The kid turns 30 this week. "yes, but two weeks after my wife did," Wayne Gretzky says, laughing. See, no crisis there. Gretzky's talent took him away from home at age 14 to play junior hockey and burdened him early with the off-ice responsibilities of a phenom. So it was only in playing hockey that The Kid was ever allowed to be a kid. Even when he was a teenager, Gretzky had to act like a 30-year-old. Now that he is about to reach that age, his payback is being able to escape to the rink and be a kid again.
"I have a lot of youth in me," says Gretzky, "because that's what this game is. You've got to have a ball." So he does. After last season, which brought him personal distractions, physical pain and the first flirtations with mortality in a career of epic achievement, Gretzky is now living more happily ever after than he thought possible.
He has a beautiful wife, actress Janet Jones, whom he has assisted on the two biggest goals of his life—Paulina, 2, and Ty, 6 months. And, like his new house in Beverly Glen, Calif., Gretzky sits atop a hill, not over it. At an age when the careers of most hockey players start downward, Gretzky's is still at its peak.
There is no need to wait for his retirement to declare him the greatest player of all time. None of the big scorers of other eras—Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull or Phil Esposito—dwarfed their contemporaries the way Gretzky has his. From the 1980-81 season through '86-87, Gretzky won the scoring title each year by an average of 66 points. Howe will always be known as Mr. Hockey because of his productivity, consistency and longevity (he played 26 seasons between '46-47 and '79-80), but those who watched him in his prime insist he didn't significantly raise his level of play during the playoffs. Bobby Orr, a defenseman, revolutionized his position and was the most naturally gifted and exciting player in the game's history. But a bad knee and early retirement curtailed his accomplishments.
When Gretzky won his ninth Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player two years ago, many observers assumed it would be his last. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, who outscored Gretzky in 1987-88 and '88-89, appeared to be taking his place as the best player in the game before a back injury put his career on hold. Now Gretzky, a center, is emerging again, along with St. Louis Blues right wing Brett Hull and Calgary Flame defenseman Al MacInnis, as a leading contender to win the award. The Kings, leaders in the Smythe Division at week's end, are playing well, and Gretzky, who had 91 points, is on his way to his ninth scoring championship.
The 200-point years (Gretzky had four over five seasons from 1981-82 to '85-86) are over. Gone, too, may be Gretzky's drive to turn good nights into spectacular ones. Coming into this season, he had scored at least five points in a game 86 times. So far this season, he has done so only twice. "I'm not saying I don't have that killer instinct anymore," he says, "but now I realize when the score is 6-2, the coach needs that time to get other people on the team more involved."
Nevertheless, the consistency for which he most prides himself—Gretzky had been held pointless in only four games this season—is still there. So is his hand speed, which has helped him score more points than anyone else in the hockey history Gretzky scored 142 points in 73 games last season, which made it the first since his NHL rookie campaign, 1979-80, in which he failed to average more than two points per game. And this year it looks as if he might not reach that benchmark again, However, the slippage in his production from his Edmonton Oiler years (1979-80 through '87-88) is not attributable to age or attitude but to his supporting cast. It's good in L.A but not as good it was with the Oilers.
Gretzky scored an unthinkable 92 goals in Edmonton in 1981-82, including 50 in first 39 games, with Jari Kurri on his right flank. Kurri, a portable Hall of Famer, had one of the best finishing touches in the game's history. Tomas sandstorm, Gretzky's right wing now, doesn't quite have Kurri's hands, but he possesses good speed, a hard, sinking shot and a chippy style of play that invites retaliation and opens room for Gretzky. Tony Granato, Gretzky's left wing, can score, and Luc Robitaille, who has averaged 49 goals the last four season converts often when Gretzky sends the puck his way on power play. The king have provided Gretzky no shortage of players to whom he could pass. What the Oiler teams that won four Stanley Cups in rive years (1984, '85, '87 and '88) had that the Kings don't is Paul Coffey. "Coffey is the best passer from goal line to red line in the history of hockey," says Gretzky of his former Oiler teammate, who currently plays in Pittsburgh.
Now when Gretzky, anticipating that the Kings will take possession of the puck in their end, swings towards center ice, the puck doesn't materialize on his stick as cleanly or as often as it did in his years in Edmonton. Coffey's counterpart in Los Angeles, defenseman Steve Duchesne, is far more creative in the opposition end than he is in his own.
Most of Gretzky's Oiler teams benefited from playing portions of games four skaters against four, a facet that has almost disappeared since the NHL's 1986 ruling that coincidental minor penalties no longer affect the number of players on the ice. Speedy Edmonton was especially effective at using the open ice available in such situations. And scoring has dropped considerably in the NHL, from an average of 8.3 goals per game in 1981-82 to 6.78 so far this year. When all these factors are weighed, it's clear that the Great One is no less great than ever.
On Jan. 5 in Toronto, Gretzky crossed the Maple Leaf blue line and faded left. As two Leafs chased him, Gretzky was aware that Kings winger Bob Kudelski was trailing 30 feet behind the play. Gretzky laid a backhand pass perfectly into the path of Kudelski, who ripped a 30-footer past goaltender Peter Ing.
The next evening in Chicago, Los Angeles, which was leading 2-1, was on the power play when Gretzky, holding the puck at the edge of the circle near the boards in the Blackhawks' end, did something unexpected—he shot. "Teams are playing me to pass," he said afterward. 'Tommy [Webster, the Kings' coach] has told me I have to shoot more to create some room." On this occasion, Gretzky shot essentially to create a rebound, and Chicago goalie Ed Belfour obligingly left one in the slot for the fast-closing Kudelski. So Kudelski scored the insurance goal in a surprising 3-1 victory over the Blackhawks, the team with the league's best record.
As the Kings' team-owned private plane—replete with first-class seats, video monitors and all the shrimp cocktail and pasta a club that had just finished a 4-1 road trip clearly deserved—climbed into the sky 90 minutes later, the consensus was that this had been their best defensive game of the season.
"Obviously, I'm tired right now," Gretzky said as he nursed a beer. "I'm very tired. It was a tough game, and I double-shifted a lot and killed more penalties than I have been.
"If there's a difference between now and five years ago, it's that I have to be careful on an off-day like tomorrow. I'm not a fanatic about conditioning, but I realize I have to do some extra things now, like riding the bike. Nolan Ryan and Carlton Fisk didn't just get up at the age of 39 and say they'd better start working harder so they can play another year. They're still playing because they started working harder at 29. But just about every season, there has been a stretch when I'd get tired. I don't think it's any worse now."
Last season's downtime was caused by more than just fatigue. The Kings' defensive inadequacies doomed them to the league's seventh-worst record, and Gretzky struggled through January and February with a nagging left knee injury. On the evening before last year's All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, Bernie Nicholls, one of Gretzky's friends on the Kings, was traded to the New York Rangers for Sandstrom and Granato. The next morning, Gretzky slept in and missed a workout. That same month, a good friend of his and Janet's from Edmonton, Denise Randon, was told she had leukemia. She died last month.
In March, just as Gretzky was starting to feel like his old self, a cross-check delivered by the New York Islanders' Alan Kerr caused him to have back spasms. He played enough to contribute to the Kings' first-round playoff upset of Calgary, but he was finished after Game 3 of Edmonton's second-round sweep of the Kings. Since then, therapy has cured his back ailment, and a talk with Webster has cleared Gretzky's mind.
When Los Angeles owner Bruce McNall paid Edmonton $15 million, three No. 1 draft choices and two good young players (Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas) for Gretzky, Marty McSorley and the since-traded Mike Krushelnyski in August '88, Gretzky became responsible for making the long-suffering L.A. franchise viable. He admits that last season he was increasingly distracted by that burden. "Everyone has been so nice to me, the last thing I want to do is let anyone down," Gretzky says. "I was thinking about everything, from the practice rink to noticing if we had empty seats at games. Tommy reminded me before the season that it's my job to play. That's taken a lot of pressure off me."
It helped, too, that both Gretzky and the Kings started quickly this season. They have improved their defense, but a shortage of depth and the advancing age of important players like Dave Taylor, 35, and Larry Robinson, 39, still leave them with the same kind of team they've had in the last two playoffs: dangerous but not built for the long haul. However, an owner who spent $15 million for the only player he thought could save hockey in Southern California isn't likely to zipper his wallet if, as expected, upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations give players more freedom of movement. McNall, who shares ownership of 14 racehorses with Gretzky, feels compelled to give the Great One a chance at the only thing Gretzky says he wants from his remaining years in hockey: another Stanley Cup.
He has only one more significant individual mark to chase: Howe's NHL-record 801 career goals. Gretzky, who surpassed Howe's NHL career record of 1,850 points last October, doesn't have much stomach to knock his boyhood idol off the top of another list. "I wish I could stop at 800," says Gretzky, who at week's end had 705 career goals. Of course, he won't. Estimated arrival at No. 802? Two-and-a-half years, Gretzky Standard Time. Allowing for a slight slackening of his present scoring pace, he should reach 3,000 points at about the time his $31 million contract expires, at the end of the 1997-98 season.
And then? "I don't know," says Gretzky. "I don't want to be a coach or a general manager. I'll be involved with horses. I'll benefit Bruce any way I can and help the league sell the game." McNall predicts that retirement at age 37 will not suit Gretzky if he is still productive. "[Edmonton general manager] Glen Sather says he thinks Wayne will play a lot longer than people think, and I agree with him," McNall says. Janet is certain that whenever her husband's retirement comes, the timing will be correct. "If it seems as if everything in his whole career has been laid out for him," she says, "it's because he knows what's the right thing at the right time. I can't imagine why the end of his career would be any different."
For all he has accomplished, Gretzky remains without pretense and remarkably immune to jealousy on the part of teammates and opponents. His image is absolutely true to his personality. Despite everything he has to be to so many people, he enjoys everything about being Wayne Gretzky. He just likes one part more than the others. "You know how a kid cries if his Little League game is rained out?" says Janet. "That's Wayne. At 4:30 on game day, he starts to sweat a little bit, and he can't wait to go. There is never a time, even last year when things weren't going well, that he dreaded going to a hockey game."
Someday, he will retire. And no matter how distant Gretzky is making that time appear, it's not too early to begin dreading it. Though the Kings sell out more nights than not and have surpassed McNall's financial projections, the fan in McNall, more than the owner, finds it disappointing that you can still buy a ticket on almost any game day. "We've done great," McNall says. "But I just think people will look back and realize that they had an opportunity to come and see maybe the greatest sports figure in history—and didn't do it."
Gretzky, who could win his 10th Hart Trophy this season, has not lost the boyish enthusiasm he had as a 16-year-old phenom(above).
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So far this year, Gretzky has stayed healthy, despite the attentions of frustrated foes.
Gretzky's greatest hits: breaking the single-season goal record and Howe's point mark.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
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