Wayne Gretzky, unshaved and unapologetic, stood in a dim light outside the Los Angeles Kings' dressing room last week and addressed the question, Is this the twilight of a god?
The prospect that it is might haunt the NHL, which has not produced any other stars who are bankable in the U.S., but it is not haunting Gretzky. Gretzky never has tried to kid himself. He knows the end is out there somewhere. Some days it seems distant, other days it's as close as a mirror.
In the first third of this season, the Great One has been easier to find in the athletic actuarial tables than among the NHL's scoring leaders. Gretzky, who won last season's scoring title with 130 points and has averaged 2.17 points per game in 15 NHL seasons, had four goals and 17 points in 17 games through Sunday. A point a game is acceptable for almost everyone except Gretzky. But the King center had just two even-strength goals, and his-14 was the worst plus/minus rating among NHL forwards, which is acceptable for no one. The slump would be an insignificant blip but for one thing: Gretzky turned 34 on Jan. 26. The day he retires, which is the day every team should haul 99 to its rafters because no NHLer should ever again be allowed to wear that number, is no longer somewhere over the rainbow, although Gretzky isn't ready to slip into his anecdotage, a lifetime of banquet speeches detailing hockey's most fabulous career.
"I'd be lying if I didn't stand here and say, yeah, there are nights when I don't know if I am near the end," Gretzky says. "Am I a different player? Has the way I play and the style of my game deteriorated that much in six months? I'll have to fight through it. I'll have to work to a point, give it my best effort, and if I come up short, I'll have to figure out what the next stage of my career is."
He might want to pass on, say, becoming a general manager. Gretzky certainly wasn't the triggerman, but the police are dusting for his fingerprints on the puzzling, three-for-three deal on Feb. 14 with the Buffalo Sabres that brought to the Kings 32-year-old goalie Grant Fuhr, who helped Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers win four Stanley Cups in the 1980s, and unproven young defensemen Philippe Boucher and Denis Tsygurov. The cost was a potential star defenseman, Alex Zhitnik, veteran defenseman Charlie Huddy and backup goalie Robb Stauber. Zhitnik, 22, broke his left thumb in his second game with the Sabres but is expected back soon.
The acquisition of Fuhr, who becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, appears to be a huge no-confidence vote for streaky King veteran Kelly Hrudey, whose respectable 2.83 goals-against average and .921 save percentage make him seem more like a solution than a problem for a team in 10th place (5-8-4) in the Western Conference at week's end. "Ridiculous," says one Eastern Conference general manager of the deal. "You trade for Fuhr if you think you can make a run at the Stanley Cup, but the Kings are a long way from that. They're going to have a tough time making the playoffs."
Whenever the Kings acquire an ex-Oiler—seven teammates from Edmonton's Stanley Cup years have joined Gretzky since he was traded to Los Angeles in 1988—or some other FOG (Friend of Gretzky), the world looks for the unseen hand. On XTRA, the all-sports station that broadcasts King games, irate callers leveled charges of cronyism at Gretzky and mourned the loss of Zhitnik, the latest in a line of prominent rushing defense-men (others include Larry Murphy, Garry Galley and Paul Coffey) that the Kings have exiled the past 12 years; two blasphemers even said that Gretzky must go. The score on the trade on The Los Angeles Times letter page was Sabres 7, Kings 0.
"The assumptions are this was a Fuhr-for-Zhitnik trade and that Gretzky made the deal," says Sam McMaster, the Kings' rookie general manager. "Wrong. This wasn't Zhitnik for Fuhr. We got two really good young prospects, a first-rounder [Boucher in '91] and a first pick [Tsygurov, No. 38 overall in '93]. We're trying to win now, but we're also trying to build for the future. And the Los Angeles Kings made the deal—the coaching staff, the scouts and me. If we're right, god bless us, and if we're wrong, we'll carry on. Wayne found out after the players we traded."
If Gretzky didn't have his prints on the deal, he does have his imprint on McMaster. Gretzky has known McMaster since Gretzky was 14 and playing for McMaster's Toronto Young Nationals junior B organization. Gretzky recommended McMaster, among others, as a candidate to succeed former general manager Nick Beverley, who had clashed with coach Barry Melrose and had a cool relationship with Gretzky and some of the other players. "I'm not sensitive about that—I'm proud," says McMaster, an avuncular 50-year-old who ran the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League for the past six seasons. "I would have never been hired in L.A. if Wayne hadn't brought my name up, but everybody has to have an in in this business. If one of the greatest hockey persons of all time recommends me and that's a reason I'm here, that's an honor."
McMaster did ask Gretzky for an assessment of Fuhr when he played in Europe on Gretzky's touring team during the lockout; Gretzky said Fuhr played "marvelously." "Now we have to get Grant back to playing shape," McMaster says. Fuhr, who had been buried in Buffalo behind Dominik Hasek, allowed nine goals (seven on power plays) against the Vancouver Canucks in his first four periods as a King.