Rumors that Wayne Gretzky is human have surfaced sporadically throughout his career, but they have always been easily refuted. One merely had to look at the NHL record book.
Gretzky holds 51 individual marks, which reflect his attainments on the ice. And until Jan. 20, the Saturday of the NHL All-Star weekend in Pittsburgh, he didn't have a single black mark off the ice. But that day, Gretzky slept in and missed a sold-out practice session, and his squeaky-clean image was tarnished. To make matters worse, he performed the next day as though his bones ached. While the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux scored four goals for his team, Gretzky produced none for his.
And now there are whispers that the Great One is in decline. By week's end the Los Angeles Kings were 4-8-1 since the All-Star Game, and Gretzky had scored a pedestrian total of 18 points. It is obvious that he is fatigued; his legs, which carried him to an average of 2.37 points per game coming into this season, lack spring, and his stick no longer owns the puck.
"Anybody who plays 25 minutes a game, as I do, always feels it at around the 55-to 60-game mark," he said. "But I've probably been more tired than I've been in other years."
The Kings have tried to help Gretzky, who's 29, catch his breath by not double-shifting him on a fourth line. "If I was the coach, I'd use me on the fifth line," Gretzky said disgustedly after being held pointless in a 5-3 loss in Toronto on Feb. 12. "God, I'm tired of talking about losing."
To be fair, Gretzky doesn't get as much help in L.A. as he did with the Edmonton Oilers, who traded him to the Kings in August 1988. With a supporting cast in Edmonton that included Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson, Gretzky became a legend as an Oiler. But he is not quite the player he was when he scored more than 200 points in four out of five seasons between 1981-82 and 1985-86. Of course, Gretzky silenced his new critics last week—at least for the moment—when he had two goals and one assist in a 6-5 loss to the Detroit Red Wings and two goals and three assists in a 7-1 victory over the Quebec Nordiques.
A decline for Gretzky, mind you, would amount to a renaissance for most anybody else. Gretzky can talk about the 168 points he scored last season, which was the eighth highest total in the history of the NHL. And this season, he noted last week, "I'm only five points behind a guy [ Lemieux] who is 24 years old and had a 46-game scoring streak. I must be doing something right."
But Lemieux, not Gretzky, won the Art Ross Trophy (for scoring) the past two seasons. And this season Lemieux not only led Gretzky in points by a healthy margin but also was within five games of one of Gretzky's most cherished records—his 51-game scoring streak—when he was stopped Feb. 14 by the New York Rangers and a herniated disk in his back. The only way Gretzky will reclaim the scoring title this season is if Lemieux is disabled for any length of time. And Gretzky's chances of winning a 10th Hart Trophy (most valuable player) in 11 years are about as good as those of his wife replacing ailing goalie Kelly Hrudey in the L.A. nets.
Sensitive to the rivalry between Lemieux and Gretzky, Kings owner Bruce McNall announced on Feb. 1 that last summer he extended the Great One's contract from seven years to nine years and raised its value from $20 million to $31.3 million. The new contract, an upgrade on the original eight-year deal Gretzky signed after being obtained from Edmonton, was agreed upon, but not finalized, before the NHL Players Association voted in October to publicly disclose all salaries. McNall pushed his attorneys to do the paperwork so that Gretzky's upgraded salary—$2.72 million a year, which includes $1 million in deferred income—would be the one disclosed. The package puts Gretzky ahead of Lemieux, who had become hockey's best-paid player when he signed a $2 million-a-year deal last August.
Whatever the standard of Gretzky's play at the moment, it would be wrong to suggest that he will not live happily ever after in Los Angeles. His wife, actress Janet Jones, sometimes itches to resume her acting career but has turned down television parts to spend more time with their 14-month-old daughter, Paulina. The Gretzkys are planning to have more children, and there are lots of rooms for kids in their big house in Encino. Gretzky also enjoys more privacy in L.A. than he did in Edmonton. There are a lot of places in L.A. where a hockey player, even the hockey player, can go unnoticed. "I'm only in the sports sections here," he says. "People won't know who our kids are. That wouldn't have been possible in Canada."