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More than 7,000 people—the largest hockey crowd of the season in Canada's capital—came to the Ottawa Civic Center one night last month to get to the bottom of a 16-year-old wunderkind who plays for the Sault Ste. Marie ( Ont.) Greyhounds. His name is Wayne Gretzky. That's with a Zed-K-Y, please. The immigration guy fouled it up when his grandfather came over from Russia. In Peterborough the next night, the same thing happened: largest crowd of the year even though the last-place Greyhounds provided the opposition. The night after that, it was the same story in Hamilton: first sellout of the year for a Junior A game, and in a blizzard to boot, everyone out getting stuck in the snow to see some kid called The Great Gretzky, whom every paper in Ontario has hailed as the next Bobby Orr since he was eight years old, 4'4" and 70 pounds.
Gretzky is not just another star of the future. He is there, Canada's answer to Steve Cauthen and Nadia Comaneci, one of those rare youths who leapfrogs the stage where they speak of potential, whose talent is already front and center, which, incidentally, is the position he plays for the Greyhounds. Gretzky is only a rookie in the Ontario Junior A Major Hockey Association (OHA), a league in which the players range in age from 16 to 20, but he has exploded onto the Junior scene like no one since Guy Lafleur—and before that Orr. If Wayne Gretzky were never to play another hockey game, thousands of Canadian kids would remember him into their dotage. He is the stuff of their dream—that, lacking size, lacking strength, lacking speed, they, too, can somehow make it.
Gretzky did. He now is a wiry (read "skinny") 155 pounds spread over 5'11", but he should fill out enough to keep the pros happy. Gretzky describes his speed as "brutal"—meaning slower than slow. All the speed in the family went to his 14-year-old sister Kim, the Ontario Dominion champion in the 100-, 200-and 400-meter dashes and a good bet to represent Canada in the 1980 Olympics. Gretzky's shot is accurate, but far from overpowering. And if you expect to see him mucking it up in the corners, forget it. Still, without question, he is the most exciting Junior hockey player since Lafleur left Quebec City in 1971.
"They compare me to Orr and Lafleur, and that's very flattering," says Gretzky in his best "shucks, who, lil-ol-me? tone. "But basically, my style is different from anyone else's." True. Nevertheless, despite the qualifier, Gretzky lives quite comfortably with comparisons involving himself and Orr, Lafleur or any other superstar who comes to mind, including Cauthen. "We're both little runts who get a lot of publicity," Gretzky says of the latter.
Gretzky's talent is all in his head. "He's the smartest kid I've ever seen," says Fred Litzen, Sault Ste. Marie's one-eyed head scout who has seen a passel of talent over 40 years, even if he has missed half, as his friends suggest. Gretzky knows not only where everyone is on the ice, but he also knows where they're going. Uncanny anticipation, people call it.
While Gretzky's straight-ahead speed is something less than overwhelming, his mobility makes him nearly impossible to check, and his quickness—"Oh God, he's got terrific reflexes," says Litzen—makes him a superb forechecker in the mold of Bobby Clarke, the player after whom Gretzky models himself the most. Right now, Gretzky has a knack with the puck equal to anyone's, at any level. "From the red line to their net I play a solid game compared to anyone in the NHL," he says. And somehow such a statement from a 16-year-old does not have a cocky ring. It shouldn't, because it's true.
Defensively? Well, let's just say that one of the reasons Junior A hockey—the final step before the pros—is fun is that the games are often "Bombs-away LeMay" affairs. Gretzky does not return to his own zone to cover a man, he goes there only because without the puck he cannot start a rush. No one particularly worries about his defensive work, least of all Gretzky, who seems as aware as anyone that covering the opposing center is not apt to make headlines. As Greyhound Coach Muzz MacPherson says, "With a kid his age, you don't take away his puck sense and tell him to play defense. He's got plenty of time for that."
One reason for the big commotion over Gretzky last month was his play in the World Junior Championships that were held in and around Montreal over the Christmas holidays. The youngest player in the eight-nation field, Gretzky led all scorers with 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in six games. Team Canada, however, finished a disappointing third, behind the Soviet Union and Sweden. Gretzky was the host country's only representative on the all-tournament team and became, if not a national hero, something of a national curiosity in a hockey-mad nation.
Leading scorer at 16? Who is this Gretzky guy?
Dan Lucas, Gretzky's right wing in Sault Ste. Marie, was also paired briefly with him on Team Canada. "He would come in and boast to all those older guys how he was going to score four or five points against the Czechs or something," Lucas says. "I'd shake my head and think, 'What are you saying, kid?' Then he'd go out and get them. Unreal. I've had things go well for me before, but with him it never stops. If he ever has a comeuppance, it's going to be a dandy."