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The Key Man Is Sharper
Jack Falla
February 18, 1985
In his sixth NHL season, the Oilers' Wayne Gretzky is better than ever, but he still hasn't reached his best
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February 18, 1985

The Key Man Is Sharper

In his sixth NHL season, the Oilers' Wayne Gretzky is better than ever, but he still hasn't reached his best

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"He didn't enjoy having the reputation of a guy who whines, so he's taking his shots and playing tougher," says Dave Semenko, once Gretzky's left wing/bodyguard, and now a player who's rarely on the ice with the Great One.

Los Angeles Kings coach Pat Quinn says, "He still draws close coverage, but he's learned to deal with it on a different emotional level."

Exactly. "The big thing with me is that I play emotionally," says Gretzky. "I used to let the emotion run away with me. If I got fouled, I'd blame the ref or the other player. Now my attitude is, if the ref calls it, fine; if not, I'm not going to change his mind."

One prevailing misconception about Gretzky and the Oilers is that he and they can't, or won't, play defense. He can, and they will. While Gretzky isn't one to make diving blocks of shots, he back-checks better than the critics say. With 28 seconds to play in the second period of that Islander game, with Edmonton leading 3-2, New York's Greg Gilbert broke away on the left wing. Gretzky, coming all the way from the opposite wing, caught Gilbert at the top of the face-off circle and swiped the puck before he could shoot.

"This season we'll come into the dressing room leading 5-0 after two periods, and Wayne will say, 'Never mind winning 10-5, let's go for the shutout,' " says Oiler defenseman Kevin Lowe.

But the Oilers can still chalk it up and run the table when they have to. In an 8-7 win over Los Angeles on Jan. 21, Edmonton produced six unanswered goals—Gretzky scored one and set up the game winner—in 18:40 to overcome a 7-2 deficit.

As always, Gretzky's artistry is in his offense. A four-game stretch in January offered a sampler of his virtuosity. In the game with the Islanders, Gretzky the Sniper scored on a slap shot, short side, from the top of the left circle. Two nights later, in a 4-4 tie at Vancouver, Gretzky the Opportunist saw a puck bounce out of goalie Richard Brodeur's glove and bunted it into the net while it was three feet off the ice. The next night against the Canucks in Edmonton, Gretzky the Magician banked one in from behind the net off Brodeur's left skate in a 7-5 win. And two nights later against L.A., Gretzky the Technician moved through heavy traffic to the right of the Kings' goal and, maneuvering rookie defenseman Craig Redmond as a screen, scored on a shot off the left post.

To watch Gretzky is a pleasure, but to skate with him is a privilege and a revelation for a guy like me, who still plays pickup hockey on a regular basis. The ice in Northlands Coliseum is still smooth with the morning resurfacing when Sather starts the first of the warmup line rushes in an Oiler practice session. I don't take the first run with Gretzky; instead I go with Mark Messier and Gord Sherven, and I'm already well behind the play at the red line, where the dominant sensation is hearing Messier's skates ripping the ice...scrunch...scrunch...scrunch under the pressure of his tremendous leg drive. A few minutes later, as I skate with Gretzky and Sather, it's different. The speed is the same—almost incomprehensible to this average skater—but Gretzky seems to be moving lightly, his skates barely cutting the ice with a snick...snick...snick. The pass from Gretzky to me is perfect, soft and on the stick blade, and my only thought is to get it back to him before he's out of range. But my return pass is terrible, in his skates on his backhand side. In virtually one motion he flicks the puck off his right skate onto his stick and snaps a shot between the goalie's legs. On the rush back, Kurri leaves a drop pass for me in the slot, but it seems somehow presumptuous to shoot, so I pass quickly to Gretzky. He passes it back immediately. I give it to him again at the crease—he has to shoot now—and begin gliding around the net. Incredibly, Gretzky centers the puck from behind the goal line past the goalie and across the crease to me for an easy tap-in. He smiles and yells as the puck clanks against the back of the cage. The look on his face is the same one I've seen on children in backyard rinks. "He still loves the game," says Sather, "and he shows up every day."

There are many manifestations of Gretzky's love of the game. Gretzky says, on the last page of Gretzky, the book his father, Walter, wrote with Jim Taylor, "...maybe it's just as well that I live in a penthouse. If I lived at street level in Edmonton, the winter would come and I'd look out the window at the kids playing road hockey, and before you know it I'd be out there with them and there would go my game that night."

The view from Gretzky's duplex penthouse on Super Bowl Sunday is of the frozen North Saskatchewan River and the west side of Edmonton. Inside, on the 18th-floor level, Gretzky is sprawled on the couch in front of his oversized TV screen, watching the game in the company of teammates Sherven (since traded to Minnesota) and Marc Habscheid, two bachelors called up from Edmonton's Halifax farm club only weeks before, and Jim and Joey Moss, brothers of Gretzky's girl friend, Vickie Moss.

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