The kid turns 30 this week. "yes, but two weeks after my wife did," Wayne Gretzky says, laughing. See, no crisis there. Gretzky's talent took him away from home at age 14 to play junior hockey and burdened him early with the off-ice responsibilities of a phenom. So it was only in playing hockey that The Kid was ever allowed to be a kid. Even when he was a teenager, Gretzky had to act like a 30-year-old. Now that he is about to reach that age, his payback is being able to escape to the rink and be a kid again.
"I have a lot of youth in me," says Gretzky, "because that's what this game is. You've got to have a ball." So he does. After last season, which brought him personal distractions, physical pain and the first flirtations with mortality in a career of epic achievement, Gretzky is now living more happily ever after than he thought possible.
He has a beautiful wife, actress Janet Jones, whom he has assisted on the two biggest goals of his life—Paulina, 2, and Ty, 6 months. And, like his new house in Beverly Glen, Calif., Gretzky sits atop a hill, not over it. At an age when the careers of most hockey players start downward, Gretzky's is still at its peak.
There is no need to wait for his retirement to declare him the greatest player of all time. None of the big scorers of other eras—Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull or Phil Esposito—dwarfed their contemporaries the way Gretzky has his. From the 1980-81 season through '86-87, Gretzky won the scoring title each year by an average of 66 points. Howe will always be known as Mr. Hockey because of his productivity, consistency and longevity (he played 26 seasons between '46-47 and '79-80), but those who watched him in his prime insist he didn't significantly raise his level of play during the playoffs. Bobby Orr, a defenseman, revolutionized his position and was the most naturally gifted and exciting player in the game's history. But a bad knee and early retirement curtailed his accomplishments.
When Gretzky won his ninth Hart Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player two years ago, many observers assumed it would be his last. The Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux, who outscored Gretzky in 1987-88 and '88-89, appeared to be taking his place as the best player in the game before a back injury put his career on hold. Now Gretzky, a center, is emerging again, along with St. Louis Blues right wing Brett Hull and Calgary Flame defenseman Al MacInnis, as a leading contender to win the award. The Kings, leaders in the Smythe Division at week's end, are playing well, and Gretzky, who had 91 points, is on his way to his ninth scoring championship.
The 200-point years (Gretzky had four over five seasons from 1981-82 to '85-86) are over. Gone, too, may be Gretzky's drive to turn good nights into spectacular ones. Coming into this season, he had scored at least five points in a game 86 times. So far this season, he has done so only twice. "I'm not saying I don't have that killer instinct anymore," he says, "but now I realize when the score is 6-2, the coach needs that time to get other people on the team more involved."
Nevertheless, the consistency for which he most prides himself—Gretzky had been held pointless in only four games this season—is still there. So is his hand speed, which has helped him score more points than anyone else in the hockey history Gretzky scored 142 points in 73 games last season, which made it the first since his NHL rookie campaign, 1979-80, in which he failed to average more than two points per game. And this year it looks as if he might not reach that benchmark again, However, the slippage in his production from his Edmonton Oiler years (1979-80 through '87-88) is not attributable to age or attitude but to his supporting cast. It's good in L.A but not as good it was with the Oilers.
Gretzky scored an unthinkable 92 goals in Edmonton in 1981-82, including 50 in first 39 games, with Jari Kurri on his right flank. Kurri, a portable Hall of Famer, had one of the best finishing touches in the game's history. Tomas sandstorm, Gretzky's right wing now, doesn't quite have Kurri's hands, but he possesses good speed, a hard, sinking shot and a chippy style of play that invites retaliation and opens room for Gretzky. Tony Granato, Gretzky's left wing, can score, and Luc Robitaille, who has averaged 49 goals the last four season converts often when Gretzky sends the puck his way on power play. The king have provided Gretzky no shortage of players to whom he could pass. What the Oiler teams that won four Stanley Cups in rive years (1984, '85, '87 and '88) had that the Kings don't is Paul Coffey. "Coffey is the best passer from goal line to red line in the history of hockey," says Gretzky of his former Oiler teammate, who currently plays in Pittsburgh.
Now when Gretzky, anticipating that the Kings will take possession of the puck in their end, swings towards center ice, the puck doesn't materialize on his stick as cleanly or as often as it did in his years in Edmonton. Coffey's counterpart in Los Angeles, defenseman Steve Duchesne, is far more creative in the opposition end than he is in his own.
Most of Gretzky's Oiler teams benefited from playing portions of games four skaters against four, a facet that has almost disappeared since the NHL's 1986 ruling that coincidental minor penalties no longer affect the number of players on the ice. Speedy Edmonton was especially effective at using the open ice available in such situations. And scoring has dropped considerably in the NHL, from an average of 8.3 goals per game in 1981-82 to 6.78 so far this year. When all these factors are weighed, it's clear that the Great One is no less great than ever.