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Lord of the Rink

After 18 seasons in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky still plays hockey with passion and drive.
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

When he was six he was skating against 10-year-olds. At the ripe age of 11, he scored 378 goals in 69 games--not a misprint. Soon after he was signing autographs and screening phone calls from national magazines. Despite being selected Rookie of the Year with the World Hockey Association, scouts in the National Hockey League had doubts. "Too small, too slow," some scribbled in their notes. "Won't survive the rough play," came other sage predictions. Because he was just five feet eleven inches and 170 pounds, one wag cracked that "he could wear a fur coat on Halloween and go out disguised as a pipe cleaner." Even when he silenced the critics with Rookie of the Year honors and amazing scoring feats over his first four NHL seasons, the skepticism persisted. They said he wouldn't win a single Stanley Cup. They were right, of course. He won four of them, all coming in a five-year period with the Edmonton Oilers.

Now in his 18th NHL season, Wayne Gretzky has long since thrown away the old record book and written a new one. He owns the single-season and career records for goals, assists and points--the greatest hat trick of them all. He began this season owning 61 NHL records.

A mention of his vast accomplishments and a word of praise is likely to draw a downward glance of embarrassment and a blush from Gretzky, now sitting across the table at a diner on New York City's Upper East Side. He picks up a box of Partagas and says, "Thanks for the cigars." But the most he'll admit about his historical standing right now is, "My numbers are noncomparable."

No question. A Grand Canyon exists between Wayne Gretzky's totals and those of anyone who ever played hockey since the dawn of the National Hockey League in 1917. While he practices, boards planes and plays 84 games a year plus playoff contests, Gretzky's accomplishments transcend ice surfaces and arenas. His career is nothing if not a rendezvous with numbers, numbers in bold black ink shouting off a page. Even Michael Jordan, a hardcourt messiah without a weakness, has not lapped the competition to the same degree that Gretzky has. No one has ever played hockey in Wayne's World. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that anyone ever will. Wayne Gretzky is irrefutably the greatest hockey player that ever lived.

But Gretzky can't rest on his laurels. His 18th season is a new beginning. Last July the New York Rangers signed him to a two-year deal worth $5 million a year. "I had a little extra motivation; coming here I knew there was going to be pressure and that all eyes were on me. I knew I just couldn't be average. So I really had to be ready. For me, I had a little more motivation and a little more fear in me than a lot of other guys." Part of that motivation comes from his disappointing experience with the St. Louis Blues last season.

Gretzky had been traded to St. Louis from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 27, 1996, which allowed him to hook up with his friend, the high-scoring right winger Brett Hull. Gretzky suited up for 31 regular-season games with the Blues, then helped them beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. After the Blues lost the first two games of the next series to the Detroit Red Wings--the best team during the regular season--coach Mike Keenan ripped Gretzky in front of his teammates and the press for what he saw as a subpar peformance. Several teammates knew Gretzky was suffering from back pain, but he kept it to himself, blaming himself for the two losses. Although the Blues rallied to win the next three games before losing Games 6 and 7 to drop the series, Gretzky was still chafing over the comments. He wanted the Blues to issue a no-trade guarantee on Hull's status. They refused. He skipped the final team meeting and withdrew his offer on a home in the St. Louis area. On July 21, he signed the two-year deal with New York.

This season, Gretzky started strong, edging up among the leaders in points for the first six weeks. Right before Christmas, he led the league in scoring with 52 points, two ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins' high-scoring duo, Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux. But an NHL season is a marathon, not a sprint. As funny as it seems, even Gretzky must prove his mettle over the long haul. People will be looking for, nay demanding, the elusive skating and slick passing that have built the Gretzky legend. New city, new pressures, New York.

It was three years ago that the Rangers finally won the Stanley Cup and served their long-suffering fans a drink. They also made new converts. Sure, there were always puck heads, folks who always just loved the game. But others never got with it. To them, hockey's aesthetic comprised a never-ending series of fits and starts. An intercepted pass here, a deflection there, another futile rush up the ice--the rhythm of the game seemed to define frustration. To the uninitiated it was a game of one-nothing and two-one scores, starring guys named Henri, Claude and Sergei skating around in short pants. You still heard that old joke: "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." Great game? Sure. But to many, hockey was professional wrestling on skates--a kind of vice on ice. Nothing more.

But the Rangers rose up, quieting enemy chants--and chants in their own arena!--of "1940! 1940!" That was the pre-war date when they had last won the Stanley Cup. They elevated the game. Since then there have been high expectations. The guys in the green seats are getting hungry and need feeding. They still have the captain of the 1994 team, Mark Messier, and with Gretzky tossed in they have to be saying, "Why not us, again?" They'd like to get another cup.

Meanwhile, Gretzky and his wife, actress Janet Jones, and their three children, Paulina, 8, Ty, 6, and Trevor, 4, have moved from Los Angeles to an Upper East Side condo. While New York may represent his last dramatic stop in hockey, it is no more fascinating than his first.

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