Lord of the Rink
After 18 seasons in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky still plays hockey with passion and drive.
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97
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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.
Born in Brantford, Ontario, on Jan. 26, 1961, Wayne Gretzky was skating at the age of two. He writes in his autobiography, Gretzky, that when he was six his father, Walter, couldn't find a league for him to play in, 10 being the minimum age for league play in Brantford. But he got his chance with the 10-year-olds after passing a tryout. He skated on the third line and tallied only one goal that year, but still remembers his father saying to him, "Wayne, keep practicing and one day you're gonna have so many trophies, we're not going to have room for them all." Over the next three years, he scored 27 goals, then 104, and then 196.
Then the miraculous became real. Just four feet four inches tall and 11 years old, Gretzky sent ripples through Ripley's by scoring those 378 goals in 69 games. He won the scoring race by 238 goals. Gretzky demurely attempts to explain the unfathomable by saying that he had a break on the competition, having started skating at two, when most kids were getting their start at six or seven. Give it up, Wayne. There's no explaining it. Not without recourse to words like "genius." Unfortunately, the feat also ended his innocence.
He went from Brantford boy to world prodigy in the space of a year. He did dozens of interviews, more than all but a few NHL players. John Herbert, a writer from a London, Ontario, newspaper, tabbed him "The Great Gretzky." That name--and "The Great One"--have stuck. But while his childhood should have been a carpet ride, it was anything but. In local arenas he drew boos from parents who thought he was a puck hog. Other "adults" showed up with stopwatches to see how long Gretzky held the puck. They considered his goal totals flukes and said he'd be washed up before he saw 18.
No matter. Gretzky already had a foundation with his father, Walter. "Everything I did revolved around his life," the younger Gretzky recalls. "We were best friends. There were hard times, too. I'm not going to say it was all roses and peaches. He never missed a practice, he never missed a game. We never went on holidays because he wanted all the money to be put toward athletics and that kind of stuff. When I was eight years old, I remember my mom, Phyllis, saying, 'I need a new set of curtains.' And my dad said, 'Hang a couple of sheets up. We gotta get Wayne a new pair of skates.'
"He didn't push me; he just supported me. Which is a fine line. There's this sense that, 'If he's gonna push me, I'm gonna quit.' Because a lot of kids think that way. But he always supported me, gave me that chance and that opportunity, like putting the rink up in the backyard."
The rink became known as the "Wally Coliseum." "The amazing thing about the rink was it wasn't just a rink, it was a great rink!" Gretzky recalls. "The ice was seven inches thick! He would get the ice so thick that when it started to thaw in March, our rink would last three weeks longer than anyone else's. It was about 20 feet wide by 35 feet long. If you were over 10 or 11 years old it became a little difficult. But as a kid, eight, nine, 10 years old, you could play four-on-four and have lots of room. I would spend hours on it.
"On Saturdays and Sundays I'd be on the ice at 7 a.m., skate until 7:30 at night and then come in and watch 'Hockey Night in Canada.' Essentially I was on the ice the whole day. I remember on Saturdays and Sundays Dad would sleep in. He never drank, but he loved to sit up and watch old movies until about 3 o'clock. So some Saturdays he'd sleep in until about 10:30 or 11. But I can remember that he was always worried that I wasn't going to be big enough. That was always one of his fears. He was always worried about my eating habits. I can remember being out there at seven years old, skating by myself. At 9 o'clock in the morning, the window would open and I'd hear him yell, 'Did you eat yet?' And I'd lie and say, 'Yeah.' He'd say, 'No you didn't. Get your ass in here!'" Gretzky laughs like a kid at the recollection. "And he'd make me go in and make me eat and then I'd go back out. He gave me every opportunity, he supported me."
At 17, Gretzky signed his first pro contract with the WHA for $100,000 a year plus a $250,000 signing bonus. After playing just eight games of the 1978-1979 season with the Indianapolis Racers, they sold him to the Edmonton Oilers, at that time a member of the WHA.
His 43 goals and 61 assists brought the 18-year-old Rookie of the Year honors. Edmonton then joined the National Hockey League. Despite some predictions that he would not flourish in the NHL, Gretzky let his play do the talking. Right from the start, Gretzky was passing and teeing up his left-handed shot, scoring and assisting. In his first four years his point totals (goals plus assists) were 137, 164, 212 and 196. No one before him ever had more than 152 in a season! As a team, Edmonton won 47 games in 1982 and 48 in 1983. But the years 1980 through 1983 belonged to the New York Islanders, one of hockey's greatest dynasties. Edmonton would make the playoffs and even the NHL Finals in 1983 with an offensive machine that cranked out 424 goals--5.3 per game! But the Islanders dumped them four straight in the Finals. Now the cry became, "Gretzky can't win a cup."
"We had respect for the Islanders," Gretzky recalls. "They didn't like us because we were young and brash. We never showed that we respected them; we didn't want to give an inch and kept poker faces out there. I'm not sure how quickly we would have won a championship if we had not studied their team and followed their example. I thought the cornerstone of their team was [defenseman] Dennis Potvin." The following year the Oilers hit a breakaway stride, winning 57 games.
"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."
Gretzky demurs. "I don't think there's any question that the two greatest players of all time are Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. They were special for the game, they excelled, they were champions, they carried themselves with class. There's no comparison to those two guys; they were the best. There are a lot of other guys who have done so much for the game. Mark Messier is a great example. Can you say he's better than Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr? I don't know. That's up for other people to debate. But what he's done for the game has been special. No one else has done that. He's captured a city, he's won six championships. He's one of the ultimate team players of all time. He's dedicated to the game."
But, uh, Wayne, what about the numbers you've put up? "I was fortunate, I really was. I came along at the right time. I was with the right group, the right teacher, the right coach. For me it was perfect." But your assists, your points..."I'd rather talk about other guys. Hey listen, when I'm at home and lying in bed with my wife, I tease her a little bit, I can have my moment. I can have my moments of telling her how good I think I am." And no doubt she agrees? "No, she doesn't. And that's why I like to tell her!" he says with a laugh.
"I'm just not a big believer in people who like to brag. I know what I've accomplished and I'm proud of it. I love the game and I'm proud of what I've done. I'm not going to tell you I'm not. Some of it amazes me, I can honestly tell you. There are some records that I don't think will ever be broken--92 goals will be tough." Not to mention nine Hart trophies (given to the league's most valuable player each season) and 10 Ross trophies (given to the player with the most points).
While Gretzky may not be prone to boasting, there's no shortage of praise from players and coaches who have seen him perform. Former Kings head coach Parker MacDonald said "trying to stop Wayne is like throwing a blanket over a ghost." A case in point was the night he became the fastest 50-goal scorer of all time. Entering the Dec. 31, 1981, game--his 39th of the season--with 45 goals, Gretzky scored five that night against Philadelphia. "This was absolutely crazy," the Flyers' Bobby Clarke said afterwards. "At least with Bobby Orr you'd see him wind up in his own end and you could try to set up some kind of defense to stop him. Gretzky comes out of nowhere. It's scary."
The Great One likes to set up behind the net, a place that has come to be known as "Gretzky's Office." From there he tallies many of his assists. "Once he's there," says former Hartford Whalers goalie Mike Liut, "your mind is on the guy he's going to pass to, but you can't take your eyes off Wayne." Liut found that out firsthand one game, in memorable fashion. "He once flipped it from behind there, off my neck and in," recalls Liut, who played against Gretzky for 12 seasons. "Wayne's two favorite plays are finding the guy no one else but him can see, and losing himself in your end. He's a genius." Even his skating made opponents wary. Says Liut, "I'd see him come down the ice and immediately start thinking, 'What don't I see that Wayne's seeing right now?' "
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."
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