Lessons in Diversity and Inclusion: The Legacy of Joey Moss

Joey Moss, by all accounts, achieved his dream job. He was an avid hockey fan who became locker room attendant for the Edmonton Oilers.  The Oilers, it must be understood, are not just any hockey team. They were Mr. Moss’s favourite team and personal passion. During the 1980s, they were phenomenally successful, winning no fewer than five championships.  

As a locker room attendant, he will have had a variety of tasks, including organizing equipment, looking after needs of players during games and generally bringing some order to the chaos that ensues when 20 or so young athletes are engaged in a fast-paced, high-pressure sport.

Mr. Moss, who was born with Down Syndrome, passed away last week. It appears, based on numerous testimonials that have come forward since his death, that his influence extended well beyond his designated tasks. His unrelenting good humour, infectious enthusiasm and continual encouragement of the players brought value far beyond his assigned duties. Wayne Gretzky, a star member of those teams, summed it up nicely when, upon hearing of Mr. Moss’s passing said simply “He made our lives better”.

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Mr. Gretzky was, in fact, instrumental in bringing Mr. Moss to the attention of the hockey club. The two met when Gretzky became acquainted with Moss’s sister. Gretzky, at that time, was in the ascendancy of a career that was to eventually define him arguably (and these things are always arguable) as the greatest hockey player of all time. He arranged the introduction, but it was Mr. Moss’s work ethic, dedication and attitude that made him such a fixture and success with the team.

How did all this come about? What motivates a rising star and celebrity to go the trouble to advocate for someone they’ve just met? Gretzky is not known to be a comfortable public figure nor a vocal advocate for social change. At that time, he was a young man adapting to celebrity in a large city. He’d been born and raised Brantford, a town in southwestern Ontario best known (pre-Gretzky) as the birthplace of the telephone. His father Walter worked for Bell Canada and, together with wife Phyllis, taught their five children lessons of life and hockey in their busy home and on the ice rinks installed annually on their lawn. Those lessons, one might imagine, involved how to relate to the people in one’s community and a responsibility to help those in need when the opportunity presented itself. In advocating for Mr. Moss, it appears Gretzky was perceiving and responding to such an opportunity. What he did was not about publicity or self-promotion. It was something personal, a selfless act of kindness.  

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The struggle for inclusion and acceptance of diversity will not be won solely by legislation, public campaigns or vitriolic dialogue. It will be won through individual encounters that challenge assumptions and dispel fears. Mr. Gretzky and Mr. Moss did not set out to convince a team of young athletes, a business organization, a city or a nation that a person who looked different and was considered disabled could make a valuable contribution. And yet, that’s what they did, all beginning with a chance encounter and simple act of kindness. Indeed, making lives better.

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