Los Angeles was losing its star power, losing the kind of civic franchise players that makes life worth getting on the freeway for. Magic Johnson left the Lakers, and the city's premier glamour team was taken from show business and restored to the NBA. Then it was feared that Wayne Gretzky had departed from the Kings forever, suddenly reminding everybody in L.A. that hockey was actually a Canadian pastime, a kind of roller derby on ice that, on its own, guaranteed no celebrity sighting grander than Alan Thicke.
Well, the Kings have been saved, sort of. Whereas Magic hoped to come back and couldn't, Gretzky could and did. On Wednesday of last week, skating in his first game of the season after a preseason back injury had threatened the remainder of his career, Gretzky deftly dished out two assists against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Two nights later, in Winnipeg against the Jets, a man who couldn't even lift his children last fall because of the pain in his spine scored two goals. "Who else in the world could come back and do that?" said King coach Barry Melrose.
The Kings, however, won neither of those games, which made them winless in 10 straight. (The streak ended on Sunday night, when Los Angeles beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 as Gretzky had two more assists.) This is a team that started the season fast, skating to a 19-7-2 record, but has struggled since. Now, the Kings have lost to expansion teams with and without the Great One, and as four previous seasons demonstrated, not even the most elegant skater in NHL history can nudge this team over the hump. But the Kings don't need to win to light up the sport. It's enough that Gretzky, even at 31 and with 14 pro seasons—all of them his best—behind him, is back on the ice. "A guy like that," says teammate Tony Granato, "should go out on his own terms."
That serves history. It also serves hockey: For Friday night's game in Winnipeg, where the temperature was —28°, Gretzky drew a crowd of 14,000 people who apparently had access to extraordinarily reliable car batteries. That's 1,000 more fans than the Kings had drawn on visits here without him in balmier times earlier this season. And an upright Gretzky certainly serves Los Angeles. Last Wednesday, for his return to the Forum, a sellout crowd assembled to adore him. Just to see that familiar number 99, just to see him glide on the ice again, nonchalantly resting one skate atop the other the way he does, was reassuring. To see him circling the net during the game, handling the puck in a manner that mystifies even his coach, serving it up for easy goals, justified all the attention. WAYNE'S BACK! read a hand-lettered sign, articulating a city's excitement, and its relief.
About Wayne's back: The actual ailment is a herniated thoracic disk that radiates pain to his chest. The injury is most likely the result of his getting hit from behind for 14 seasons, a violence that has seemed to escalate against Gretzky in recent years. And though he had complained of rib pain after last season's playoffs, the cause went undiagnosed. Not until preseason camp, to which he reported in peak condition, did Gretzky experience the excruciating chest pain. Actually, he had no pain through three days of skating. Then he returned home to be with his wife, Janet Jones, as the birth of their third child neared. At home, in the middle of the night, the pain struck, forcing him to the hospital for a week. It was an alarming event all around. "We visited him in the hospital," recalls Granato, "and everyone became as scared as he was."
Doctors knew of no other athlete who had recovered from a herniated thoracic disk to play again. "We have no timetable for this program and will not speculate on a date for his return," said Dr. Robert Watkins, an orthopedic consultant.
Gretzky's gloom was kept fairly secret until Nov. 7, when the TV program Hockey Night in Canada broadcast an interview with him. Gretzky looked drained and sounded depressed. It was pretty clear to anyone who saw him: This guy wasn't coming back.
"You have to understand," Gretzky says now, trying to explain the depth of his despair, "this has been my life since I was six." Suddenly it appeared that that life was over. The pain persisted through mid-November, and Gretzky could not imagine returning to play as long as he endured it. But a week or so after that television interview, medical treatment began to reduce the swelling of the disk, and the pain subsided. "The day the pain stopped," Gretzky says, "is the day I became determined to come back."
The determination was double any he had ever shown. He was not frightened by doctors' warnings that further injury could prove crippling. What scared him was the thought of never playing again. "I was scared by how much I missed it," he says. "I was scared by how much I wanted to play."
Gretzky, the league's all-time points leader, had long since entered a realm of his own. Yet the most paralyzing potential of his back injury was "that I wouldn't be one of the guys."
By Dec. 7 he was back on the ice. Assistant coach Cap Raeder set up skating drills to supplement Gretzky's back rehabilitation exercises. "He ate it up," Raeder says. Gretzky was on the ice before his teammates practiced, sometimes skated while they practiced and was still on the ice when they finished. "He came determined every day, with a purpose every day," says Raeder. "It was like he was desperate, like he found out how much he missed it."
By Dec. 26, Gretzky was practicing with the Kings. He was pain-free, and aerobic tests showed him to be even fitter than he had been for preseason camp. His doctors, who had originally forecast a return to action in March, agreed to a mid-January debut. There was no reason to keep him out any longer.
By the time Gretzky made his first appearance, he had no apprehension about his back. His only concern, it seems, was about looking like an oaf. He had worried aloud that he would somehow mess up, make a fool of himself. He did not. During that first game Melrose watched Gretzky skate behind the net, fetch the puck and blindly feed it to a teammate. Afterward Melrose said, "He doesn't see that guy. I know he doesn't see him, yet he knows that guy is there. You know how they said Ted Williams could see the stitching on the ball? That's how Wayne sees the ice."
This brilliance was reassuring to a city and to a sport. Star-starved Los Angeles—and all of hockey—basked in Gretzky's light, for at least a little while longer.