The thing about watching Wayne Gretzky now, today, is that we still don't really believe what we see. He can't be that good. No way. They must be handing assists out in Edmonton as if they were programs. Five goals and two assists against St. Louis, the No. 1 team in hockey this year, in one game? A fluke. The goalie must have been oiled. What the heck, the kid's only 20, and a young 20 at that—his birthday was January 26—with a still-boyish, 165-pound build. If he's that good now, what will he be like when he grows up?
You can sense his Oiler teammates wondering about the same thing—and his opponents brooding over it. Where lies the zenith? Gretzky is already the best offensive player in the game, and he is probably still six years from his prime. He will own the '80s. breathe new life into the NHL cadaver and shatter the scoring records for forwards, as Bobby Orr did a few years ago for defensemen. Last year, after one season in the now-defunct WHA, Gretzky was the NHL's MVP, and he tied Los Angeles' Marcel Dionne for the scoring title with 137 points. Only Orr and Phil Esposito have surpassed that total. Now in his second year, he is the league leader with 42 goals and 79 assists. In the coming weeks he will challenge Esposito's record of 152 points in a season. It won't be a fluke if he breaks it. Gretzky is the most exciting, most effective scorer in the game. He is that good. And he'll only get better.
Gretzky is currently enjoying one advantage that he'll probably never have again: few opposing coaches can accept that a kid his age and size is capable of dominating their teams. Utterly dominating them. Playing keep-away with the puck. They see it and still don't believe it. In a few years every club will have its own specially devised way to defend against Gretzky, but for now he's getting some skating room. As Glen Sather, Edmonton's coach and general manager, says with a knowing smile, "Believe it or not, some hockey people still think of Wayne as a flash in the pan."
That won't be the case for long. Last week the Oilers journeyed to Los Angeles to play the Kings. Afterward, Dionne, who trails Gretzky by 12 points in the scoring race, said, "Gretzky's carrying the whole team offensively. He controls the game. It's a thrill to play against him." The Kings beat Edmonton 5-2, holding Gretzky to one assist but, said Dionne, "You can see for yourself what we think of him." He pointed to the blackboard in the Los Angeles locker room. There, beside the Oilers' starting lineup, Coach Bob Berry had written:
—Gretzky—leading scorer, NHL
—Must be aware of him at all times
—Likes to shoot against the flow
—Likes to get to blueline and "buttonhook" defense; force him outside
—Be alert for long pass to him up the middle
—Likes to set up behind our net; try to make him go to his backhand
In summing up the Edmonton club's other strengths. Berry had written, "This team works very hard."
The reason Gretzky commands his own special scouting report is that he plays a game that—like Orr's—is entirely his own. It's as if he had learned it on a different planet. Only the Islanders' Bryan Trottier can approach Gretzky's mastery of play behind the net, where he ducks down and feeds passes to teammates swarming into the slot. If no one comes after him, he darts in front of the goal himself. The best stick handler in the NHL. he practices the art in the summer with a tennis ball on his driveway. "It's harder to stick-handle with a tennis ball than a puck," he says simply.
He can swat pucks out of the air as if they were beach balls, which makes it easy to hit him with a long pass. And he is faster than he looks, especially from a standing start. His own passing is superb. His shot, while not overpowering, is surely as accurate as his passing—he scored 51 goals last season—but what everyone mentions first is Gretzky's anticipation. He thinks on another level out there, he's one step ahead, constantly aware of the entire ice, more like a chess master than a hockey player.
Last Wednesday, the night after their loss to the Kings, the Oilers, who at week's end were 21-32-10 and in a tight battle for the 16th and final playoff spot, defeated Philadelphia for the first time in their history. Before the game the word in the press lounge was that Gretzky disappears against the Flyers, that he turns squeamish at the thought of their rough stuff, that he has a perpetual case of Philadelphia flu. Not so. The Flyers had taken a 2-0 lead in the second period. Then Gretzky took charge. In the last 21 minutes of play he had two goals and two assists as Edmonton scored six unanswered goals.
Afterward, Philadelphia Coach Pat Quinn, looking slightly dazed, said, "He does that to a lot of clubs, but he hasn't been able to do it to us before." Seeing was believing. You can bet that when the Flyers cross the Oilers' path this week. Gretzky will have Mel Bridgman's axlike stick hacking at him all night long. If you can't beat him, cleave him.
Surprisingly, Gretzky has suffered little thuggery in his brief NHL career. "The players are dirtier in junior hockey, where they'll do anything to get noticed." says Gretzky, who should know. A junior coach once offered $25 to any kid who could knock him out of the game. "Guys respect you when you get up here." Gretzky says. "Nobody's trying to hurt you. Some guys hit me, but guys miss me a lot, too."
In a game last season in Pittsburgh. Kim Clackson was trying to cover him. As Gretzky broke past, Clackson hooked him around the face. What ensued was a 59-minute brawl, highlighted by four separate fights between Clackson and Dave Semenko. Edmonton's unfriendly giant. Gretzky. who is something of a showboat, wasn't seriously cut, and his first smiling words to the trainer were, "How's the crowd taking this?"
Edmonton players refer to Gretzky as "the Franchise," and you don't mess with the franchise. Before one game against Detroit last year, Oiler Defenseman Lee Fogolin skated up to Dennis Polonich, the Red Wings' pugnacious center, and said, "If you touch the kid, you'll have to deal with me."
Still, Sather doesn't believe the other clubs have tried to intimidate his young star. "A lot of guys are in awe of Gretzky's kind of ability," says Sather. "It's one thing to run at an average player, but a superstar is something else. Nobody ever really tried to hurt Bobby Orr, either. Sure, you hit the guy. but maybe you pull back a little."
Should Gretzky continue scoring at the nearly two-points-per-game clip of the past 40 games, he will break Esposito's single-season mark, once considered as safe as, well, Ruth's 714 home runs. When Esposito got his 76 goals and 76 assists in 1970-71, he was in on 38% of Boston's league-record 399 goals. Gretzky has either scored or set up a staggering 49% of Edmonton's 248 goals. While some members of the press have tried to diminish Gretzky's statistics by saying he couldn't score as often if he played for a winning team, his coach believes the opposite is true.
"When you're on a losing club, there aren't as many guys helping you," says Sather. "He doesn't have Orr passing him the puck, the way Esposito did. What would he do if he had Charlie Simmer on his line, or Mike Bossy?
"But I don't give a damn what Wayne does personally. The only measure of a great player is if he plays on a Stanley Cup winner. A Lafleur, an Orr, a Howe, a Hull, a Richard—they give you that little extra edge. They make their teammates play on a little higher level. I've never said publicly that Wayne belongs in that class yet." Sather pauses to smile. "And I'm not going to say so now."
That's all right, Glen. Wait a couple of years. We're not ready to believe it yet, anyway.