prince, the guy who sang, “Roses Are Red (My Love).” In fact, O.J. and I kind of got along and then over the years we’d meet at charity events. There was some video of us together at a party at an event in Hawaii, and when all hell broke loose in O.J.’s life, it happened to be one of the pieces of tape they kept running on the news. There was the assumption, I think, that the two of us were quite intimate. That would have been a bit of an exaggeration.
IV. 2008-Present: The Proud Papa
Now happily past the peak of his fame, Thicke is still a regular on the athlete charity circuit, and he’s enjoyed watching his son, Robin, become a celebrity in his own right.
Thicke: These charity tournaments happen almost weekly, so you have to pick your spots. The Gretzky fantasy camp in Vegas every year is a priority on the calendar. The Jordan event in Vegas — probably no coincidence — you try to clear your calendar for that one. Chrissie Evert’s tennis event in Florida, you try to clear that one every year.
Chris Evert (Hall of Fame tennis player): I’ve known him like 15 or 16 years, and he likes to joke about the fact that he’s been through a couple of marriages, I’ve been through a couple of marriages. He’s had shows come and go, and I have had my career come and go. Every Friday night at my [annual charity] event, I take the players and the celebrities out on our yacht. And I know a couple of years ago when I was going through marital problems, he was the first one there to give me some advice and to give me some better understanding about what was going on. We have had some private talks and moments where, you know, it wasn’t like Alan Thicke talking to Chris Evert, the celebrities, but Alan and Chris just talking as friends.
Dan Le Batard (Miami Herald columnist, ESPN TV and radio host): We do a crappy celebrity segment [on the radio show]. Crappy because it isn’t good. And crappy because the celebrity is usually not much of a celebrity. [Alan] wowed us with cheese and fun the first time, so we kept going to him. He gets it, man. He understands entertainment, and doesn’t have the ego and self-importance you too often find in even minor celebrities. How off-putting is the guy with modest fame who takes himself seriously? The dad in Growing Pains and the guy who likes talking to our sports-radio show, they are the same goofy guy. Wouldn’t we all want to hang around with a lovable sitcom dad if it was easy and fun? And he’s got a son who is a rock star, for the love of God.
Evert: It was funny because we talk about our kids all the time. I remember he would go, “You know, my son really loves music.” And I would look at Alan thinking, OK, here we go. Oh great, Alan. Then the next year he would be, “You know, my son is trying to write some songs. He is doing really well, he really has a passion for it.” And I go, “Yeah, OK, Alan, great, great.” And then the next year, he would be, “You know, things are starting to happen for Robin, he cut his first album and he’s going to tour.” “Oh, wow, OK, great, great.” But I never heard of the guy. Then all of a sudden there is Robin Thicke right out there, and there is Alan, the proud papa.
Thicke: It kind of came full circle. Robin was 10 years old when he met Michael Jordan, and [last] year Robin sang at Michael’s wedding. So it’s a multigenerational thing. And Michael in turn was one of the guys who recorded a nice little tribute to me when I was inducted this year into the Canadian Walk of Fame, which is a big deal up there for anyone who didn’t make the National Hockey League Hall of Fame.
Le Batard: He is a combination of cool and goofy and cheesy. He seems like he’s in character all the time because the character he is playing is actually him.
Thicke: In case you’re making a list, I wouldn’t want anyone to be left out. I have close friendships with Mike Piazza, Phil Esposito, Luc Robitaille, and, of course, Wayne and Michael. Joe Carter and I have a special bond because my son Carter was named after him. My wife was pregnant, and we knew it was a boy, and I just happened to be sitting in the bathtub one day watching an ESPN special on Canadian baseball history, which, as you can imagine, was pretty short. And out came the names Gary Carter and Joe Carter. I had my eureka moment.
Barry Bonds was one of the guys that I met at Michael’s tournament, and we hit it off. And then there’s Donald Driver, and I had some fun with guys like Brett Favre in the old days, and Chrissie Evert has been a great pal, and Serena Williams is my secret crush. Jimmy Connors is a pal. Greg Norman is one that I like. Jack Nicklaus has been very kind to me in the past. Steve Garvey and Roger Clemens from baseball. Al Joyner from track and field is a pal. Richard Dent and Julius Erving and, significantly, Marcus Allen. I don’t know anyone from water polo or women’s softball.
Gretzky: Whether it’s Michael Jordan or Leonardo DiCaprio, I think that everybody has a real sense of easiness around Alan. He’s very intelligent and yet very personable. There’s a comfort zone for anybody who gets to meet him. And anytime I had a charity event, he was one call away. He was always there. He was always the first guy to show up. And although he lives in the United States, he’s one of the proudest Canadians that you could ever meet.
Thicke: I think it really comes from my upbringing, coming from a small town that teaches you basic, corny old family values. Then you spend the rest of your life being lucky and feeling fortunate for every opportunity you’re blessed with, and that makes you a fan. You come to appreciate excellence. These guys are my heroes. I didn’t get to play hockey with Gretzky or basketball with Jordan because of my athletic skills, but I was always one to jump at those opportunities. I considered it one of the very greatest perks of being on television — that and meeting fabulous women. But it all starts by genuinely appreciating people who are good at something. It all starts by being a small-town kid.
Eric Benson (@elbenson) is a journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work has been published in New York, Men’s Journal, and the Oxford American. Joe DeLessio (@joedelessio) is a senior producer at New York magazine’s website and a contributor to Sports on Earth.
Illustration by Jon Stich.