Wayne Gretzky and Sean Payton have friendship bonded by sports, competition – USA TODAY

HARRISON, Idaho – The text message popped onto Sean Payton’s cellphone not long after what turned out to be his final game as New Orleans Saints coach.
The ping was from Wayne Gretzky, who happens to be one of the greatest hockey players ever.
That was the best job of coaching I’ve ever seen.
Sure, the bottom-line conclusion can be debated. The sentiment, though, was plenty authentic.
It’s what friends will do to express support.
The Saints missed the playoffs in 2021 but won four of their final five games to finish with a 9-8 record. They stayed in the playoff race until the final weekend despite a rash of injuries that included the torn ACL that ended quarterback Jameis Winston’s campaign at midseason.
BULLETIN-BOARD MATERIAL: Ex-Saints coach Sean Payton’s pick to win NFC South? Of course, it’s not Tom Brady’s team.
NFL NEWSLETTER: Sign up now for exclusive content sent to your inbox
Gretzky was moved by the effort from Payton’s team down the stretch.
“That meant a lot, coming from a guy like him,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports, recalling the text. “He’s seen a lot.”
The exchange reflected a larger picture. Payton and Gretzky have developed a close friendship in recent years as neighbors — and extreme golf partners — in an exclusive golf and lake community in Northern Idaho. The action on the course has intensified in recent months with Payton on hiatus from his NFL coaching whirlwind. After he stepped down from the Saints in January, Payton and his wife, Skylene, set up shop at their offseason getaway home in close proximity to a vacation home owned by Gretzky and his wife, Janet.
“He’s a special man, a really good person,” Gretzky said of Payton while munching on pizza between rounds of golf. “And we all love sports, right? He follows hockey and baseball. I follow baseball and football. And so, we have this karma … this real camaraderie.
“He grew up in Illinois; he didn’t know a lot about hockey. I grew up in Canada; I didn’t know a lot about football. I always tease him that he couldn’t play in the (Canadian Football League), that he wasn’t good enough to play in the best league for football, the CFL, so he went to coach in the NFL.”
Gretzky has quite the sense of humor, which was observed recently as he golfed with Payton and other partners. It was also evident that Gretzky and Payton are connected by an interest in sports history and culture. No wonder they became fast friends after Payton moved into a house in the community in 2020. They often engage in debates and chatter as part of a “Breakfast Club” group.
“You gravitate to the athletes,” Payton said, mindful of the celebrity actors and entertainers who also have homes in the resort community adjacent to Lake Coeur d’Alene. “I love hearing the stories from someone like Wayne, who has amazing insight.”
Before Payton headed to training camp after his first offseason getaway at the resort community, Gretzky arranged a farewell party at the clubhouse. He presented the coach with a huge trophy – which now sits prominently on the first floor of Payton’s house — that spoke volumes about acceptance from the new neighbors. The trophy was inscribed as follows: Rookie of the Year.
“He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Gretzky declared. “We all pull for him. He’s going to do great on the (Fox Sports) panel. He knows the game, but the average person can listen to him and relate to him. That’s the way he is.”


Leave a Comment