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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 3)

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."

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.

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