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Hockey

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'His hands are still there'

Gretzky still has it, Senators say before Thursday's game

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Posted: Thursday April 15, 1999 08:58 PM

  Great Gretzky: The buzz over Gretzky's possible retirement made the Senators the hottest ticket in Ottawa. AP

KANATA, Ontario (AP) -- Hours before what may have been Wayne Gretzky's final NHL game in his native Canada, Ottawa Senators goaltender Ron Tugnutt looked forward to perhaps being part of history.

"I'm hoping for a bench-clearing brawl during the warmup so I can go out and grab his stick," Tugnutt joked Thursday.

The veteran goalie is among those who don't believe the 38-year-old Gretzky will retire after the New York Rangers' final regular-season game on Sunday, but the commotion at the Corel Centre could not be avoided.

The Rangers opted not to have a game-day skate, keeping Gretzky well clear of the media mob that has begun to track his every move. Instead, the reporters invaded the usually tranquil Senators' dressing room.

There, they found consensus on one issue -- if Gretzky opts to retire after 20 record-setting seasons, it won't be because he no longer contributes on the ice.

Whatever Gretzky's reasons are for pondering retirement -- a sore back, a losing team in New York, the stifling trap system of the 1990s, having reached all the milestones -- they can't include no longer being able to help his team win.

"His hands are still there -- they haven't gone anywhere,' said Tugnutt. "It's strange to say, but he's more dangerous behind the net than anywhere else.

"It's a talent no one else has."

Behind the net -- Gretzky's "office" that he uses for pinpoint passes to wings and charging defensemen -- has been his favorite setup spot since he broke into the league in 1979.

Although Gretzky went into the Ottawa game with only nine goals -- well below his 1981-82 record of 92 -- he had 52 assists, better than all but an elite handful in the 27-team league.

"From the blue-line in, he's still one of the best at finding an open man and making things happen," said Senators wing Daniel Alfredsson. "When I'm 38, I hope I can still walk.

"He doesn't have the same speed, but he reads the game as well as anybody. Before he gets the puck, he knows what he's going to do with it. He's one of the few guys who can do that."

The 26-year-old Alfredsson first witnessed the magic when the Gretzky Tour -- a pickup team of NHLers organized during the 1994-95 NHL lockout -- visited his Frolunda club in Sweden.

"I think we lost 5-3, but that was a special game for me," Alfredsson said. "He's probably the best player ever."

"I just hope he plays another year. It's a treat just to watch him play."

In agreement was Senators coach Jacques Martin.

"He's still a factor in a game," Martin said. "Look at his production with the Rangers.

"He's still an elite player with tremendous skill and anticipation. If you don't watch him, he'll hurt you."

The buzz over Gretzky's possible retirement made the Senators the hottest ticket in Ottawa, clearly overshadowing the team's race with New Jersey for first place in the Eastern Conference.

But the Senators did not feel slighted.

"It might be a game we remember forever," Alfredsson said.

 
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