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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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Now that deal looks like a steal. "I didn't know I was going to get more than 50 goals each of my first two years in the NHL," says Gretzky. He's trying to renegotiate, though he isn't yet pushing the matter that hard. Glen Sather, the coach and general manager of the Oilers, points out that the Oilers took a risk in signing such a young player to a contract of such long duration. He recalls an incident in Gretzky's first pro season that convinced him The Kid was for real, that Gretzky had been worth the risk. It occurred in a game against the Cincinnati Stingers, when a defensive lapse by Gretzky cost Edmonton a goal. Sather benched him for more than a period and then, with the Oilers trailing 2-1, played him again in the third period. "He could have pouted and sulked," says Sather, "but when I put him back in, he scored a hat trick and we won 5-2. That to me was the turning point of his pro career. Not just anyone could keep his motivation with a contract like his. But he wants to be the best."

Gretzky finished the season with 110 points and was named WHA Rookie of the Year. Equally significant, he didn't miss a game. He had proved he could handle the faster pace and bigger players of the pro game. Still, when the NHL and WHA merged before the 1979-80 season, few observers believed Gretzky could duplicate his scoring totals in the NHL. The NHL had little respect for the upstart WHA, and it wasn't about to give some 18-year-old kid from an inferior league the benefit of the doubt. "Everybody said, 'He's scrawny; he'll never tear up this league the way he did the WHA,' " recalls Torrey. That was all Gretzky needed to hear.

Gretzky set a goal for himself: getting at least as many points in his first year in the NHL as he had in his WHA season. If he didn't, the NHL, the media and the public all would probably slight his accomplishments in the other league. Gretzky never doubted for a moment that he could achieve his goal, but even he was surprised at the kind of year he had in 1979-80. He tied for the league scoring championship with 137 points, won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most gentlemanly player and was named the league's MVP. Pocklington rewarded those efforts with a Ferrari. Gretzky's father had been right. The rest would follow.

Curiously, despite Gretzky's brilliant debut, most teams continued to defend against him last season as though he were simply another player. "I honestly believe there were still people around who thought of Wayne as a flash in the pan," says Sather. The result was Gretzky's record-shattering 164 points. The Kid was for real, all right.

But it was Gretzky's performance in the playoffs that convinced everyone he was more than just a scorer, that he was one of those rare players who can lift a team onto his shoulders and carry it upward. The Oilers finished the regular season in 14th place, with a 29-35-16 record. Their first-round playoff opponent was Montreal, which finished third and came into postseason play with a 24-1-2 record in its last 27 home games. The Canadiens were healthy, and Guy Lafleur, Montreal's leader, was eager to have an excellent series against Gretzky to atone for what had been for him a dismal season. The Canadiens' goalie, Richard Sevigny, went so far as to predict that Lafleur would put Gretzky "in his back pocket." That remark was a grievous error.

Gretzky reads everything written about him. I remember, in Sault Ste. Marie, when I was there writing about the 16-year-old Gretzky, a local reporter asked me what I thought of Gretzky's play. I said something to the effect that offensively he was peerless but defensively he had a long way to go. No one cared much about defense in junior hockey. The next game, Gretzky was the principal star, with a goal and a couple of assists in a 4-2 win. Afterward, as he walked by me, he asked slyly, "Good enough defense for you?" He had been flawless in his own end all night, and he was just proud enough to let me know it, in case I'd been too stupid to notice.

Edmonton beat Montreal 6-3 in the first game of the playoffs, and Gretzky tied a Stanley Cup record by getting five assists. And just in case Sevigny had been too stupid to notice, after the Oilers' sixth goal Gretzky skated by the Canadien net and patted the general vicinity of his back pocket. No question about it. The Kid has got brass.

When Edmonton won the second game 3-1, the Montreal fans rose to applaud the Oilers as they celebrated their victory at center ice. It was as if the fans had sensed the baton being passed from Lafleur, who had been the most exciting player in hockey the six previous years, to Gretzky. It was kind of a sad thing, but it was too obvious to ignore. Right there in the Montreal Forum, in the playoffs, Gretzky was dominant, playing on a different level from even Lafleur. When the papers tried to depict the series as a matter of Gretzky-over-Lafleur, Gretzky rose to his rival's defense, saying, "One guy can't win the Stanley Cup, or the Boston Bruins would have won it seven straight years with Orr. The better the team plays, the better you play." It works the other way around, too, but only with some players, the great ones. That's what was happening in this series. The Oilers won the next game 6-2 to complete the sweep. Lafleur had one point in the three games. When Gretzky was on the ice and the teams were at even strength, Edmonton outscored Montreal 11-0.

In the next round the Oilers lost to the defending Stanley Cup champion Islanders four games to two, but not before Gretzky had made his way into one of Torrey's poems to Nanne (page 52 et seq.).

This epistle will be rather short and sweet
I need time to figure a way to keep number 99 off the score sheet.
It's scary to think disaster lurks due to some 20-year-old,
But after looking at the tapes, Gretzky is something to behold.

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