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Original Issue

Less Than Great

Wayne Gretzky is having a subpar year and feeling heat over trades made by the Los Angeles Kings

Wayne Gretzky, unshaved and unapologetic, stood in a dim light outside the Los Angeles Kings' dressing room last week and addressed the question, Is this the twilight of a god?

The prospect that it is might haunt the NHL, which has not produced any other stars who are bankable in the U.S., but it is not haunting Gretzky. Gretzky never has tried to kid himself. He knows the end is out there somewhere. Some days it seems distant, other days it's as close as a mirror.

In the first third of this season, the Great One has been easier to find in the athletic actuarial tables than among the NHL's scoring leaders. Gretzky, who won last season's scoring title with 130 points and has averaged 2.17 points per game in 15 NHL seasons, had four goals and 17 points in 17 games through Sunday. A point a game is acceptable for almost everyone except Gretzky. But the King center had just two even-strength goals, and his -14 was the worst plus/ minus rating among NHL forwards, which is acceptable for no one. The slump would be an insignificant blip but for one thing: Gretzky turned 34 on Jan. 26. The day he retires, which is the day every team should haul 99 to its rafters because no NHLer should ever again be allowed to wear that number, is no longer somewhere over the rainbow, although Gretzky isn't ready to slip into his anecdotage, a lifetime of banquet speeches detailing hockey's most fabulous career.

"I'd be lying if I didn't stand here and say, yeah, there are nights when I don't know if I am near the end,'' Gretzky says. "Am I a different player? Has the way I play and the style of my game deteriorated that much in six months? I'll have to fight through it. I'll have to work to a point, give it my best effort, and if I come up short, I'll have to figure out what the next stage of my career is.''

He might want to pass on, say, becoming a general manager.
Gretzky certainly wasn't the triggerman, but the police are
dusting for his fingerprints on the puzzling, three-for-three
deal on Feb. 14 with the Buffalo Sabres that brought to the
Kings 32-year-old goalie Grant Fuhr, who helped Gretzky's
Edmonton Oilers win four Stanley Cups in the 1980s, and unproven
young defensemen Philippe Boucher and Denis Tsygurov. The cost
was a potential star defenseman, Alex Zhitnik, veteran
defenseman Charlie Huddy and backup goalie Robb Stauber.
Zhitnik, 22, broke his left thumb in his second game with the
Sabres but is expected back soon.

The acquisition of Fuhr, who becomes an unrestricted free agent
on July 1, appears to be a huge no-confidence vote for streaky
King veteran Kelly Hrudey, whose respectable 2.83 goals-against
average and .921 save percentage make him seem more like a
solution than a problem for a team in 10th place (5- 8-4) in the
Western Conference at week's end. "Ridiculous," says one
Eastern Conference general manager of the deal. "You trade for
Fuhr if you think you can make a run at the Stanley Cup, but the
Kings are a long way from that. They're going to have a tough
time making the playoffs."

Whenever the Kings acquire an ex-Oiler -- seven teammates from
Edmonton's Stanley Cup years have joined Gretzky since he was
traded to Los Angeles in 1988 -- or some other FOG (Friend of
Gretzky), the world looks for the unseen hand. On XTRA, the
all-sports station that broadcasts King games, irate callers
leveled charges of cronyism at Gretzky and mourned the loss of
Zhitnik, the latest in a line of prominent rushing defensemen
(others include Larry Murphy, Garry Galley and Paul Coffey) that
the Kings have exiled the past 12 years; two blasphemers even said
that Gretzky must go. The score on the trade on The Los Angeles
Times letter page was Sabres 7, Kings 0.

"The assumptions are this was a Fuhr-for-Zhitnik trade and that Gretzky made the deal," says Sam McMaster, the Kings' rookie
general manager. "Wrong. This wasn't Zhitnik for Fuhr. We got two really good young prospects, a first-rounder [Boucher in '91] and
a first pick [Tsygurov, No. 38 overall in '93]. We're trying to win now, but we're also trying to build for the future. And the Los Angeles Kings made the deal -- the coaching staff, the scouts and me. If we're right, god bless us, and if we're wrong, we'll carry on. Wayne found out after the players we traded."

If Gretzky didn't have his prints on the deal, he does have his imprint on McMaster. Gretzky has known McMaster since Gretzky was 14 and playing for McMaster's Toronto Young Nationals junior B organization. Gretzky recommended McMaster, among others, as a candidate to succeed former general manager Nick Beverley, who had clashed with coach Barry Melrose and had a cool relationship with Gretzky and some of the other players. "I'm not sensitive about that -- I'm proud," says McMaster, an avuncular 50-year-old who ran the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League for the past six seasons. ``I would have never been hired in L.A. if Wayne hadn't brought my name up, but everybody has to have an in in this business. If one of the greatest hockey persons of all time recommends me and that's a reason I'm here, that's an honor."

McMaster did ask Gretzky for an assessment of Fuhr when he played in Europe on Gretzky's touring team during the lockout; Gretzky said Fuhr played "marvelously"' "Now we have to get Grant back to playing shape," McMaster says. Fuhr, who had been buried in Buffalo behind Dominik Hasek, allowed nine goals (seven on power plays) against the Vancouver Canucks in his first four periods as a King.

You can't say the lunatic is running the asylum, since Gretzky
always has represented himself and hockey with grace. So let's put
it this way: The icon has helped run the sacristy. As befits a
legend who made hockey work in California and helped establish the
NHL's popularity in other nontraditional hockey venues, his
influence on the Kings has been enormous since Day One. Even
before Day One. Gretzky sat in former owner Bruce McNall's office
giving hand signals as McNall hashed out details of the pending
Gretzky trade on a speaker phone with Oiler owner Peter
Pocklington. Gretzky asked McNall not to close the deal without
landing tough-guy defenseman Marty McSorley as part of it, which
he did.

Gretzky as G.M.-without-portfolio became an NHL inside joke. Even the Kings laughed about it. At the '92 press conference when McNall promoted Beverley to G.M., McNall said, "O.K., Wayne, take off that Nick Beverley mask."

Gretzky and McNall were close. McNall, who is expected to be sentenced in July after pleading guilty on Dec. 14 to two counts of bank fraud, one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy in connection with allegedly inflating his net worth and whose remaining 28% of the team is being held by a bankruptcy trustee, didn't just trade for a player when he acquired Gretzky. He made an investment. Gretzky's salary -- he is in the second year of a three-year, $25.5 million deal -- made him more like a partner than an employee. In fact, he became partners with McNall in ownership of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, some racehorses and a 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card purchased for $451,000 in 1991. "Bruce had a unique relationship with Wayne,'' says Roy Mlakar, the former King president who resigned in April and is now the Pittsburgh Penguins' CEO. "A name of a player would come up, and Bruce would say, `Oh, Wayne likes that guy.' You can't underplay that close a relationship, but Wayne was a huge asset while I was in L.A."

Beverley, now the director of scouting and player personnel for the Toronto Maple Leafs, is guarded on the subject of Gretzky. "There was an element of discomfort because of the relationship between ownership and Gretzky that didn't sit well in the dressing room," says Beverley, who traded Coffey, one of Gretzky's best friends, to the Detroit Red Wings in January 1993, and forward Tomas Sandstrom to the Penguins in February 1994. Current King players dispute Beverley's contention that Gretzky's power created tension on the club, although the relationship between Gretzky and former star left wing Luc Robitaille did grow strained. When McMaster traded him to Pittsburgh for rightwinger Rick Tocchet on July 29 -- one of the rare King deals in recent times that hasn't backfired -- Robitaille spoke out. He didn't use Gretzky's name, but he said, "Players should play, and managers should manage. Maybe one of the reasons I'm going is because I agree with that.''

"I used to worry about that,'' Gretzky says of the perception that he is a player-general manager. "If we traded for an ex-Oiler, people would say, `Oh, wow, that's Wayne Gretzky's deal.' That bothered me tremendously. Then I saw Mark Messier [his former Edmonton teammate and a current New York Ranger] skating with the Cup with about six ex-Oilers around him, and now I don't give a flying ---- . With an opportunity left to win a Cup, I don't care who's on my side."

That window of opportunity looks grimy. Since losing in the '93 Cup finals to the Montreal Canadiens, Los Angeles has won only 32 of 101 games. The Kings are in transition. They are bigger, tougher and marginally more conscientious on defense than they were last season, but right now they are no better. Their defense has been eviscerated by injuries, forcing the team to play youngsters. The peach-fuzz blue line has undermined Gretzky's offense more than his increased defensive responsibilities have, because his great asset always has been an ability to exploit his options. This season he has not been receiving crisp breakout passes from the King zone nor has he had trailing defensemen who can do something with his drop passes at the other end of the ice.

But Gretzky makes no excuses. He never has. "I only compare myself to myself," he says, "and when I've been mentally strong, I've been dominating. Mentally I haven't been strong enough. If I'm contributing what I should, we could have won some of the games we didn't."

Age isn't an ally of Gretzky's, but don't count him out yet. In February 1993, buried in a career-worst streak of 16 games without a goal after having missed 39 games with a herniated thoracic disk, he moped through All-Star weekend in Montreal. Four months later, on top of his game, he was back in the Montreal Forum playing in the Stanley Cup finals.

"Wayne has played more hockey than almost anyone in the world, a hundred games a year, so age is a factor," Melrose says. "For periods he can still be the best player in the world. He has to find the fire because we're not going anywhere without Wayne Gretzky."

And Gretzky isn't going anywhere without the Kings. There has been speculation that if the Kings don't right themselves, next season Gretzky would be willing to move to a contender unafraid of his hefty contract -- the Red Wings, maybe? -- and try for a fifth and farewell Stanley Cup. Gretzky says no. "My life is in L.A.," he says. "I will end my career as an L.A. King. I've spent countless hours, not only in the dressing room, but selling the sport and promoting the NHL. I don't have the desire or the energy to start all over again. It's a big commitment to go to another organization. This is it. When it's over here, it's over."

COLOR PHOTO:ROBERT BECK [Wayne Gretzky from behind]

COLOR PHOTO:ROBERT BECKMcNall (top, arms folded) saw Greatness in '94; he and Gretzky have taken tumbles since then.[Bruce McNall watching Wayne Gretzky during game]

COLOR PHOTO:RICHARD MACKSON [see caption above--Wayne Gretzky]

COLOR PHOTO:ROBERT BECKDid Gretzky help ease out Zhitnik (middle below), Sandstrom and Robitaille (left)?[Alex Zhitnik and Tomas Sandstrom]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [see caption above--Luc Robitaille]