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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 2)

"The most rewarding season was 1984, the first year we won. Because after the loss to the Islanders in 1983, there was so much talk of breaking up our team. So much media pressure saying, 'That system can't win, that style of player can't win. Trade this guy, trade that guy.' Even though we lost in the Finals, we were scared to death! First of all, we were young--22, 23 years old. We were scared something would happen. We didn't know if I would be traded or if Paul Coffey would be traded. Fortunately, Glen [Sather, the Edmonton coach] really believed in what he had. He stuck with that team and that group heading into that next year and there was really nothing that was going to get in our way. We had so much respect for the Islanders that we had learned how they beat us and what they had to do to beat us; by the time we got back to the Finals the next year to play them, we were so focused and ready. We were fresh and hungry. We stole the first game, 1-0. The fourth-line guy, Kevin McClelland, scored the goal. You can't win championships without the 14th, 15th and 20th guys contributing. He scored a huge goal."

But the Islanders, who had won a record 19 consecutive playoff series, had no plans of going gently into that good night. "The next game we lost, 6-1, on [Long Island]. And I remember thinking on the bus, 'Well, we split. Let's go home and win three games.' We got back to Edmonton and Glen just skated the shit out of us in practice. He was screaming at us and got us so fired up. He believed in bringing every individual down and then bringing them back twice as high. First he told us how embarrassing we'd been in Game 2, and he really grinded us out. After he's done all that he brought us back up. We were on such a high that we won all three at home." Gone was that line, "Yeah, that Gretzky is great but he hasn't won."

The Oilers won again in 1985, lost to Calgary in the Finals in 1986, and won again in 1987 and 1988. They wore Champagne and drank from Lord Stanley's Cup four times in five years. It was after the 1988 Cup that Gretzky got introduced to cigars. "It was a celebration. Glen got me started," he recalls. Gretzky's father had been a cigar smoker. "My father smoked all kinds of cigars. I used to say, 'When I make pro hockey, I'm going to smoke cigars.' He said, 'You're not going to do either.' " He laughs again, the child in him never far from the surface.

The celebration over a fourth Stanley Cup didn't last long. Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was having cash problems, and to help solve them on Aug. 9, 1988, he traded Gretzky to the Kings, along with Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley, in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round picks and $15 million. Prior to Gretzky's arrival, the Kings had turned in 14 sub-.500 campaigns in 21 seasons. L.A. wasn't exactly a hockey town back then. "I remember that first summer, I spent every day going to hockey clinics and doing interviews trying to sell the game," Gretzky told the Los Angeles Daily News. "It didn't happen overnight, and a lot of people put in a lot of hours. The one thing I worried about was being a $15 million bust."

He wasn't. Sharing the league scoring title with Lemieux, Gretzky led the Kings to a 42-31-7 record in his first season with the team. Season ticket sales soared to a club-record 14,875, and during the next season the center was named "Athlete of the Decade" by the Associated Press and United Press International, garnering more votes than Joe Montana, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird combined. For the 1991-92 season the Kings sold out every game, a feat never accomplished by the Lakers or any other L.A. sports team. The following season, behind Gretzky's leading playoff totals of 15 goals, 25 assists and 40 points in 24 games, the Kings reached the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.

The next three years, however, the Kings reverted to mediocrity. By the middle of the 1995-96 season, Gretzky wanted a commitment from management that it was going to make the kind of deals necessary to produce a winner. Since the Kings wouldn't make such a commitment, and because Gretzky was scheduled to become a free agent after the season, the team decided to get something for him while they could, trading him to the Blues that February for three young players: center Patrice Tardif, forward Craig Johnson and center Roman Vopat.

At the same time Gretzky was leading the Oilers to Stanley Cups and putting people into the seats in Los Angeles, he was also demolishing old records. In the 1981-82 season he established records for goals in a season, when his 92 shattered Phil Esposito's mark of 76. The old record for points, 152, also belonged to Espo. Gretzky blew it to smithereens that same season by posting 212! In the 1985-86 campaign Gretzky crushed his own record of 109 assists (Bobby Orr had held the previous record of 102) by accumulating an amazing 163. When there were no records left to break, he broke and rebroke his own records. Aside from holding the career marks in goals, assists and points, Gretzky now owns eight of the top 10 seasonal marks for points, four of the top 10 records for goals and nine of the top 10 marks for assists.

While fine players such as Lemieux and the Philadelphia Flyers' Eric Lindros have come along, they have not--and in all probability will not--even remotely approach Gretzky's totals. "You know, when I was doing it, I didn't even realize what I was doing," Gretzky says. "Some of the records that I have, some of the things I did. I wish..." He pauses. "I really didn't savor any of the moments. You know what I mean? The only time I really savored it was when I lifted the Stanley Cup, the four times I got to do that. I can remember each time what I was thinking and how I was feeling when I lifted the cup."

The comparisons had already begun. He was being measured against players like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Maurice Richard, Guy LeFleur and a handful of others in the pantheon of hockey greats. The comparisons are instructive. But one gets the eerie sense that the comparisons are old already, like the stuff of museums. Everyone likes to recite the skills of players of his region or era. New Englanders tend to favor Orr. Chicagoans recall the blistering 100 mile per hour shot of Bobby Hull. Hockey aficionados from the 1940s through 1960s sing the praises of Gordie Howe. Has Gretzky eclipsed them?

And Howe. There was a time when you could make a case for Howe or Orr. That time has passed. Nearly a decade ago, Gretzky had already locked up the hockey record book like Bill Gates locked up computers. An all-around player, Gordie Howe had 1,850 points in 26 years of NHL play. Gretzky broke that record on Oct. 15, 1989, at Edmonton, at the very beginning of his 11th season! Orr was a great defender and an extraordinarily exciting player who, by virtue of his dazzling skating, could play defense offensively. He is a Hall of Fame player. But his goals and assists give him 915 points, about one third of Gretzky's total of 2,660 (through Dec. 22). Knee injuries forced Orr to retire early; his career was essentially over in 1975, when he was just 27. Howe himself once surmised, "If you want to tell me Gretzky's the greatest player of all time, I have no argument at all."

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