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THE BEST AND GETTING BETTER
E.M. Swift:
October 12, 1981
At 20, Wayne Gretzky is without question the NHL's top player. All that's left to ask is: How good will he become?
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October 12, 1981

The Best And Getting Better

At 20, Wayne Gretzky is without question the NHL's top player. All that's left to ask is: How good will he become?

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What Gretzky did last year, his second in the NHL, was break Phil Esposito's single-season scoring record (152 points) and Orr's assist mark (102). Both had been set 10 years ago and had never been seriously threatened. Gretzky was 19 at the start of last season, 5'11" and 165 pounds. He either scored or assisted on a staggering 50% of Edmonton's goals (when Esposito set his record, he was in on 38% of Boston's league-record 399 goals), finishing with 55 goals and 109 assists for 164 points. He became the first NHL player since 1917-18 to average more than two points a game, and he won his second Most Valuable Player award.

He had the type of year no one had thought possible, but most hockey experts now assume Gretzky will surpass it. No other star has ever had his best year when he was 19. Orr had his best at 22; Esposito at 28; Hull at 29. Why should Gretzky be any different? What might happen if he gets to play alongside another exceptional player, the way Esposito did with Orr? Edmonton has some of the best young players in the game, and one day they may be superb. What then? Will The Kid then stop being The Kid? Will we finally sit back and say, "So that's how good he really is" and start to worry about how long we will have him?

Gretzky played junior A hockey four years ago with a mediocre team called the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He already was a media sensation, a 16-year-old dazzling a league of 20-year-olds. He was polite, well-spoken and charming—rare traits in the hockey world—and the public and press ate him up. Kids identified with him because he was scrawny and not very fast. Yet he would go out there and stickhandle through all these hulking goons, fulfilling the fantasies of every boy who has ever picked up a hockey stick. It wasn't as if he had an incredible body like Hull's, or amazing grace like Orr's; Gretzky just kind of slithered by you or threaded a pass between your skates. But a lot of scouts had misgivings about him because 158-pound hockey players, which was what Gretzky weighed then, weren't in vogue. Slow 158-pound hockey players, especially.

Gretzky was never actually slow. He just looked it. "He never had to skate well," says his father, Walter, "because as a kid he could stay in the same place and beat a player three or four times." Walter, not surprisingly, is responsible for Wayne's remarkable early development. He had his son on the backyard rink before Wayne was three years old. He began teaching him fundamentals when Wayne was four. At six Wayne began playing in a league with 10-year-olds. The backyard rink wasn't just for yuks. Walter set up pylons and had Wayne practice crossovers and figure eights. He would throw a puck into the corner and tell Wayne to get it. After Wayne had chased several pucks around the boards, Walter would say, "Watch me." He'd throw it in again and skate to a spot where he could intercept the puck as it caromed around the boards. "I always told him, 'Skate to where the puck's going to be, not to where it has been,' " says Walter. "I've never believed that it's an instinctive thing that one kid anticipates better than another."

Gretzky's anticipation, whether innate or learned, has long been astounding; he always seemed to know what his opponent would do with the puck. And he knew exactly where everyone was on the ice. Ask him where his four teammates were on a given goal, and he could tell you. He also could tell you what they should have been doing if they were out of position. He and his father would watch hockey games together, and as they drove home, Walter, who never advanced beyond junior B hockey, would ask Wayne if he remembered such-and-such a play. Then they would talk about the options each skater had. Most coaches will tell you the most important trait a player can have is speed. Walter disagrees. "He has got to be aware of where everybody is all the time," Walter says. "His mind has to be like a camera. That's going to make his reaction time that much quicker."

It's true. Gretzky always looks as if he has been given a head start when there's a race toward a loose puck. His anticipation makes him faster than he appears to be. Says Lou Nanne, general manager of the Minnesota North Stars, "Gretzky has to see the game five times slower than the average guy."

As a youngster Gretzky saw life five times slower than the average guy. He looked ahead. When Wayne was 16, nice-looking, famous and blessed with an imminently marketable talent, he could have gone out with just about any girl in Ontario. But he seldom even went on a date and never saw anyone special. He didn't drink, drive or smoke—not because he didn't want to but because there would be time for all that later.

"My father always told me to get what I wanted most and the rest [girls, cars, money, fame] would follow," he says. Gretzky was living on the straight and narrow; he knew exactly what he wanted and the quickest way to get it. Never mind what he was telling the press: that he was considering going to university instead of pursuing a hockey career. "Gretzky hesitates about a pro career for the finest of reasons—education," one story in the Toronto Star read. It was such obvious tripe; he already had Badali as an agent, for heaven's sake. You see, Gretzky had been in the public eye since he was eight, and he had learned to manipulate his image through the press.

Gretzky turned pro at 17, signing a four-year contract worth $875,000 with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA. It was crazy, everyone thought, asking a 161-pound 17-year-old—Boy Wonder or not—to play in the pros. Lunacy.

Gretzky played eight games with the Racers before the club's financial troubles forced owner Nelson Skalbania to sell Gretzky's contract to Peter Pocklington, owner of the Oilers, for $850,000. Pocklington renegotiated Gretzky's contract, tying him up for nine years, with two six-year options—21 years in all. The agreement guarantees Gretzky somewhere around $300,000 a year.

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