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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

When he was six he was skating against 10-year-olds. At the ripe age of 11, he scored 378 goals in 69 games--not a misprint. Soon after he was signing autographs and screening phone calls from national magazines. Despite being selected Rookie of the Year with the World Hockey Association, scouts in the National Hockey League had doubts. "Too small, too slow," some scribbled in their notes. "Won't survive the rough play," came other sage predictions. Because he was just five feet eleven inches and 170 pounds, one wag cracked that "he could wear a fur coat on Halloween and go out disguised as a pipe cleaner." Even when he silenced the critics with Rookie of the Year honors and amazing scoring feats over his first four NHL seasons, the skepticism persisted. They said he wouldn't win a single Stanley Cup. They were right, of course. He won four of them, all coming in a five-year period with the Edmonton Oilers.

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."

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.

Putting his name on foods has worked as well. For nine years Gretzky endorsed Pro*Stars Cereal for General Mills in Canada. He was also the first human to appear on a Campbell's soup label. His image adorned 55 million cans in the United States; somewhere, Warhol regrets missing that particular confluence of product and athlete. But the artist would have been confused by the a little byline on each label that read: "Check out the Great One on the Internet at www.gretzky.com." Gretzky's virtual reality Web site recently went on line with a company called Sportsline USA.

Speaking of food, the Official All Star Cafe is another Gretzky venture. Gretzky, Ken Griffey Jr., Andre Agassi, Joe Montana, Shaquille O'Neal and Monica Seles are equal partners with Robert Earl, founder of Planet Hollywood. Marry Planet Hollywood to a sports restaurant and the offspring is the All Star Cafe, a 33,000-square-foot place as gargantuan as Macy's. The Cafe opened in Times Square in December 1995. "There are 40-plus Planet Hollywoods," says Gretzky agent Barnett, "and the plan is to build that many All-Star Cafes." In 1996, a second opened in Cancún, Mexico, and a third in Las Vegas. Others are planned this year for Chicago (what will Jordan say?) and Atlantic City. The stock for the Cafe came onto the market at $18, after a few days topped at $31 and was skating along at $24 in December.

If you think that the Cafe is a large enough venture to keep tabs on, think again. Gretzky is also partners with a group in San Diego that is building Wayne Gretzky Roller Hockey Centers, each of which are $4 million projects. Hockey rinks, mini-rinks and bleachers, target areas for shooting, a retail store and a McDonald's--all will co-exist under one dome. Construction of the first center in Irvine, California, was scheduled to be completed in January.

California is a logical choice. Gretzky's arrival in 1988 to play for the Kings changed the entire West Coast's view of the game. There are hockey franchises in Anaheim and San Jose where there were none before. A Minnesota-based-company, First Team Sports, was in the early development stages of in-line skating and was a pioneer in in-line boots and skates. Gretzky went with the firm at the time hockey mania in California was just beginning. First Team Sports' stock went from $1.12 to $18 on NASDAQ and split twice.

The topper came recently when Gretzky got to appear with his children in three Sharp View Cam commercials, just as he and his father once appeared together in a Coke commercial, and he and his mother in a cereal spot.

Gone is the age when athletes limp toward retirement. "He has been around this league a long time and won," says sports analyst Davidson. "Yet he still has a burning desire to continue to play well. He doesn't have to. He's financially set; he doesn't have to do what he does. But he still does." And he still does it well.

In a recent game against Philadelphia, Gretzky slid a blind pass between his legs toward a wide-open teammate. Late in the game he stationed himself near the enemy goal, causing a Flyers player shadowing him to take a penalty. "He is still the best passer in the league," says Norman MacLean, who covers hockey for Reuters and has written for such publications as The Hockey News since 1955. ["Pitts-burgh's] Sergei Zubov is second. But Zubov hesitates too long and always tries to pass; Gretzky kind of knows when to shoot." And is he the best ever? "Oh, yeah," MacLean responds in about the time it took Gretzky to whip that blind pass. "He's first, Howe is second.

"He's not what he was; his reflexes are probably a hair off. But he really has peripheral vision and knows where everybody is. Not where they should be but where they are. There's a difference."

Gretzky is now 36, not 25, and no longer smears old record books with Wite-Out every year. But he's still one of the game's most gifted players, and he has been more responsible than any single player for bringing hockey to the prominence it enjoys in the 1990s.

In law, there's something called the burden of proof. In hockey, that burden falls on any future player who wants to challenge the Gretzky legacy. Those who love the game can only hope that someone comes close.

Kenneth Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado from White Plains, New York, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years (All Sports Books, 1997).

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