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Surprisingly, Gretzky has suffered little thuggery in his brief NHL career. "The players are dirtier in junior hockey, where they'll do anything to get noticed." says Gretzky, who should know. A junior coach once offered $25 to any kid who could knock him out of the game. "Guys respect you when you get up here." Gretzky says. "Nobody's trying to hurt you. Some guys hit me, but guys miss me a lot, too."
In a game last season in Pittsburgh. Kim Clackson was trying to cover him. As Gretzky broke past, Clackson hooked him around the face. What ensued was a 59-minute brawl, highlighted by four separate fights between Clackson and Dave Semenko. Edmonton's unfriendly giant. Gretzky. who is something of a showboat, wasn't seriously cut, and his first smiling words to the trainer were, "How's the crowd taking this?"
Edmonton players refer to Gretzky as "the Franchise," and you don't mess with the franchise. Before one game against Detroit last year, Oiler Defenseman Lee Fogolin skated up to Dennis Polonich, the Red Wings' pugnacious center, and said, "If you touch the kid, you'll have to deal with me."
Still, Sather doesn't believe the other clubs have tried to intimidate his young star. "A lot of guys are in awe of Gretzky's kind of ability," says Sather. "It's one thing to run at an average player, but a superstar is something else. Nobody ever really tried to hurt Bobby Orr, either. Sure, you hit the guy. but maybe you pull back a little."
Should Gretzky continue scoring at the nearly two-points-per-game clip of the past 40 games, he will break Esposito's single-season mark, once considered as safe as, well, Ruth's 714 home runs. When Esposito got his 76 goals and 76 assists in 1970-71, he was in on 38% of Boston's league-record 399 goals. Gretzky has either scored or set up a staggering 49% of Edmonton's 248 goals. While some members of the press have tried to diminish Gretzky's statistics by saying he couldn't score as often if he played for a winning team, his coach believes the opposite is true.
"When you're on a losing club, there aren't as many guys helping you," says Sather. "He doesn't have Orr passing him the puck, the way Esposito did. What would he do if he had Charlie Simmer on his line, or Mike Bossy?
"But I don't give a damn what Wayne does personally. The only measure of a great player is if he plays on a Stanley Cup winner. A Lafleur, an Orr, a Howe, a Hull, a Richard—they give you that little extra edge. They make their teammates play on a little higher level. I've never said publicly that Wayne belongs in that class yet." Sather pauses to smile. "And I'm not going to say so now."
That's all right, Glen. Wait a couple of years. We're not ready to believe it yet, anyway.