He may be the most precocious athlete of our time. At six Wayne Gretzky was competing against 10-year-olds; at 16 he was dominating 20-year-olds; at 17 he was the youngest athlete playing a major league sport in North America; and at 20 he broke the NHL single-season scoring record. "I've always done everything early," says Gretzky.
As youngsters, most athletes who become superstars are blessed not only with extraordinary coordination but also with other physical advantages, such as exceptional size, strength and speed. All they lack are experience and the insight that derives from it. Gretzky, on the other hand, has been, as Longfellow wrote of Hiawatha, "learned in all the lore of old men" since his early teens. His speed was average, his size and strength below average, but his coordination and aptitude for his sport were so advanced that by the time he was 19 he had proved himself to be the best hockey player in the world. Still, as he matured physically, there was more to come.
Last season, at 21, Gretzky put together a year that no one in hockey had thought possible: 92 goals and 120 assists for 212 points in 80 games. These totals are so far beyond the previous records that they're difficult to put in perspective. It's as if some kid suddenly hit 78 home runs, passing 60 by mid-August. Our sense of history was offended. The NHL's second-leading scorer last season, Mike Bossy, had the fourth-highest point total (147) in league history, but he trailed Gretzky by 65 points. That's half a season's work for most big scorers.
The last time anyone wreaked so much havoc on his sport's record book was in 1961-62, when Wilt Chamberlain led the NBA in scoring with a 50.4 average, 12 points higher than the previous mark. Walt Bellamy, the league's No. 2 scorer in 1961-62, had a 31.6 average. But Chamberlain's feat was understandable. He was a phenomenal physical specimen, 7 feet tall, enormously strong, marvelously coordinated. Furthermore, he had a coach who told Wilt's Philadelphia Warrior teammates to feed, feed, feed him the ball. Gretzky is as normally proportioned as the newspaperboy. He's a shade under 6 feet tall and weighs 172 pounds—and not a particularly muscular 172 pounds, either. Gretzky registered last in strength evaluations conducted by his team, the Edmonton Oilers, in 1981. "He tests very normally in other areas, too," says Glen Sather, the Oilers' coach and general manager. "I think he runs totally on adrenaline."
Gretzky certainly doesn't run on iron. When his blood was tested near the end of last season, he was found to be close to anemia. Yet there he was playing with a bunch of guys like Lumley and Kurri and Callighen—talented players but hardly stars—and taking us to scoring heights never imagined. Along the way this nearly anemic wunderkind-next-door shattered Rocket Richard's mark of 50 goals in 50 games, probably the most hallowed record in hockey. It had stood since 1945 and had been equaled only once, by Bossy in 1980-81. Gretzky, who sets up many more goals than he scores, many more than Richard or Bossy ever set up, got his 50th goal last season in his 39th game. Afterward, Richard, who seldom praises modern players, said, "I have now seen Gretzky enough to say that in whatever decade he played, he would've been the scoring champion."
Gretzky now holds 27 individual NHL records. Gordie Howe is next with 14. Gretzky has been in the league three years, and three times he has been its Most Valuable Player. (He played one season, 1978-79, in the WHA and was its Rookie of the Year.) Yet he has remained unchanged and respectful through it all, almost awed by those players whose achievements he has been surpassing. He's the young champion hockey so badly needs.
Bobby Orr sits in the upstairs study of his home in Weston, Mass. Ten years ago he was hockey's champion, its wunderkind, although he didn't relish the limelight as Gretzky does. No one has ever controlled the flow of the game as did Orr, who's the only player other than Gretzky to have had more than 100 assists in a season. Now 34, Orr has been retired for four years, his astounding career cut short by a series of knee injuries. He represents Nabisco Brands, traveling around the country to make personal appearances and give youth hockey clinics. With that curious loyalty that former hockey stars feel toward their sport—even if the sport has hurt them—Orr cares deeply about the future of the game, the kids. "How do you look after a house?" he asks. "The foundation. We're not looking after our foundation."
It has been suggested that Gretzky, like Orr, like many of the great ones, must see the game at a slower speed than the rest of us. You hear of batters who can see the stitches on a ball before they hit it. Orr, asked about this, smiles. "That's too deep for me," he says. "I'm sure Wayne does things there's no darn way he can explain. I know I did. I remember one game I played against Montreal when the puck bounced into the air near the boards. I just swung at it. I didn't know what else to do. The puck went right into the corner of the net. You think I planned that?" He laughs. "You don't explain things like that.
"To me what makes Wayne different is the little things. Not big technical things. His strengths are fundamental. He's not real fast, but he's faster than you think. He doesn't have Bobby Hull's shot, but he shoots better than you think. He passes better than anybody I've ever seen. And he thinks so far ahead. There was one game last January, against St. Louis, when Gretzky was coming down on the left wing. The right wing had the puck." Orr pauses here, smiling at the difficulty of describing the play. He stands up and walks across the study to grab a hockey stick leaning against the wall. "The right wing passes Gretzky the puck, only it's behind Wayne," says Orr. "The defenseman in front of Gretzky straightens up. Only instead of reaching back for the pass the way the rest of us would have done [Orr now reaches awkwardly behind him with his stick, making himself easy prey for the imaginary defenseman], Gretzky keeps skating. The puck skitters off the boards and past the defenseman, and Wayne's looking back for it now. He picks it up and is on his way. I'm sitting there saying, 'That's what makes him different.' He keeps things simple. That to me was the highlight of the game.
"People keep waiting for him to fall on his face, but as long as he doesn't tire mentally, he'll play the game. That's my only fear, that he'll get mentally worn out. Wayne does many, many more things off the ice—appearances, endorsements—than I ever did. I did what I thought was my fair share, but it wasn't my thing. I just hope he has good people around him who are watching him. He's young and full of energy, and when you have that, you feel you can do it all forever. But hockey can't afford to lose its Gretzkys." Orr says this without a trace of bitterness. "Hockey would have survived the last three years without him; hockey will always survive. But if Wayne is influencing the hundreds of thousands, the millions of kids that I think he is—well, put it this way: Thank God he's around."
The NHL has always subscribed to the theory that violence sells. Indeed, it has sold. Philadelphia, the most penalized team in the league each of the past 11 seasons, also has been the league's top drawing card on the road since 1976-77. Inevitably, the Flyers' popularity has affected youngsters who play the game. Monkey see, monkey do. The results can be seen at any youth or high school hockey game. Kids, protected by mandatory face masks, skate around like little kamikaze pilots, sticks held at head level, elbows flying, the natural grace of the sport lost in the near-mayhem.
Enter Gretzky, who has averaged just 24 minutes of penalties a season in his pro career and who uses his stick solely to manipulate the puck, as was originally intended. Does that sell? In 1979-80, Edmonton's first year in the NHL, the Oilers were the worst road draw in the league, playing before 71.3% of capacity. Last season, however, the Gretzky magic took hold. Edmonton was third in road attendance, drawing 88.7% of capacity. The Oilers' last 17 away games were sellouts. In two appearances in Detroit, home of the hapless Red Wings, Gretzky's Oilers attracted the largest (20,628) and third-largest regular-season crowds in NHL history. And Edmonton led the league in road attendance through the first quarter of the 1982-83 season despite a middling 9-7-4 record. The fans are coming to see Gretzky. Artistry sells.
Says Orr, "It takes some time before the professional influence filters down to the kids, but it does filter down."
To the foundation.
It's the night of Nov. 14, and Phil Esposito is in the television broadcast booth high above the ice in Madison Square Garden. Esposito now does color commentary for New York Ranger games, and tonight the Rangers are hosting the Oilers. Like Gretzky, Esposito, 40, was a center, and during his 18-year career he had 717 goals and 873 assists while playing for Chicago, Boston and the Rangers. Only Howe got more career goals and points. Espo's best years were with the Bruins, for whom he had 76 goals and 76 assists in 1970-71. Those 76 goals and 152 points were NHL single-season records until Gretzky came along. In a funny way, Esposito had been expecting him.
"When Wayne Gretzky was 16, he played for the junior Greyhounds in the Soo," says Esposito, referring to his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. "My dad owned a piece of the team, and he called me one day on the phone. 'Phil,' he said, 'I saw a kid who's going to break all your records.' 'Oh yeah?' I said. 'Who is this kid?' 'Wayne Gretzky. Believe me, he's as good as Orr was.' Well, I'd heard of him, but for crying out loud he was 16 years old. But my father's always been right when it comes to judging talent, so I started following Wayne. I never had the God-given talent of Wayne Gretzky. The only guy who had that was Bobby Orr. They're in a class by themselves, but it takes guts to recognize that you have that talent and dedicate yourself to it."
For the Ranger game Gretzky is playing on a line with Jari Kurri and Jaroslav Pouzar. Sather uses Gretzky with many different sets of wings, and it's a measure of Gretzky's remarkable skills that he can adapt to whoever is out there with him. When Esposito set his records in 1970-71, three other Bruins rounded out the league's top four in scoring—Johnny Bucyk, Ken Hodge and Orr. Gretzky had no such supporting cast last season. No other Oilers were among the top 10 scorers, yet as a team Edmonton set a record for most goals in a season (417). Gretzky either scored or assisted on better than half of them.
In the first period against the Rangers Gretzky breaks in on goal, two-on-one, and threads a pass to Pouzar through a defenseman's legs. Pouzar, shooting on an open net, hits the post. "Did you see how soft Gretzky put that pass on his stick?" Esposito asks the TV audience. Later, when Kurri takes a shot from the right wing, Gretzky breaks immediately to the left boards. The shot misses the net, and the puck caroms directly onto Gretzky's stick. "Did you see what he did then?" Esposito says. "Most players would have gone straight to the net, but Gretzky knew that nine times out of 10 either that shot was going to miss the net or the goalie would kick the rebound to the left side. That's why he's as great as he is. He's so smart."
Halfway through the second period, Gretzky has two goals and an assist. Esposito sounds like a Gretzky cheerleader, and he doesn't have to work to summon his enthusiasm. He turns to Jim Gordon, the Rangers' play-by-play man, and asks rhetorically, "O.K., it's 4-2 Oilers, and Gretzky has three points. Do you say the heck with the fans and follow him around now?"
In other words, should the Rangers shadow Gretzky, a ploy that's often effective but is unpopular with many hockey fans who resent seeing Gretzky or any star stifled by a defensive specialist. The only team to have shadowed Gretzky successfully so far is Boston, which uses a young center named Steve Kasper for the job. Kasper was voted the best defensive forward in the NHL last season largely because he held Gretzky to a total of one goal and four assists in three games. In the two games the Bruins and the Oilers have played against each other so far this year, Gretzky has gotten only three assists. Shadowing is a trend to which Gretzky will soon grow accustomed.
"He doesn't try to be a one-man show," says Kasper, "and he doesn't have to carry the puck to be effective. It only takes him an instant to do what he wants with it. The main thing I try to do is keep him on the outside of the ice and nudge him early to get him off his stride, like a bump and run in football. It's no good trying to line him up for a hard check; he's too mobile. If you start lunging at him, he'll make you look ridiculous. One thing I'll never call him is a floater. He wants the puck and he'll check to get it. Gretzky's a complete player."
"Gretzky's very underrated defensively," says Esposito during a break. "These people who say he can't play defense don't know what they're talking about. He knows when he has to be back deep in his zone and when he doesn't. He knows when his defenseman's going to be beat before his defenseman knows it."
Late in the third period Edmonton leads the Rangers 6-2. The New York fans, as coarse a lot as has ever graced an arena, are bored with booing their team and have begun to cheer Gretzky, who, shadowless, has been putting on a dazzling show. Suddenly he and Pouzar break down the ice two-on-two, Gretzky carrying the puck. He cuts to his left, in front of Pouzar and tantalizingly close to the Ranger defensemen, who both pick him up. Gretzky then flips the puck back to Pouzar, who has darted into the hole vacated by Gretzky's defender. "Look at him," says Esposito. "Oh my." Pouzar skates in alone and scores the game's final goal. The Ranger fans cheer.
Artistry sells. Even on Broadway.
Without much doubt, Gretzky's most shocking feat last season was his 92 goals. Even though he had scored 51 and 55 goals, respectively, in his first two years in the NHL, Gretzky was known primarily as a playmaker. He liked to set up behind the net and pass to teammates as they broke toward the goal, a tactic that opposing teams began to go to great lengths to prevent. "It got to the point where defensemen would go behind the net and wait for me," says Gretzky. "So last season I started moving out to the slot more, and in the first 20 games I started shooting all the time."
And with uncanny accuracy. While Esposito needed 550 shots to score 76 goals, Gretzky got his 76th on his 287th shot. He scored his 92 goals on just 369 shots for an accuracy percentage of 24.9%. Broken down, 22 of Gretzky's goals were scored in the first period, 30 in the second and 40 in the third—a testament to his remarkable stamina. In the playoffs the Oilers, who had finished second in the overall standings (48-17-15), were upset by the 17th-place Los Angeles Kings (24-41-15) in five games. Edmonton lost one game 10-8 and another 6-5 after leading 5-0. The defense caved in. Gretzky had five goals and seven assists in the series, or 2.4 points per game, only slightly below his regular-season average of 2.65. The next morning he flew to the World Championships in Helsinki, where he was the leading scorer with 14 points in 10 games.
"People said I was tired at the end of the year, and they thought that was one reason we lost to the Kings," says Gretzky, who last season averaged a whopping 38 minutes of ice time a game, killing penalties and working the power play in addition to his regular shifts, which frequently run three minutes apiece, compared with perhaps a minute for mere mortals. "But in that last game of the year, maybe the 100th I'd played that season, I had three goals and two assists against Sweden. How could I have been tired?"
Two nights after the Ranger game, on Nov. 16, Ken Dryden is in the stands at the Nassau Coliseum to see the Oilers play the New York Islanders. Dryden was the premier goaltender of the '70s. During his eight seasons with Montreal, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup six times. His 2.24 career goals-against average is the lowest in the league since 1941. He retired in 1979, four months before Gretzky broke into the NHL. Dryden, 35, a non-practicing lawyer, now lives in Toronto and is completing a book on hockey. This will be the third time he has watched Gretzky play in person.
"The thing about Gretzky," says Dryden, "is that unlike most other great goal scorers, he's a real sniper—Bossy's another one—much like the Europeans. He doesn't miss much. The other great ones—Hull, Esposito, Richard, Howe—were volume shooters. They were quite stoppable, but they created so many scoring chances that they ended up with a lot of goals.
"The other thing I've noticed is that Gretzky has discovered the top of the net. An awful lot of his goals are top corner goals. Traditionally players were told to shoot low because of rebounds and because hands move better than feet. That's true, except hands have farther to move. When I played I was operating on a 3-foot-high net."
The goal cage, then as now, is 4 feet high. If Dryden played a 3-foot-high net, he essentially conceded the top corners—because few shooters ever aimed there. He believes the predilection for the low shot may well have stemmed from the mid-'60s, when Stan Mikita and Hull were pioneering the curved stick and 100-mph slapshot. "A lot of goalies then didn't wear masks, or the masks were very primitive," says Dryden. "So day after day in practice there were tantrums and things like that by goalies if someone shot high. Their outrage was quite legitimate. Injuries from high shots back then would have been very, very serious. So with their coaches and goalies all yelling at them, players didn't practice shooting high. Slowly goalies' crouches got lower and lower as they tried to cover the bottom corners. That left the top corners more and more exposed." Which Gretzky has exploited.
The game begins, and seven minutes into the first period Gretzky sets up Kurri for a power-play goal that ties the score 1-1. "Everything developed so quickly," says Dryden, impressed with Gretzky's pass. "The puck didn't stay on his stick. Once you beat someone, if you move the puck quickly you don't allow him back in the play. He stays beaten."
Later, Gretzky tries the opposite tactic, skating down the wing and waiting, waiting, waiting for someone to break free. "He has an enormous sense of patience," says Dryden. "Everybody has a moment of panic, but Gretzky's comes so much later than other players'. When he comes down the ice, there's a point when the defenseman thinks: He's going to commit himself one way or the other now. When that moment passes and Gretzky still hasn't committed, the whole rhythm of the game is upset. The defenseman is unprepared for what might come next. It's not an anticlimax. It's beyond the climax. And suddenly a player becomes open who wasn't open a moment before."
Dryden is enjoying the game. It's fast and crisp, with good action at both ends. "I remember when I played against Esposito and the puck went out of the corner, I always assumed it was going onto Espo's stick, and that it would then be coming my way," he says. "With Gretzky, a goalie just has to assume that when Wayne passes the puck out from behind the net, it's going onto a stick and there will then be a shot. You can't commit yourself to Gretzky the way you could to other great goal scorers because when you can move the puck as well as he can, well, there's no reason to shoot very often. Which, of course, works to his advantage."
By the third period the Islanders lead 4-2. Butch Goring, who has been covering Gretzky, has done a good job. By bumping Gretzky off stride, tugging at his arm discreetly, Goring has thrown him off his game. Several times Islander checkers have sent Gretzky sprawling. "I don't think he's going to get hurt often," says Dryden. "He's never really committed to any one direction, which makes him a hard person to injure. His body is always moving in a number of ways. In Orr, you sensed more power, more commitment. Gretzky will just sort of collapse in the direction you hit him."
There's a faint smile on Dryden's face. "He's a much better skater than I thought he was," he says. "He's just not a pretty skater. I never realized he was so quick." Gretzky is chasing one of the Islander defenders, who's trying to move the puck. "He's always pressing, but when you think of someone who's relentless, there's usually something very heavy-handed about it. Gretzky's almost spritelike." The puck is now along the boards, and Gretzky is circling in center ice, away from the play. "There's almost a will-of-the-wisp quality to the way he skates. He's very light. There's such a sense of freedom about him. There don't seem to be any constraints."
A light snow is falling in Edmonton on the night of Dec. 1. Gretzky has had one or more goals or assists every game this season, and tonight his two assists will pull him within one game of the consecutive-game scoring record of 28 held by Montreal's Guy Lafleur. Four nights later he will break Lafleur's mark. The streak will finally end at 30 against Los Angeles on Dec. 9.
Gretzky has picked up this season where he left off in 1981-82: He's running away with the league scoring championship. As of Dec. 18, he was averaging 2.51 points a game and was tied for second in the NHL in goals with 26. He had more goals (34) at the same point last year but fewer assists (48 to 57). Gretzky says teams have taken the front of the net away from him again, so he has moved back behind it, from where he's content to pass to teammates. "A lot of my game depends on how the other team is playing me," he says.
Tonight the Oilers' opponents are the Flyers, who this season have changed their style from a bullying team to a skating one. The game will start at 7:35, and three minutes before it begins, as one of the national anthems is being sung, Bobby Hull arrives. He's out of breath from climbing the arena stairs, but he's grinning, his broad, scarred face bursting with energy. He's also sweating. "I thought we were going to be a minute late, and Wayne would have a couple of goals already," he says, beaming. A friend, Bill Urzada, has met Hull, who lives in Demorestville, Ont., at the Edmonton airport and driven him to the Coliseum. Both raise registered polled Herefords.
Hull, the first man to score more than 50 goals in a season, may be the player most responsible for hockey as we know it today. As great as Howe was, as great as Orr, Esposito and Beliveau were, they didn't have Hull's charisma. His style of play exactly matched his personality—open, dramatic, uncompromising and utterly joyful. People paid to see him play, and they departed feeling they had shared something pretty good. "A lot of times those Chicago fans left the rink as tired as we were," recalls Hull. "When it's a great game, you can't believe it when it's over, and you can't wait for the next game to start.
"I liked to entertain. I loved playing the way I thought the game should be played. I knew people wanted to see me take that biscuit and go with it." Hull is grinning as he says this, eyes glinting. His voice is raspy and full of laughter. "Wayne's got that same attitude. He thinks of himself as an entertainer, and the more he entertains, the more packed houses he'll draw, the more franchises will be kept alive, the more players will have work, and the more money everyone will make. It's no strain on him to give as much as he does to the game, off the ice and on. Any strain is overcome by the joy of doing well. Look at him. He doesn't want to come off the ice. That's another thing that sets him apart. He comes to play every game. He likes to perform."
Gretzky is killing a penalty early in the game and steals the puck from the Flyers' captain, Bill Barber. Gretzky skates in by himself on a breakaway and takes his stick back, pausing at the top of his swing, upsetting the natural rhythm of the play. When he finally slaps the shot, it ricochets off the post and wide of the net. Hull winces. "I never liked to go in alone," he says. "Too much time to think about it." Then he turns, surprised. "You find yourself pulling for him, don't you?"
Gretzky is behind the net on an Edmonton power play as two players scrap for the puck along the boards. "He's not chasing the puck, not out in traffic where a guy can hit him," says Hull. "His line-mates know where he is, and they can just blindly throw the puck behind the net. When the puck hits his stick it stays there. A lot of these guys have skinny little blades that the puck is always bouncing over, but Gretzky's got a big stick and a big blade, too."
Gretzky, as Hull did, tapes his blade all the way from toe to heel and then rubs baby powder into the tape to reduce its tackiness. Without the powder the puck feels sluggish on the stick. "I've noticed that when the puck comes off the boards, it's usually spinning very quickly," says Gretzky. "My first year in the league I didn't use any tape, and the puck kept sliding off the end of my stick. The cushion the tape provides helps stop the spin."
In the second period, Gretzky sets up Kurri for a shorthanded goal, and later he assists Pat Hughes on a power-play goal. Hull is laughing. "See what he did?" he says. "He gave it to Hughes before he ever saw Hughes. He knows where everyone is at all times. I could kick in 25 goals a year if I played with Gretzky.
"Hockey needed a shot in the arm when he came along. It needed a champion. People are again relating to hockey as a game of skill, because that's the way Wayne plays. We were getting away from that. Scouts had been forgetting about the goals-assists-points column and, because of the success of the Flyers, going right to the columns that told about total penalty minutes and size. 'Ah-ha! This guy's an intimidator.' So he's drafted. But now they're looking for goals and assists again."
Gretzky is knocked down for the umpteenth time but gets to his feet and, relentlessly, begins chasing the puck carrier again, trying to score the tying goal. Hull, still brawny and powerful at 43, is shaking his head, not quite able to accept this flaw in Gretzky's style, this penchant for getting knocked on his can. "I just never wanted to fall," says Hull. "I thought it was a sin to get knocked down."
Suddenly Gretzky slaps the puck out of the air and is stickhandling along the boards, looking for an opening. Edmonton, behind 3-2 in the final minute, has pulled its goalie for a sixth attacker. Gretzky is trying to make a play that will never unfold. "Just look at him," Hull says, grinning in admiration. "The puck is glued to him. On the two teams, taking nothing away from the rest of the guys, who in the hell else out there do you want to look at but Gretzky?"
No one else. He's sharing something with us that's pretty good.