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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

(continued from page 1)

Janet Jones walks into the restaurant, taking a seat as Gretzky's arm curls around her. While he continues talking, she scoops up a morning paper to see what's being said about the Rangers' early-season performance. Of late they have been playing like the New York Strangers. They lost the previous night to Vancouver and the headline writers are starting to warm up, printing banners like "Broadway Blews." The Rangers are scoring one, two or three goals a night. Their offense seems headed nowhere. Gretzky has been passing well, so well that his slick maneuvers have at times surprised his mates, who haven't exactly performed like Power Rangers. Madison Square Garden analyst and former player John Davidson has said that if Gretzky had a scorer on his line, he'd have another 20 assists. "You can use an analogy with Magic Johnson," says the affable Davidson. "When Johnson was at his best and dished the ball off, he didn't really know where it was going, and as a receiver you might get surprised by it. Here, with the way Gretzky moves the puck to his teammates, you kind of don't expect it. It takes a while to get used to it."

Gretzky reaches across to read the morning paper. "What deals are they making?" he asks his wife. The Rangers are on a losing streak. "Everyone has been saying, 'You are the only one that is playing well,'" he says. "But the goaltending has been good, too. When you are going through a tough stretch as a team, you all look bad as individuals. The bottom line in sports--I don't know about basketball but I do know hockey--when things are bad as a group, you all look horrible as individuals. In our sport you've gotta all be on the same page."

Jones checks out the box of Partagas. "Unfortunately, you can't light up here," I mention. "Aw c'mon; it's New Yawwwk," she says, kiddingly. Can Gretzky light up at the Official All-Star Cafe in Times Square? "Sure, you can smoke there," he says, "they don't have a problem with that." Being a part owner helps. He recently brought his teammates to see a tape of the Holyfield-Tyson fight after hours and the smoke was probably as thick as a curtain that night. But the Cafe doesn't allow smoking. Does he smoke in his home, around Jones and the children? "Never," he says.

"I like a nice small cigar. It's funny, because when I go up to Canada, people will say, 'We need good Cuban cigars.' I find that the cigars are good here, you know. They're mild. I smoke with the guys; it's a chance to relax. It's one of these mental things. You've got to find the right time to relax." To be sure, Gretzky is not a two-a-day smoker. He smokes irregularly, but he enjoys a range of cigars. "I like Ashton 898s, Dunhills, Cohibas, Hoyo de Monterreys and Macanudos," Gretzky says. "I like mild, creamy cigars, usually about a 44 ring size." Jones recently bought him a humidor. His agent, Mike Barnett, recalls that after Kings games in Los Angeles, where Gretzky played for seven and a half seasons, they would go to places like Adrianos and Mateos and smoke. Since he doesn't frequent his smoking haunts in Los Angeles anymore, he is apt to smoke on the golf course.

He also had more space in California. He and his family moved from Thousand Oaks, California, where space is measured in acres, to an Upper East Side condo where space is parceled out in square feet. "It's a big change; we had a pretty big house in L.A., on a golf course. I like [the change]. My father was blue-collar. I grew up with four boys in one bedroom and my kids are going to grow up differently. I like the fact that everything is a little more condensed right now. Coming into the apartment it's different; they can't kind of go this way or that way. They had their own rooms in L.A., a lot of freedom, a lot of free space, open space," he says, sounding like a man who has made his career finding and negotiating that open space.

"Now it's a little more compact; it teaches them how to live and work with each other more in this environment. In California it was a lot tougher driving them to school, because you travel more in L.A. [In New York] I'm able to spend more time in taking them to school, picking them up and that sort of thing."

Being just one star among many, Gretzky once said that he could get lost in Los Angeles. "In New York, it's totally different. But I really do enjoy living here. I like the energy. Before I came to New York, people said, 'You can't go there, people are crazy. Are you foolish? What are you thinking about going there for?' I've honestly found it to be the exact opposite. I really enjoy the people; they can't be nicer. People on the streets are very polite. They're sports fans and they wanna talk. And that's okay. I don't mind talking sports. I'm a big fan myself. Unless I've gotta go somewhere or do something, I don't mind. People know who I am and sometimes stop and say, 'How you doin'?' and want to talk and want an autograph."

His family is adapting to the New York life. "We do a little bit of everything. We went to the World Series, go to the movies. Since we moved we're trying to reorganize our lives and get situated. It's kind of a hectic time, organizing the apartment and getting the kids in schools and then getting them involved in activities from piano to ice hockey. My daughter's on the swim team. She's been swimming for a couple of years and she's the most competitive. She has mine and Janet's competitive level."

For Jones, relocating to Manhattan has its advantages. "I'm more involved with the kids being in New York," she says. "I'm walking them here and I'm taking them there. And I think it's good right now, because the adjustment is so different than an L.A. life that it's important that I'm there for them. So Wayne is with the Rangers and the kids are in school and I'll be the third wheel to get my life in order. But it's important that they get settled first."

While the family is getting acclimated, Jones, who once graced the cover of Life magazine, is trying to get back in the swing of things as an actress. Though she grew up in St. Louis, the trip back to New York is a bit of a return home: she did A Chorus Line and The Flamingo Kid in the city. But with a family to look after, "I haven't really gotten my routine together yet. But it will come," she says. "I'd love to break back into the business somehow. No one really knows I want it; I have to get back out there."

Jones has been away from acting for eight years, since her first child was born. "I think once you've done it," she says, "you always get that feeling to go back out. It's hard to let go. Being in New York or Los Angeles makes you feel like it's in your back yard and that you should be involved, and you feel like you're left out of the party if you're not working." Whether she makes her comeback on screen or stage or TV makes no difference to her. "Of course, everyone wants to be on the screen, but sometimes it's more important to try to be on the stage or TV."

While it was hard to give up her career, the rewards were substantial. "The kids have been great," says Jones. "But I think they would have fun watching me work, too. Wayne would love for me to work; a lot of people think that he wouldn't, but he really would."

Jones' transition to New York has been eased by Gretzky's connection to sports. "I love sports, I love athletes," says the actress, who has dabbled in aerobics and kick boxing. "I always felt that I would have been a better athlete than an actress or a dancer. Because I have that mentality; I like being around it, and I love it, I respect it." Sports, in fact, was responsible for bringing her and Wayne together; they began dating after a 1987 National Basketball Association playoff game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.

Will Gretzky steer his kids toward hockey? "Both my wife and I think that sports are good for kids for a lot of things--having fun with other kids, if they're busy doing sports it means they're staying out of trouble. We're kind of big believers in athletics for kids. But I really have to be careful, especially with my first son, Ty; I didn't want him to think that I would ever pressure him into being a hockey player.

"I was telling my wife the other day about when I was six how much of a passion I had for the game. I would design an ice rink on a page. I was six years old and I would sit down in front of the TV with a pen and I'd watch the puck on TV and I'd follow the puck for the whole period. And when there was a whistle I'd stop. And my dad would say, 'What are you doin'?' And I said, 'I'm following the puck.' I just wanted to see who's got the puck more, where all the play is, where all the action is. At the end of the period, you would see heavy lines in one certain area, or maybe on one end if a team is dominating. I was telling my wife, 'I don't know why I did it.' " No wonder, then, that his father saw his greatness coming before Wayne did. "He knew," says Gretzky. "He said, 'I don't know why or how you have this passion, but if you don't lose your love for the game, you'll be something special. You have this passion for the game and you'll go far.'

"On Saturdays, the games would come on at 8 o'clock. My father would say, 'You can watch two periods and then you gotta go to bed at 9:30.' I used to live a lot with my grandparents. [My grandmother] lived on a farm and I used to spend part of the summers there. I just remember begging my dad to take me out there Saturday and pick me up to take me home Sunday. Saturday night my grandmother would let me watch the whole game! That was the biggest reason for me wanting to go there. I'd sit there and watch the whole 'Hockey Night in Canada' game for three hours."

There may be an athlete in some time or some place who loved his sport as much, but it is difficult to imagine one loving it more. But can that love be sustained, 30 years later? Is his love for the game as great now? "It's a different kind of love, now," he says, attempting an explanation. "I love the game. I always have really enjoyed myself on the ice."

"Do you love me as much as you loved me when you married me?" Jones cuts in. "Nine years?"

"I always rate hockey one, hockey two and you three," Gretzky says. She laughs. Then he reconsiders. "I think hockey one, hockey two, hockey three and you four. The hockey itself is kind of easy, that's the funny part. You know what I mean? When you get to play the game? You never lose that. That's what we love to do, that's our enjoyment. What's hard about it is everything we go through, like travel, the hotels. That part becomes tougher. I don't dislike it; I love being around the guys."

"As you get older, you get more set in your ways," Jones adds. "When you come home it's your own bed. You know how when you get older you want to do things the way you want to do them. When you're young, you're more flexible."

"The other side of it is, it's not like I dislike it," Gretzky explains. "I never have not liked every part of the game. I don't mind flying right now, whereas 15 years ago I hated flying. I couldn't get on an airplane. So I hated that part of the game at that time."

When it comes to flying, Gretzky was every inch as bad as Dustin Hoffman's autistic character in Rain Man, who would only fly Quantas or else he went screaming out of the airports. "I was that bad," Gretzky affirms. "If it wasn't for Air Canada, I probably wouldn't have been able to play. Because in those days Air Canada--and I think still the way it is now--when I got on the plane, I knew every pilot in Canada, and they'd say, 'You want to sit up here? You want to relax?' I used to sit in the cockpit on every trip!" Gretzky got peace of mind and the pilots got autographs.

"I can remember--this is no lie--I can remember playing a game Sunday night at home in Edmonton and literally not being to sleep all night because we were going to fly the next morning at 7! Not being able to sleep, just lying there, getting on the plane and being so tired and having a four-hour flight to Toronto, and yet I couldn't sleep. I sat there talking to the pilot, scared to death, and getting off the plane and going to practice for an hour. If I wasn't 22 years old.... I couldn't do it now. But fortunately I got over that fear of travel. That was probably the closest reason for me not liking it. The other side is that I love getting on the back of the bus and sitting with all the guys, rubbing shoulders with the guys."

At his age and stage Gretzky can wax philosophical about his career and what led to his success. "You know what the biggest gifts of the great athletes are? Their love and passion for the game. If you said to Larry Bird, 'You know what, Larry, you gotta go out and shoot baskets and practice for two hours.' You know what he'd say? 'Take a flying hike!' But if you say to him, 'Are you going to go to a movie tonight, are you going to go out with the guys for dinner?' 'No I'm going to shoot baskets,' he might say. That was his passion. He didn't think he was practicing." To Gretzky, hitting the ice never felt like work; never 'I have to' but more 'I'm going to.'

"It's like me. Parents come up to me all the time and say, 'I've read your autobiography. I tell my son he's gotta practice, practice, practice. Will you talk to him?' I say, 'Hey listen, lady, it wasn't practice for me. I never one time got up on a Saturday morning and said, "I gotta go practice for eight hours today.' If I would have thought that, I would never have gone on the ice! My friends would say, 'We're going to go watch a game or my dad is taking us here, what are you going to do?' 'I'm gonna go skate,' I'd say. I just loved it. I got up in the morning and went and did it. That's what God gave them, that's their gift. That's the extra special thing they have, the extra passion and love to want to excel.

"And the other thing is great athletes have a fear of not wanting to be a failure. I know myself that I have this fear that drives me; I don't want to embarrass myself. You don't want to not be successful. And I'd be willing to bet that a lot of the great athletes have that. It's a fear--'I'm gonna be ready, I've gotta be ready.'"

But what else does he have that many others don't? People say that Johnson and Bird saw the game unfold before other people did, that they had a sixth sense. NBC broadcaster Matt Guokas once said that Larry Bird "saw the game in slow motion."

"Everybody tries to figure it out," Gretzky says. "Everybody tries to figure out this concept of seeing more than other guys. Or 'seeing it from above.' They tell me that if I do something on the ice and I come back to the bench and they say, 'That was a great play. How did you do that?' Or, 'Can you do that again?' I don't know; it's instinctive. I can't; I couldn't go out there and recreate it.

"My dad was a great teacher of the game. I can't teach. My wife is always saying to me, 'Teach your boys.' And I'm not a good teacher. I know it's in my head and I know what I'm thinking. But taking it from here to here," he says pointing to his head and then to his arms, "with a pass to there is hard for me. It really is. The basics of stick handling and all that--anybody can teach that. But the game itself." He pauses. "I think the biggest thing is that I have the ability to slow everything down. The game is high-speed, it's played at a high level. So everything is created of an instinct and quick decisions. And when athletes have that ability to make that decision, whether it is to be ahead of everyone else or to slow everything down to be ready for that--I don't know exactly what it is."

How long will he play before retiring? How will he handle it? "The hardest thing of all is to find the same high," he says. "Something that's really going to absorb you. And I don't think I'll ever find that. I think that whatever I do, I have to make it secondary. I can't engulf myself in something that is going to be time-consuming and is going to take over my life again. I can honestly say for myself that when it is over, it is going to be a huge change. Because, like my wife says, 'I'm used to the routine.' Every day for the last 20 years of pro hockey, I've been getting up and going to practice at 11 o'clock. Basically my day consists of about 8 to 2; those are my work hours on non-game days. And on game days it's about 4 to 11. It's going to be a huge change between morning and night.

"My family--my kids and my wife--have been so good to me and understanding my focus in what I'm doing right now, so when I am done, my focus, my attention should be number one on them in whatever I do. I don't know what that'll be right now. Someone asks me if I want to coach. I don't want to coach right now. No, I don't want to be a GM. I couldn't tell a guy, 'You're going to be traded.' I can't do that. General managers are the ones that have to stand up and tell the truth. But I love the game and I'd like to stay involved at the ownership level."

For now, Gretzky is in good health and could probably play until he's 40. "I can, but I don't know if I want to," he says. What about statistical markers, like 3,000 points; will they motivate him to stay? "I'd like to get 3,000 points. But it's not one of those things I get up in the morning and say, 'This is what I need to accomplish before I retire.' In baseball people say, 'When I reach 3,000 hits, it's really special.' I haven't really thought about it. After this two-year contract I'll sit down and think what I'm going to do with my life and what's going to happen. When we're playing well and we're winning, I say, 'I can play a long time here, another 10 years, I hope.'

"I haven't really talked about this before. I don't think the reason that I retire is going to have a lot to do with hockey. For me, a professional athlete has to be selfish. You really do. You have to put everything you do ahead of anything else in your life. Practice time, workout time in the off-season, travel for the team--everything has to be focused on the game itself. For me that has been my priority. What ultimately would drive me away from the game is that I would no longer want to be selfish with my time. That will be more of a deciding factor than anything else. My daughter had a father-daughter day at her school. And I told her, 'I'm going to be out of town.' And it bothered her a lot that I couldn't be there. Every athlete has to do that.

"I have a good wife. My family gets put on the back burner," Gretzky admits. "When things aren't going well, a lot of guys come home and they're miserable, they're cranky. I'm the kind of guy where I kind of wear my emotions on my sleeve. If we do lose, I try to come home and be happy around the kids. But it's hard, because it's our life. There are only peaks and valleys, there are no in-betweens. The other day I was with my daughter, and she said, 'Just because you lost doesn't mean you have to take it out on me.' She's aware of it."

Whether he retires in two years or five years, Gretzky will be financially set. He's had the same Midas touch with corporate America that he's had with the blade of a stick. In the early and mid-1980s he licensed lunch kits, wristwatches, tabletop hockey games and bedspreads. He's now doing the big stuff, while those other trinkets fall off to the younger players. He was the first athlete to host NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and one of only a handful of jocks to be painted by Andy Warhol and LeRoy Neiman. He did the first U.S. network broadcast of a 3-D commercial, for Coca Cola. For Nike he's done the "Bo Knows" everything but hockey commercial and a clever bit with actor Dennis Leary.


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