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On Jan. 5 in Toronto, Gretzky crossed the Maple Leaf blue line and faded left. As two Leafs chased him, Gretzky was aware that Kings winger Bob Kudelski was trailing 30 feet behind the play. Gretzky laid a backhand pass perfectly into the path of Kudelski, who ripped a 30-footer past goaltender Peter Ing.
The next evening in Chicago, Los Angeles, which was leading 2-1, was on the power play when Gretzky, holding the puck at the edge of the circle near the boards in the Blackhawks' end, did something unexpected—he shot. "Teams are playing me to pass," he said afterward. 'Tommy [Webster, the Kings' coach] has told me I have to shoot more to create some room." On this occasion, Gretzky shot essentially to create a rebound, and Chicago goalie Ed Belfour obligingly left one in the slot for the fast-closing Kudelski. So Kudelski scored the insurance goal in a surprising 3-1 victory over the Blackhawks, the team with the league's best record.
As the Kings' team-owned private plane—replete with first-class seats, video monitors and all the shrimp cocktail and pasta a club that had just finished a 4-1 road trip clearly deserved—climbed into the sky 90 minutes later, the consensus was that this had been their best defensive game of the season.
"Obviously, I'm tired right now," Gretzky said as he nursed a beer. "I'm very tired. It was a tough game, and I double-shifted a lot and killed more penalties than I have been.
"If there's a difference between now and five years ago, it's that I have to be careful on an off-day like tomorrow. I'm not a fanatic about conditioning, but I realize I have to do some extra things now, like riding the bike. Nolan Ryan and Carlton Fisk didn't just get up at the age of 39 and say they'd better start working harder so they can play another year. They're still playing because they started working harder at 29. But just about every season, there has been a stretch when I'd get tired. I don't think it's any worse now."
Last season's downtime was caused by more than just fatigue. The Kings' defensive inadequacies doomed them to the league's seventh-worst record, and Gretzky struggled through January and February with a nagging left knee injury. On the evening before last year's All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, Bernie Nicholls, one of Gretzky's friends on the Kings, was traded to the New York Rangers for Sandstrom and Granato. The next morning, Gretzky slept in and missed a workout. That same month, a good friend of his and Janet's from Edmonton, Denise Randon, was told she had leukemia. She died last month.
In March, just as Gretzky was starting to feel like his old self, a cross-check delivered by the New York Islanders' Alan Kerr caused him to have back spasms. He played enough to contribute to the Kings' first-round playoff upset of Calgary, but he was finished after Game 3 of Edmonton's second-round sweep of the Kings. Since then, therapy has cured his back ailment, and a talk with Webster has cleared Gretzky's mind.
When Los Angeles owner Bruce McNall paid Edmonton $15 million, three No. 1 draft choices and two good young players (Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas) for Gretzky, Marty McSorley and the since-traded Mike Krushelnyski in August '88, Gretzky became responsible for making the long-suffering L.A. franchise viable. He admits that last season he was increasingly distracted by that burden. "Everyone has been so nice to me, the last thing I want to do is let anyone down," Gretzky says. "I was thinking about everything, from the practice rink to noticing if we had empty seats at games. Tommy reminded me before the season that it's my job to play. That's taken a lot of pressure off me."
It helped, too, that both Gretzky and the Kings started quickly this season. They have improved their defense, but a shortage of depth and the advancing age of important players like Dave Taylor, 35, and Larry Robinson, 39, still leave them with the same kind of team they've had in the last two playoffs: dangerous but not built for the long haul. However, an owner who spent $15 million for the only player he thought could save hockey in Southern California isn't likely to zipper his wallet if, as expected, upcoming collective-bargaining negotiations give players more freedom of movement. McNall, who shares ownership of 14 racehorses with Gretzky, feels compelled to give the Great One a chance at the only thing Gretzky says he wants from his remaining years in hockey: another Stanley Cup.
He has only one more significant individual mark to chase: Howe's NHL-record 801 career goals. Gretzky, who surpassed Howe's NHL career record of 1,850 points last October, doesn't have much stomach to knock his boyhood idol off the top of another list. "I wish I could stop at 800," says Gretzky, who at week's end had 705 career goals. Of course, he won't. Estimated arrival at No. 802? Two-and-a-half years, Gretzky Standard Time. Allowing for a slight slackening of his present scoring pace, he should reach 3,000 points at about the time his $31 million contract expires, at the end of the 1997-98 season.