Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull went on a little shopping spree
last Thursday in Vancouver at Leone Fashions, a haberdashery so
swank that the price tags could masquerade as multiyear
contracts. Hull would try on something, and Gretzky would
critique it. Then Gretzky would model something, and Hull would
toss in his two cents. They giggled. They cut up. They weren't
simply the greatest passer and the greatest shooter in the NHL
killing time on the morning of their first game together. They
were Tiffany and Amber at the Valley Mall.
Not that Gretzky and Hull were simply out for a lark. On the
taxi ride to the store, they held an impromptu business meeting
of such import that the whole excursion should have been tax
Hull: "Where do you want me to set up on the power play?"
Gretzky: "Doesn't matter. Just get open. I'll read off you."
They will be on the same page soon. As St. Louis Blues coach and
general manager Mike Keenan put it last week, Gretzky and Hull
see the same game. You take Gretzky, the center with a sixth
sense of hockey's swirling geometry, and marry him to Hull, a
right wing with a heavy shot and an unrivaled talent for finding
creases in the attacking zone, and you have the makings of one
of the great partnerships in sport.
To spirit away the modern-day Mr. Hockey from the amateurs who
run the Los Angeles Kings, the Blues gave up three prospects and
two draft choices, essentially a bunch of nothing. Was it worth
it? The Blues have substantially improved an offense ranked 24th
in the league and have given themselves a boost for the
playoffs. The problem may be finding the $21 million or so that
will be needed to keep Gretzky, an unrestricted free agent this
summer, in Boss and Armani for the next three seasons.
"I've played with some of the worst centers in the world, and
now I'm playing with the best center in the world," Hull crowed
the day of the trade. Of course some of the worst centers in the
world are still with the Blues, but then Hull has always been a
loose cannon even when he's not taking a slap shot. There is no
seven-second delay between his brain and his mouth as there is
with the political Gretzky, who is as calculating with his words
as he is with his passes. Gretzky is the sport's ambassador;
Hull is a gunboat diplomat. Gretzky once told him, "One reason I
like you, Hully, is that you say all the things I wish I could."
On the surface they seem as if they could hardly share the same
planet, let alone the same wavelength, but they do have much in
common--a love of golf and laughter, and a sense of humor that is
hard to define if you haven't been to a Weekend at Bernie's
movie marathon. They were introduced by their mutual agent, Mike
Barnett of International Management Group, and their friendship
blossomed during the 1994-95 NHL lockout, on Gretzky's
barnstorming tour through Europe. During Christmas week of 1994
the Hull family joined the Gretzky family at Sun Valley, Idaho,
and Gretzky, with only one day's practice himself, dragged the
novice Hull to the bunny slope. "My wife was standing at the
bottom with four older gentlemen," Gretzky said, "and one of
them told her, 'I can't believe those are two of the best
athletes around, and they're going one mile an hour with
petrified looks on their faces.'"
Ever since rumors of a Gretzky trade surfaced in January, Hull
has been privy, through Barnett and sometimes the Great One
himself, to the machinations of Gretzky and the Kings'
management. Hull let Keenan know of Gretzky's growing
disenchantment with the organization. "I told Mike to keep those
pokers in the fire with L.A.," Hull says. Of course Hull had a
rooting interest besides finding a pigeon for $2 Nassaus. In
1989-90 and 1990-91, when he had the sweet-passing Adam Oates as
his center (Oates has since been traded to the Boston Bruins),
Hull scored 158 goals, the most prolific two-season scoring
performance in NHL history by somebody not named Gretzky.
Without a gifted playmaker, Hull's talent was being squandered.
"There were so many times Brett would come to the bench and say,
'How come they can't see me, how come they can't get me the
puck? I'm wide open,'" Keenan says.
Early in their first game together, a 2-2 tie against the
Vancouver Canucks, Hull told Gretzky that he hadn't liked a soft
pass Gretzky had made. "Jari [Kurri, Gretzky's linemate in
Edmonton and Los Angeles] liked it soft and a little outside so
he could one-time it," Gretzky says. "Brett wanted it crisper,
in tight, so he could snap it. That's just an adjustment period
we'll go through."
Gretzky has one adjustment to make by himself. He was in game
shape with the Kings, for whom he was playing 18 minutes a
night, but he isn't in Mike Keenan game shape. Keenan takes his
10 best players and uses them until they look like stick
figures. As Keenan was playing him for more than 27 minutes in
34 shifts against the Canucks, Gretzky's fair face turned as
rosy as a hothouse tomato. "Gretz off the oxygen yet?" Hull
asked at breakfast the next morning. In a 4-3 Blues victory at
Edmonton on Sunday, Keenan kept Gretzky on the ice for more than
12 minutes during the first period and a half before Oilers
captain Kelly Buchberger leveled him with a cheap-shot elbow.
Gretzky suffered a concussion and was listed as day-to-day.
Leaguewide interest in obtaining Gretzky was modest, due more to
his contract and age than his ability. The man can still play.
Gretzky's skills aren't impervious to age, but they have eroded
very slowly because they are more subtle, more complex, than
simply skating and shooting. He never had the fabulous wheels or
the killer shot. Gretzky's game is his mind, his ability to see
hockey in enlightened ways. Now Hull and St. Louis offer fresh
stimuli, something to rekindle his energy and imagination. The
brain is always the last thing to go.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK The Blues hope the combination of Hull (16) and Gretzky (rear) will fire up the team's tepid offense. [Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull in game]