Looking To a Great Recovery

Wayne Gretzky mulled over retirement after he started slowly and his dad fell gravely ill, but now things are getting better for both father and son
December 16, 1991

Wayne Gretzky was not depressed. No. For instance, last month he only thought about quitting hockey twice a day—a.m. and p.m.

"This is the end," he told his wife after another in an assembly line of odorous performances. "This is the end of the end. I never, ever dreamed I could play this bad."

At first his wife, actress Janet Jones, thought he was kidding. So did his coaches. So did former teammate Mark Messier. But Gretzky was serious. "I hate mediocrity," he told Los Angeles Kings assistant coach Cap Raeder. "If there's one thing I can't accept, it's mediocrity."

Actually, "mediocrity" was overdoing it a bit. The way Gretzky was playing, mediocrity was still two floors up. Gretzky was just slightly above horrid and just below rotten. Here it was the 10th game of the season, and he had no goals. Wayne's World without goals? No way! In Canada people checked their calendars to be sure it was hockey season. The Great One had become the Great None. In one 0-4-2 stretch for the Kings in November, Gretzky contributed three whole points. The greatest player in hockey history suddenly couldn't dump a puck into a swimming pool. "I'm the weak link on this team," he told reporters.

Maybe even worse, he had taken the Kings' expensive new foreign import, winger Jari Kurri, and blown his engine. Gretzky's former right wing from the glory days with the Edmonton Oilers had returned from Italy at Gretzky's sincere urging and Kings owner Bruce McNall's sincere $850,000 a year. Talk about steep. To get Kurri, in the off-season the Kings traded their power-play point man, Steve Duchesne, and their best checking center, Steve Kasper. Kurri, who averaged 47 goals a year while playing on Gretzky's line in Edmonton, had a hat trick in the season opener and then scored only two goals in the next nine games. This is the greatest scoring combination of all time? "Maybe we should look at some old tapes," joked Kurri.

All in all, hockey for Gretzky seemed to be one long headache, starting with the day last season when he used his face to stop Duchesne's shot in Game 3 of the Kings' Smythe Division finals loss to Edmonton. Gretzky got 36 stitches and a permanent crease in his left ear by which to remember what he calls "my first blocked shot."

Then, about the time he could hear without having to stand sideways, it was time to play in last summer's Canada Cup. In Game 1 of the best-of-three finals in Montreal on Sept. 14, Gretzky took a dubious shot in his legendarily tender back from Team USA's Gary Suter, who made a run for the border while Gretzky, the eventual tournament MVP, went home crumpled over like Felix Unger.

Then, about the time Gretzky could pick up the morning paper without wincing, it was time to play the NHL exhibition season. He rushed his poor lumbar into action to help his boss fill the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for an exhibition game against the New York Rangers. When your boss is also your business partner in such hobbies as million-dollar racehorses, a Canadian Football League team, priceless baseball cards and precious coins—most of which you know precious little about—you like to keep him happy. But in Vegas, Gretzky got a shove from the Rangers' Mark Hardy in just the wrong part of his back, and it crapped out.

And so it was that Gretzky's back started the regular season in about the same shape that JFK's left the war. By the fourth game the back was less painful, but his game was still hurting. Gretzky was starting to get worried. So he called—who else?—his dad, Walter, affectionately known to him and others as Wally.

"Wally, did you ever think I could play this bad?" he asked glumly from his car phone on the way to practice in L.A.

"Hey, you've had a couple bad games," Wally told him. "But you've had 13 pretty good years, too, don't forget." Wayne allowed himself a small grin at that. The 13 years hadn't been bad, had they? Four Stanley Cups, three Canada Cups, nine Hart Trophies as NHL Most Valuable Player, nine NHL scoring titles, the all-time points and assists records, more money than Croesus. Decent.

Four days later, on Oct. 16, after his fifth straight game without a goal, Gretzky was taking his pregame midday rest at his new Mulholland Estates house when Janet came sprinting into the bedroom with an oh-no look in her eye. "Your sister's on the phone," she said.

The old Wally Gretzky was a funny little man with a size-XL nose and wiry hair that kind of did a Dennis the Menace in the back. He smoked like a '56 Chevy, a habit he stopped only to sip tea, which he drank by the tankard. He would rarely fall asleep before 2 a.m., partly because he was always talking on the phone and partly because when he stopped talking on the phone, the silence took over and he had to listen to the infernal ringing in his ear that had given him a nice little headache for going on 30 years, ever since he had an accident on his job while repairing underground telephone cable.

Wally didn't have to work. Wayne tried to get him to retire once, but Wally refused. "If I quit," he told Wayne, "how can I tell my kids never to quit?" Wally could live in any mansion he wanted (Wayne once tried to buy him a huge new house), but he stayed in a tiny two-story place on an Archie Bunker kind of block in Brantford, Ont. He could drive any car he liked (Wayne once bought him a brand-new black Cadillac), but he drove an old Chevy station wagon with 180,000 miles on it. He left the Cadillac to others. The Wally policy was never to turn a car in until it had at least 200,000 miles.

In May, Wally, at the age of 53, finally made retirement from Bell Telephone. He had worked his full tour and got his full pension. So here was paradise. And what did Wally do in his retirement? He worked anyway. He began fixing up his late mother's old farmhouse, which Wayne had bought and Wayne's sister, Kim, lives in now, in Cannington, 100 miles from Brantford. It was there, as Wally was repairing a fruit cellar, that the aneurysm in his brain, the one that had been building for years, finally popped.

Wayne chartered a plane, packed Janet, their two kids and his brother Keith in it and flew to Hamilton, Ont., where his father lay at Hamilton General Hospital. Gretzky's father was in intensive care with tubes coming from his head, arms and nose. The doctor warned Gretzky, "He may not make it through the night." But for some reason, Wayne never worried about that: "He still seemed strong to me."

Of course, Wally had always seemed strong to his son. There are fathers and sons who are close, and then there are Wayne and Wally Gretzky, who would talk almost daily about almost anything. Janet could tell you. She learned to stop asking whom Wayne was talking to on the phone. Instead she would say, "How much longer will you be talking to your dad?" Gretzky had always called his dad "my best friend," but now he wasn't entirely sure what his best friend would be like when he woke up.

A delicate operation performed by neurosurgeon Rocco de Villiers three days after Wally's collapse got Wally over the life-or-death part. "He saved my dad's life," says Gretzky. In Canada, Wally Gretzky is sort of the unofficial acting father of hockey, and for De Villiers, saving his life was a kind of healing for the doctor himself. Two months earlier, De Villier's 19-year-old daughter had been kidnapped, raped and murdered in Burlington, Ont., by a man who, the police allege, then killed another woman and committed suicide. "People around the hospital say my dad's situation has given the doctor a boost in the arm," says Gretzky. "It's kind of like God's way of rekindling a fire in this guy."

After missing five games, Wayne rejoined the Kings on Oct. 28. He played a little better, but his production was still way down, and as the Kings pulled into the Bay Area for a game against the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 19, Gretzky had been held pointless in four of his last six games. During that span he scored just one goal.

"Everywhere I went, it became, 'When is Gretzky going to get a goal?' " he said last Thursday. "Here you are, your dad is fighting for his life, and people are coming up to you and asking, 'Are you ever going to score?' And you think to yourself, My goodness."

Gretzky's getting shut out was no longer a UPI flash. It barely made the game notes. He was 30, looking down a long, dark tunnel and seeing only a gold watch. He thought long and hard about taking it and getting on with the next life, driving his kids to dancing lessons, trying to break 80 and being introduced at championship fights. "The whole thing just hit me," he says. "It went from bad to worse, to the point where I had serious conversations with my wife about my career. I hate playing bad. That's my biggest pet peeve.... The last thing I wanted in my career was to not earn my money. And I realized, 'I'm being overpaid out here.' "

The one guy he would have liked to hash it out with, he couldn't. Wally was awake and talking, but he was not quite the same. Once Wayne might have said, "Hey, Wally, we're going to Chicago tomorrow," and Wally might have answered, "Gonna be tough there, very tough game." Now the answer was just, "Oh, that's good."

Wally could remember the past but not the present. He could remember the great games, but not what he had had for breakfast. If, say, Keith visited him in the morning, Wally had no recollection of it an hour later. "It's not really him," says Wayne. "I'd always considered him a very smart man, but now, his common sense isn't there. He's not a very smart man right now.... Here was a man I'd talked with just about every day of my life, and now I don't have that." Gretzky felt a new emptiness.

But what Wayne Gretzky found out is that he had other best friends. "Janet told me, 'You love to play hockey. How can you not play?' And I realized that was the bottom line: I did love it." Then there was Messier, Gretzky's former Oiler teammate who at the time was a new New York Ranger. "He told me, 'The thing that's made you one of the best players over the years has been your mental edge,' " says Gretzky. " 'You've just lost it now. You'll get it back. You've got to regroup.' " And finally, there was help from an unlikely source—Raeder, the affable, cupid-faced Kings assistant. "Relax," Raeder told him on Nov. 23. "You don't have to take the whole world on your shoulder. Have fun. Love the game."

One thing about life: You never know who or what is going to rekindle a spark in a man. For some reason this did it, this tip from a former goalie who had never played a single game in the NHL.

"Cap," said Gretzky, as he left the room, "it starts tonight."

And it did. From that night, against San Jose, through last weekend, Gretzky went ballistic—six goals and 15 assists in nine games, including a hat trick. He had points in all nine games and moved from nowhere in the NHL scoring race to sixth and closing fast. To scoring leader Kevin Stevens of Pittsburgh, it must have been like looking in your rear-view mirror and seeing a 747.

The worm had turned. Suddenly, Gretzky was Midas. The CFL's Toronto Argonauts, the team he owns along with McNall and comedian John Candy, won the Grey Cup. This came a day after Gretzky learned that Golden Pheasant, one of his 16 thoroughbreds, had won the $2.77 million Japan Cup. And there was talk that the Honus Wagner baseball card he and McNall paid $410,000 for last March would someday be worth more than $1 million. The way things were going, Gretzky could have put a quarter in a pay phone and expected 20 to 1.

Unfortunately, the Kings' number still hasn't come up. The team was last seen somewhere below .500, having lost five in a row and having gone 3-6-1 in its last 10 games. In one horrid two-game stretch last week—in which Gretzky had a hand in every Kings goal—the Los Angeles defense gave up 100 shots on goal, 49 to the formerly toothless Sharks and 51 to the grateful Chicago Blackhawks. "It's Murphy's Law around here right now," said Raeder in Chicago.

Part of the Kings' slow start is short health, and part is short tempers. Gretzky, Kurri, goalie Daniel Berthiaume and defensemen Rob Blake, Marty McSorley, Charlie Huddy, Larry Robinson and Jeff Chychrun have all missed serious swatches of games with injuries, though none of them has missed more than their coach, Tom Webster. His 12-game suspension for chucking a stick at referee Kerry Fraser on Nov. 16 meant that including time off for punching a player (last April he took a swipe from the bench at Calgary's Doug Gilmour) and the days he was absent because of an car infection, he will have missed, by the end of the month, 31 regular-season games in the past two seasons. Add it all up, and he has been around for only three quarters of the Kings' games. He's the Johnny Carson of NHL coaches.

"Good teams are built on adversity," says Gretzky. "We'll see how this team pulls out of this."

Speaking of responding, Wally, thanks to De Villiers, is doing some of that already. Though De Villiers figures it will take six months to a year before the Gretzky family knows whether or not Wally will ever be the same, Wayne got a hint on Nov. 26 after a game in Toronto. He had julienned the Leafs for a goal and three assists in a 5-2 win, then gone directly to his dad's bedside.

"How you doing, Wally? Did you see the game?" Wayne asked.

His dad's face hardly twitched. Then he said, "If you were playing better, you would have had a goal and four assists tonight."

It looks like Wally will be all right.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONGretzky (center, opposite) got in gear around the time he took in the Grey Cup (above). PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.] PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOWayne has always considered Wally to be his best friend. PHOTOROBERT BECKNo longer the Great None, Gretzky is again among the scoring leaders.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)