STILL GOING GREAT
Wayne Gretzky is still the game's great ambassador. He is still
the NHL's most commanding presence and the only hockey player
whose name is known in virtually every U.S. household. And on
many nights this season the 37-year-old has still been the most
magical, awe-inspiring player in the game.
As of Sunday, Gretzky had scored more points (45) since Jan. 1
than anyone in the league and had moved into a tie for fourth
place in scoring (81) for the season. In the Rangers' 16 games
since the Olympic break, Gretzky had four three-point games and
one four-assist performance.
On March 18, with New York still clawing for a playoff position,
he threaded a pass through traffic and onto the stick of winger
Kevin Stevens, who tipped the puck past Jocelyn Thibault to beat
the Canadiens 2-1 in overtime. Four days later, in a 5-4
overtime loss to the Flyers, Gretzky scored twice, including a
goal to tie the game with 1:48 remaining. Then in the 3-2 loss
to the Senators on March 25 that essentially eliminated the
Rangers from playoff contention, Gretzky set up both of his
"People say he's lost a step," says Rangers winger Adam Graves.
"But I can't imagine anyone playing better than he has the past
couple of months. He draws three defenders, and he still takes
over games. Playing with him is a privilege."
Gretzky's surge has made fools of people like Swedish national
team coach Kent Forsberg, who during the Olympics said Gretzky
looked tired and "should quit." The Great One heard that barb,
but he was too gracious to fire back. After all of his success
he is still given to utterances such as "Everything I've got I
owe to the NHL."
What the NHL owes Gretzky is immeasurable. When the Rangers
played the Hurricanes in Carolina in November, for example,
Gretzky took it upon himself to arrive a day early, meet the
media and spread the gospel of hockey in Greensboro, where the
team was averaging about 7,000 fans in the 20,800-seat arena.
The next night the Hurricanes had their biggest crowd of the
season (19,358). "That was probably the most important thing
that's happened in getting hockey noticed down here," says
Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford. "Then he had a goal
and two assists against us."
Rangers general manager Neil Smith says Gretzky can play for his
club "until he decides he doesn't want to play hockey anymore."
For now there is time to cherish Gretzky not as a symbol or
legend, but as an elite player. In his 18th season he is still
pulling up at the blue line to shake his defender, still
completing cross-ice passes few others could even conceive,
still setting up goals from behind the net. "You know what he's
going to do, but it doesn't matter," says Hurricanes left wing
Gary Roberts. "The same thing is true now that was true 10 years
ago: You can't stop Wayne Gretzky."
A LOSING PROPOSITION
There has been a maddening inconclusiveness to the 1997-98
season, with the 151 tie games at week's end putting the NHL on
pace to break its record of 165 in 1980-81. The surge in ties
stems largely from an overall lack of scoring, but it's also
because there's more parity and financial pressure to reach the
playoffs. With teams afraid to lose a point within their grasp,
overtime strategy is often defense-oriented.
Suggestions on how to break ties have centered around the
shoot-out used in international play. (Each team takes five
penalty shots--or more, if needed--to determine a winner.) But
the shoot-out concept is absurd. The competition relies on a
specialized skill that doesn't demonstrate which team is superior.
A better idea is to guarantee both teams a point for reaching
overtime and awarding another point to the team that scores in
the extra five-minute period. With nothing to lose and a point
to gain, teams would open up their offenses and press for a
Most likely, overtime will remain as is. The tie has been part
of the NHL since the Toronto St. Pats and the Ottawa Senators
skated to a 4-4 conclusion on Feb. 11, 1922. Chances are the
players in that game felt a confusion similar to that of
Panthers right wing Scott Mellanby's, who said after a 1-1 tie
with the Sharks in January, "We feel good about it. Obviously,
Colorado Draft Picks
WHO NEEDS THE LOTTERY?
Last season the Bruins, the Kings and the Sharks were the three
worst teams in the league; the Capitals were ninth-worst and
didn't qualify for the playoffs. This year the Bruins, the Kings
and the Capitals are close to locking up playoff positions, and
the Sharks were only one point from a postseason berth at week's
end. Forgive Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix if he's
not cheering these rags-to-riches tales. Through trades made
over the past three years Colorado holds the rights to all four
of those teams' first-round picks in the June draft. At the
beginning of the season it seemed certain that the Avalanche
would have multiple lottery picks, but now it will have one at
most. "Maybe the picks aren't as high as they might have been,"
says Lacroix. "But what can we do? We still like our position."
Indeed, the Avalanche, already a Stanley Cup contender with an
outstanding nucleus of young players, also own the second-round
picks of the Lightning and the Blackhawks. That means Colorado,
which dealt its first-round selection, could have six of the top
40 picks. Says Lacroix, "If we pick right, that's a third of a
COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS SKILLED LABOR At 37, Gretzky continues to be one of the NHL's dominant individual performers. [Wayne Gretzky in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN TREMEL/B.BENNETT STUDIOS [Bryan Smolinski]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Kenny Jonsson]
BUST AND BARGAIN
F BRYAN SMOLINSKI
1997-98 salary: $1.4 million
A floater at center and wing, he had only 12 goals through
Sunday and can't make an impact without a star on his line.
D KENNY JONSSON
1997-98 salary: $800,000
The cornerstone for the team's future, he has already become the
club's best player and had a surprising 14 goals at week's end.