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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 6)

"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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