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The prime of Wayne Gretzky is close upon us. The man is maturing, and the player is at or near his peak. But even as Gretzky reaffirms himself this season as the best scorer in hockey history, his stats have begun to lose their ability to amaze—so many of the records he breaks are his own, anyway—leaving us to focus less on the unprecedented heights he has reached than on the artistry of his attainment, the changes in his life and his game, and the unflagging joy that sustains him.
But first the numbers. With the season slightly more than half over, Gretzky has already made a shambles of the NHL scoring race. At the All-Star break, he led the league in goals, with 54, and assists, with 99—two goals and 49 points more than his Edmonton Oiler linemate Jari Kurri, who was in second place in both categories—en route to what will be his fifth consecutive scoring title. At his current pace of 2.73 points a game, Gretzky will finish the season with a record 218 points, breaking his own NHL record of 212 set in 1981-82. Barring injury or slump, he's a lock to win a record sixth consecutive Hart Trophy as the league's MVP.
Gretzky's scoring pace has been so fast that this season he became the youngest player—he was 24 on Jan. 26—to reach two significant career milestones. On Dec. 19 he became only the 18th player in NHL history to reach the 1,000-point plateau (Bryan Trottier of the Islanders became the 19th on Jan. 29), accomplishing in 5½ seasons what took the other 18 an average of 16 seasons. The second fastest among them, Guy Lafleur, required nine seasons. And on Jan. 13 Gretzky scored his 400th NHL goal, reaching that level 70 games earlier than Mike Bossy, who previously had been the fastest man to 400. At his league-record career average of .915 goals a game, Gretzky will finish this season in 16th place on the alltime scoring list and will surpass his boyhood hero, Gordie Howe (801), as the NHL's leading career goal scorer late in the 1989-90 season, accomplishing in 11 years what Howe took 26 to do.
But while Gretzky rockets past milestones as though they were slats in a picket fence, there are other, more subtle, changes in his game and his life. The Kid is growing up.
"Birthdays," says Glen Sather, Edmonton's coach and general manager. "That's the biggest change in this whole team. Wayne is maturing. I don't know if he's at his peak, but he's as good as he ever was."
"I think he's going to have one big, big year," says assistant coach John Muckler, "maybe when he's around 27 or 28."
A 300-point year?
"Sounds impossible in an 80-game season, but if anybody can do it, that kid can," says Muckler.
"Physically, I may be at my peak now," says Gretzky, "but, with what I'm learning, I think it might be sometime in the next couple or three years that I'll be playing my best:"
One thing he has learned is to cut down on taking theatrical dives and yapping at officials, for years major offenses on the Gretzky rap sheet. With the score 3-3 in the third period of a Jan. 16 game against the New York Islanders, Gretzky broke down the right wing on a good scoring chance, only to be hooked down by Islander defenseman Denis Potvin. There was no call. The crowd screamed for a penalty, and Gretzky, who in past years would have turned this one into a case of vintage whine—exaggerating his fall, lying on the ice a few extra seconds, imploring the referee for justice—instead bounced up, said nothing and got back into the play. This pattern has been repeated all season.