Tyler Vriesema Takes Up The Great One’s Mantle
Story by Michael Seguin
Photography by Julie Vriesema
The trajectory of Wayne Gretzky’s life changed forever when he met his hero, Tim Horton, in Brantford, 1968. Tim Horton signed an autograph for the seven-year-old hockey player, who would later go on to become the Great One.
This encounter was celebrated in a recent Tim Hortons commercial: “The Autograph.”
The ad features Wayne Gretzky himself, his father Walter and a fully recreated Tim Hortons restaurant from the 1960s. Two child actors portray Gretzky at different stages of his early life, one of which is Tyler Vriesema, a twelve-year-old Colchester North Public School student.
Julie Vriesema, Tyler’s mother, was browsing Facebook one day when she happened across the casting call. “I saw a casting call on Facebook looking for a slim, blonde twelve-year-old that plays rep-level hockey,” Julie recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, that fits Ty.’”
In some ways, Tyler Vriesema seems almost destined to take up the Great One’s mantle. Tyler lives on a farm out in Essex County with his parents, Julie and Chuck, and his three older siblings, Mike, Carly and Charesse. Their property features a pond out back, where Tyler plays hockey all winter long—similar to the backyard rink where Gretzky honed his skills. Cementing the connection, Tyler is also number 99 on his baseball team.
Julie sent in some photos and video of Tyler. The studio’s reply was instant. The next day, Tyler and his parents were in Toronto, competing with 59 other boys for the role.
It turned out to be the studio’s second largest casting call of all time. The director later told Julie that over 50,000 boys applied for the role.
“He was given a number,” Julie states. “They took his picture. They took in four boys at once—all different ages. They videotaped footage of him skating, explained to him who he was, what position he was, what level hockey he was playing. Tyler was so nervous—and he doesn’t get nervous about anything. He talked with his hands over his mouth the whole time.”
Tyler and his parents returned home that night, writing the experience off as a fun trip to the big city. The next day, Julie got a call at one in the afternoon asking her to be back in Toronto for four.
After a second interview, the producers concluded that Tyler was perfect for the role. However, there was one problem.
Gretzky is left-handed. And Tyler is right-handed. “They asked me if I thought he could make the switch,” Julie reports. “And I said that I thought he could. So, we bought him a left-handed hockey stick. He started puck handling and shooting. It wasn’t easy. Imagine being a right-handed writer and then having to switch to your left. His coaches said that most people can’t make the transition.”
However, Tyler rose to the occasion with a speed the Great One would have admired. After a few hours of practice, Tyler was already comfortable playing left-handed. Julie sent the director some video, and she was told to have Tyler back in Toronto a couple days later.
However, upon arriving on set, Tyler was presented with another hurdle.
“When he put the skates on, he couldn’t actually stand,” Julie recalls. “He wasn’t used to those old skates. He couldn’t stand in them at all. So, we ended up getting braces for his ankles.”
Filming took place in an arena, from eight in the morning to seven at night.
“It was pretty fun to just hang out at the arena for the day and watch them shoot the different scenes,” Julie explains. “They took half the arena and converted it to look like Gretzky’s backyard. They covered the ice in potato flakes, made snowbanks and brought in fake trees and everything. They cleaned it up pretty well, but Tyler was sort of skating through mashed potatoes later.”
Tyler’s scene involved two hours of intense skating up and down the rink.
“Tyler would do the scene,” Julie reports. “And then he would go back to the cameras for a playback. They would watch it and then tell him what to do differently and adjust their lights. They’d say, ‘Tyler, pretend it’s championship game. There’s 30 seconds left. The game is tied. And you have the puck.’ And then they’d say, ‘Oh, but do it slow.’”
However, Julie is most proud of the obstacles her son overcame in order to fully embody the spirit of the Great One.
“It’s a proud moment, watching him work so hard,” Julie states. “Because of everything he had to do to play the role. Switching hands and learning to move on old skates. And he was thrown into a world he knew nothing about. Every time they went to shoot they had to fluff his hair. Gretzky always tucked his jersey in on the right side, so the tuck had to be just so. He had a lot of people messing with him and talking to him at the same time. He handled everything well. He was polite through the whole process.”
Despite being originally slated for a January release, the commercial aired during the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships in mid-December.
“I was watching the game at my friend’s house and we saw the commercial two times,” Tyler states. “It was pretty cool. They kept saying I was a celebrity.”
Now, Tyler is known around town as the Gretzky Kid. This, Julie explains, has helped her son develop a greater respect for the game.
“He feels more duty when he steps onto the ice now,” Julie reports. “He shows more respect for the sport itself. He’s a nicer player to other kids, more encouraging. If someone hits him, he knows that he doesn’t necessarily need to hit him back.”
What’s more, Tyler decided to donate his proceeds from the commercial.
“We asked him what he wanted to do with the money,” Julie recalls. “First, he wanted to get himself a new pair of shoes. Then, he talked about giving back in some way. One thing he thought about was getting sticks and balls for the Ronald Macdonald House in London. We spent some time there a couple years ago, following our older son’s car accident. While we were there, Ty said, ‘This is just like being at a tournament, but without my team or ministicks.’ So Tyler spent his earnings on ministicks, little nets and balls so that the kids staying there have something to play with.”
To many, Tyler will be known as the Gretzky Kid for many years to come. But to his mother, he’s still Tyler.
“To other people, he’s the young Wayne Gretzky,” Julie states. “But I don’t see Wayne Gretzky on screen. I get to see my son.”