The prime of Wayne Gretzky is close upon us. The man is maturing, and the player is at or near his peak. But even as Gretzky reaffirms himself this season as the best scorer in hockey history, his stats have begun to lose their ability to amaze—so many of the records he breaks are his own, anyway—leaving us to focus less on the unprecedented heights he has reached than on the artistry of his attainment, the changes in his life and his game, and the unflagging joy that sustains him.
But first the numbers. With the season slightly more than half over, Gretzky has already made a shambles of the NHL scoring race. At the All-Star break, he led the league in goals, with 54, and assists, with 99—two goals and 49 points more than his Edmonton Oiler linemate Jari Kurri, who was in second place in both categories—en route to what will be his fifth consecutive scoring title. At his current pace of 2.73 points a game, Gretzky will finish the season with a record 218 points, breaking his own NHL record of 212 set in 1981-82. Barring injury or slump, he’s a lock to win a record sixth consecutive Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.
Gretzky’s scoring pace has been so fast that this season he became the youngest player—he was 24 on Jan. 26—to reach two significant career milestones. On Dec. 19 he became only the 18th player in NHL history to reach the 1,000-point plateau (Bryan Trottier of the Islanders became the 19th on Jan. 29), accomplishing in 5½ seasons what took the other 18 an average of 16 seasons. The second fastest among them, Guy Lafleur, required nine seasons. And on Jan. 13 Gretzky scored his 400th NHL goal, reaching that level 70 games earlier than Mike Bossy, who previously had been the fastest man to 400. At his league-record career average of .915 goals a game, Gretzky will finish this season in 16th place on the all time scoring list and will surpass his boyhood hero, Gordie Howe (801), as the NHL’s leading career goal scorer late in the 1989-90 season, accomplishing in 11 years what Howe took 26 to do.
But while Gretzky rockets past milestones as though they were slats in a picket fence, there are other, more subtle, changes in his game and his life. The Kid is growing up.
“Birthdays,” says Glen Sather, Edmonton’s coach and general manager. “That’s the biggest change in this whole team. Wayne is maturing. I don’t know if he’s at his peak, but he’s as good as he ever was.”
“I think he’s going to have one big, big year,” says assistant coach John Muckler, “maybe when he’s around 27 or 28.”
A 300-point year?
“Sounds impossible in an 80-game season, but if anybody can do it, that kid can,” says Muckler.
“Physically, I may be at my peak now,” says Gretzky, “but, with what I’m learning, I think it might be sometime in the next couple or three years that I’ll be playing my best.”
One thing he has learned is to cut down on taking theatrical dives and yapping at officials, for years major offenses on the Gretzky rap sheet. With the score 3–3 in the third period of a Jan. 16 game against the New York Islanders, Gretzky broke down the right wing on a good scoring chance, only to be hooked down by Islander defenseman Denis Potvin. There was no call. The crowd screamed for a penalty, and Gretzky, who in past years would have turned this one into a case of vintage whine—exaggerating his fall, lying on the ice a few extra seconds, imploring the referee for justice—instead bounced up, said nothing and got back into the play. This pattern has been repeated all season.
“He didn’t enjoy having the reputation of a guy who whines, so he’s taking his shots and playing tougher,” says Dave Semenko, once Gretzky’s left wing/bodyguard, and now a player who’s rarely on the ice with the Great One.
Los Angeles Kings coach Pat Quinn says, “He still draws close coverage, but he’s learned to deal with it on a different emotional level.”
Exactly. “The big thing with me is that I play emotionally,” says Gretzky. “I used to let the emotion run away with me. If I got fouled, I’d blame the ref or the other player. Now my attitude is, if the ref calls it, fine; if not, I’m not going to change his mind.”
One prevailing misconception about Gretzky and the Oilers is that he and they can’t, or won’t, play defense. He can, and they will. While Gretzky isn’t one to make diving blocks of shots, he back-checks better than the critics say. With 28 seconds to play in the second period of that Islander game, with Edmonton leading 3–2, New York’s Greg Gilbert broke away on the left wing. Gretzky, coming all the way from the opposite wing, caught Gilbert at the top of the face-off circle and swiped the puck before he could shoot.
“This season we’ll come into the dressing room leading 5–0 after two periods, and Wayne will say, ‘Never mind winning 10–5, let’s go for the shutout,’” says Oiler defenseman Kevin Lowe.
But the Oilers can still chalk it up and run the table when they have to. In an 8–7 win over Los Angeles on Jan. 21, Edmonton produced six unanswered goals—Gretzky scored one and set up the game winner—in 18:40 to overcome a 7–2 deficit.
As always, Gretzky’s artistry is in his offense. A four-game stretch in January offered a sampler of his virtuosity. In the game with the Islanders, Gretzky the Sniper scored on a slap shot, short side, from the top of the left circle. Two nights later, in a 4–4 tie at Vancouver, Gretzky the Opportunist saw a puck bounce out of goalie Richard Brodeur’s glove and bunted it into the net while it was three feet off the ice. The next night against the Canucks in Edmonton, Gretzky the Magician banked one in from behind the net off Brodeur’s left skate in a 7–5 win. And two nights later against L.A., Gretzky the Technician moved through heavy traffic to the right of the Kings’ goal and, maneuvering rookie defenseman Craig Redmond as a screen, scored on a shot off the left post.
To watch Gretzky is a pleasure, but to skate with him is a privilege and a revelation for a guy like me, who still plays pickup hockey on a regular basis. The ice in Northlands Coliseum is still smooth with the morning resurfacing when Sather starts the first of the warmup line rushes in an Oiler practice session. I don’t take the first run with Gretzky; instead I go with Mark Messier and Gord Sherven, and I’m already well behind the play at the red line, where the dominant sensation is hearing Messier’s skates ripping the ice ... scrunch ... scrunch ... scrunch under the pressure of his tremendous leg drive. A few minutes later, as I skate with Gretzky and Sather, it’s different. The speed is the same—almost incomprehensible to this average skater—but Gretzky seems to be moving lightly, his skates barely cutting the ice with a snick ... snick ... snick. The pass from Gretzky to me is perfect, soft and on the stick blade, and my only thought is to get it back to him before he’s out of range. But my return pass is terrible, in his skates on his backhand side. In virtually one motion he flicks the puck off his right skate onto his stick and snaps a shot between the goalie’s legs. On the rush back, Kurri leaves a drop pass for me in the slot, but it seems somehow presumptuous to shoot, so I pass quickly to Gretzky. He passes it back immediately. I give it to him again at the crease—he has to shoot now—and begin gliding around the net. Incredibly, Gretzky centers the puck from behind the goal line past the goalie and across the crease to me for an easy tap-in. He smiles and yells as the puck clanks against the back of the cage. The look on his face is the same one I’ve seen on children in backyard rinks. “He still loves the game,” says Sather, “and he shows up every day.”
There are many manifestations of Gretzky’s love of the game. Gretzky says, on the last page of Gretzky, the book his father, Walter, wrote with Jim Taylor, “...maybe it’s just as well that I live in a penthouse. If I lived at street level in Edmonton, the winter would come and I’d look out the window at the kids playing road hockey, and before you know it I’d be out there with them and there would go my game that night.”
The view from Gretzky’s duplex penthouse on Super Bowl Sunday is of the frozen North Saskatchewan River and the west side of Edmonton. Inside, on the 18th-floor level, Gretzky is sprawled on the couch in front of his oversized TV screen, watching the game in the company of teammates Sherven (since traded to Minnesota) and Marc Habscheid, two bachelors called up from Edmonton’s Halifax farm club only weeks before, and Jim and Joey Moss, brothers of Gretzky’s girl friend, Vickie Moss.
“Oh, what an offense,” says Gretzky as Dan Marino leads Miami to a shortlived 10–7 lead. Gretzky may have a newfound respect for defense, but he has a deep-rooted faith in offense.
Vickie enters the room. She and Gretzky have been together for six years, and they are obviously comfortable with each other. Easy. Settled.
“Who are you rooting for, Wayne Gretzky?” she asks.
“Miami. Who are you for, Moss?”
“Ah ... the team that has Joe Marino.”
Everyone laughs. Gretzky is beside himself. “Oh, Moss, you sportaholic,” he says, throwing his head back on the couch.
“We’ve talked about marriage, but not a whole lot,” says Gretzky later. “Right now we’d like to get Vickie settled in her career.”
Moss is a pop singer who expects to record a demo soon for Canadian-born producer David Foster, who works with Kenny Rogers and Chicago. He’s a hockey fan whom she met when Gretzky took him to hear her sing.
After dinner she plays a tape of a song she recently recorded. The vocal is full and clear: “Baby, you can save my life....”
Throughout the Super Bowl, Gretzky has been taking phone calls, some concerning his planned purchase of a Junior A team, probably the Hull (Que.) Olympiques. “You’ve got to have some fun with your money,” he says, though he adds, “I’m usually a low-risk guy. I’m happy to turn $100,000 into $150,000 instead of trying to turn it into $4 million.”
Gretzky estimates he has seven to 10 more years in the NHL, and he rules out the possibility of staying in the game as a coach or G.M. “What I do is instinctive,” he says. “I feel my way down the ice. I see where I want to go, and I go there. How could I coach that?” But he can see himself as an owner.
In the meantime, he’s perhaps doubling his $1 million-a-year playing income—his contract with Oiler owner Peter Pocklington extends through 1999—with endorsements and the commercials he does for Travelers Insurance, Canon cameras, Titan hockey sticks, Nike sportswear, William Neilson Ltd., a chocolate company, Mattel toys and his own General Mills cereal, Pro Stars. It’s no wonder he has all those sources of outside income, because he’s undoubtedly the most recognizable and well-liked hockey player in history. A study of public recognition and popularity in the U.S. of 110 sports personalities was made last April by Marketing Evaluations/TvQ. In it, Gretzky ranked only slightly below the average for all athletes in familiarity, 37% vs. 44%, which is astonishing considering that hockey is popular mainly in the Northern states. And he’s well above the average in Q rating (a measure of how well he is liked by those familiar with him), with a score of 23, compared with the average of 14.
But what’s not to like?
Besides making corporate pitches, Gretzky is a spokesman for several charities, including the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded, for which he and Joey Moss have just completed a national television spot. Joey, 22, a victim of Down’s syndrome, works as the Oilers’ clubhouse boy, a job Gretzky helped him get, but which he keeps on his own.
“Wayne really loves Joey,” says Habscheid. “If anyone ever did anything to Joey, Wayne would go crazy.” The relationship lends credence to Gretzky’s assertion that he looks forward to someday “getting married and having kids.”
He also looks forward, according to Lowe, “not just to breaking more records but to someday taking his place with the almighties, the immortals—the Howes, the Béliveaus, the guys who led their teams to repeat Stanley Cups.”
The Great Gretzky is very much with us, but the Kid is a kid no longer.