Rumors that Wayne Gretzky is human have surfaced sporadically throughout his career, but they have always been easily refuted. One merely had to look at the NHL record book.
Gretzky holds 51 individual marks, which reflect his attainments on the ice. And until Jan. 20, the Saturday of the NHL All-Star weekend in Pittsburgh, he didn't have a single black mark off the ice. But that day, Gretzky slept in and missed a sold-out practice session, and his squeaky-clean image was tarnished. To make matters worse, he performed the next day as though his bones ached. While the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux scored four goals for his team, Gretzky produced none for his.
And now there are whispers that the Great One is in decline. By week's end the Los Angeles Kings were 4-8-1 since the All-Star Game, and Gretzky had scored a pedestrian total of 18 points. It is obvious that he is fatigued; his legs, which carried him to an average of 2.37 points per game coming into this season, lack spring, and his stick no longer owns the puck.
"Anybody who plays 25 minutes a game, as I do, always feels it at around the 55-to 60-game mark," he said. "But I've probably been more tired than I've been in other years."
The Kings have tried to help Gretzky, who's 29, catch his breath by not double-shifting him on a fourth line. "If I was the coach, I'd use me on the fifth line," Gretzky said disgustedly after being held pointless in a 5-3 loss in Toronto on Feb. 12. "God, I'm tired of talking about losing."
To be fair, Gretzky doesn't get as much help in L.A. as he did with the Edmonton Oilers, who traded him to the Kings in August 1988. With a supporting cast in Edmonton that included Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, Gretzky became a legend as an Oiler. But he is not quite the player he was when he scored more than 200 points in four out of five seasons between 1981-82 and 1985-86. Of course, Gretzky silenced his new critics last week—at least for the moment—when he had two goals and one assist in a 6-5 loss to the Detroit Red Wings and two goals and three assists in a 7-1 victory over the Quebec Nordiques.
A decline for Gretzky, mind you, would amount to a renaissance for most anybody else. Gretzky can talk about the 168 points he scored last season, which was the eighth highest total in the history of the NHL. And this season, he noted last week, "I'm only five points behind a guy [Lemieux] who is 24 years old and had a 46-game scoring streak. I must be doing something right."
But Lemieux, not Gretzky, won the Art Ross Trophy (for scoring) the past two seasons. And this season Lemieux not only led Gretzky in points by a healthy margin but also was within five games of one of Gretzky's most cherished records—his 51-game scoring streak—when he was stopped Feb. 14 by the New York Rangers and a herniated disk in his back. The only way Gretzky will reclaim the scoring title this season is if Lemieux is disabled for any length of time. And Gretzky's chances of winning a 10th Hart Trophy (most valuable player) in 11 years are about as good as those of his wife replacing ailing goalie Kelly Hrudey in the L.A. nets.
Sensitive to the rivalry between Lemieux and Gretzky, Kings owner Bruce McNall announced on Feb. 1 that last summer he extended the Great One's contract from seven years to nine years and raised its value from $20 million to $31.3 million. The new contract, an upgrade on the original eight-year deal Gretzky signed after being obtained from Edmonton, was agreed upon, but not finalized, before the NHL Players Association voted in October to publicly disclose all salaries. McNall pushed his attorneys to do the paperwork so that Gretzky's upgraded salary—$2.72 million a year, which includes $1 million in deferred income—would be the one disclosed. The package puts Gretzky ahead of Lemieux, who had become hockey's best-paid player when he signed a $2 million-a-year deal last August.
Whatever the standard of Gretzky's play at the moment, it would be wrong to suggest that he will not live happily ever after in Los Angeles. His wife, actress Janet Jones, sometimes itches to resume her acting career but has turned down television parts to spend more time with their 14-month-old daughter, Paulina. The Gretzkys are planning to have more children, and there are lots of rooms for kids in their big house in Encino. Gretzky also enjoys more privacy in L.A. than he did in Edmonton. There are a lot of places in L.A. where a hockey player, even the hockey player, can go unnoticed. "I'm only in the sports sections here," he says. "People won't know who our kids are. That wouldn't have been possible in Canada."
While Gretzky's endorsement revenue is up considerably since his move to a major U.S. market, his time spent being a celebrity may actually be down. Fatherhood is first on Gretzky's list of priorities, friends a close second. Shortly before the All-Star weekend, Denise Gendron of Edmonton, a dear friend of the Gretzkys' who spoke at their wedding, found that her leukemia was no longer in remission. "Janet has spent a lot of time there the last few weeks," says Gretzky, who has made a public appeal for a bone-marrow donor for Gendron. "Denise is a great girl. This has been hard on us."
So was the All-Star weekend, when Gretzky's best friend on the Kings, center Bernie Nicholls, was traded to the Rangers for right wings Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato. After hearing—and believing—the trade rumors upon his Friday arrival in Pittsburgh, Gretzky faced two options early the next morning: to get out of bed on the wrong side or not to get out at all.
"Saturday was a tough morning for me and my wife," he says. "And I thought it was an optional practice. I'll take full responsibility, but seven other players [still traveling to Pittsburgh after playing on Friday night] weren't there either. I get booed in Pittsburgh all the time. What would you rather do, stay in bed with your wife and daughter or get booed for another hour? Give me a break. The All-Star Game is supposed to be fun. I can't be excited about playing in it, when my best friend is being traded. Before I left for the game, I told Janet, 'I'm going to be awful today.' "
The Kings have been awful too, despite the deep pockets of McNall. Gretzky's work load remains much the same as it was in 1988-89, but the Kings have fallen back to fourth place in the Smythe Division. This hurts Gretzky, who, after being touted as the salvation of the franchise, understandably feels responsible.
McNall, who made his fortune dealing in old Greek and Roman coins, has too many ancient players on his roster to grind through the four playoff rounds required to win the Stanley Cup. There are seven Kings 30 or older, and not enough younger ones who take pride in their defensive work. Nicholls, who was the fourth-leading scorer in the NHL last season but was nonchalant when it came to practice and checking, fell victim to the Kings' need for better defense. Both Granato, who has played only one game since the trade because of a pulled groin muscle, and Sandstrom add speed and grit to the Kings. Sandstrom, moreover, could be the right wing the Kings have needed to complement Gretzky.
Nicholls, who centered a dangerous second line behind Gretzky, undoubtedly lessened the scoring burden on him. Sandstrom, however, has speed, quick hands, strong corner skills and an abrasive style that should lighten Gretzky's load in a more direct way.
"Since I got traded away from Edmonton [and from Kurri, the best right wing in the game], I've been the guy going ahead with the puck, waiting for someone [on offense] to jump into the hole," says Gretzky. "Teams had been sending two guys at me. Tomas can carry the puck too, so now, sometimes I can be the guy coming in behind."
Gretzky, who denies having any veto power over Kings trades but is known to have pleaded Nicholls's case against previous trade attempts by McNall and L.A. general manager Rogie Vachon, helped Sandstrom get 18 points in his first 13 games in Los Angeles.
As for those graybeards, defenseman Larry Robinson, 38, was struggling so badly that last week he was sent home a day early from a winless four-game road trip. Robinson and defenseman Barry Beck, 32, right wing Dave Taylor, 34, and left wing John Tonelli, 32, can no longer play every night. More disappointing, some younger Kings, such as Mike Krushelnyski and Mikko Makela, will not play at full speed.
Los Angeles's talent is still considerable, though, and the Kings, who were eight points behind the third-place Winnipeg Jets but a comfortable 10 points ahead of the fifth-place Vancouver Canucks at week's end, should have the opportunity to rest key players down the stretch. If Hrudey, who is suffering from a mild form of mononucleosis, regains his health and playing form, which was rendered ineffective by the ailment, the Kings could still be a stick of dynamite to either the Calgary Flames or Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs.
That's because they still have Gretzky.
"All these guys are writing that Gretzky is slipping," he said. "It seems like people root for you to get to the top, and then, when you get there, it's almost like they want to see you fail. People say I have a photographic memory on the ice. I don't, but when I read the papers and listen to TV, I do. I remember everything.
"Last year we were riding a high. But this is more fun. This year, there's some adversity, and of course a lot of the heat is on me. That kind of pressure is the thing I enjoy most."
Gretzky has looked leg-weary on occasion, but his production hasn't slipped that much.
Hrudey must regain his health and agility if the Kings are to prosper in the playoffs.