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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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The Islanders' strategy was to hit Gretzky every opportunity they got, which is easier said than done. "He's an open pond guy," says Torrey, "an eel who's hard to hit because he's not around the boards much. But Dave Langevin caught him with a helluva check, and Bryan Trottier hit him once. Those shots slowed him down. By the fifth and sixth games, Gretzky wasn't the same player he was in the first three or four."

Sather noticed it, too. "They bumped him a lot more in the last few games," he says. "He was tired against the Islanders. He won't ever admit that to you. But then again, you can't rest him if he's the only guy winning games for you."

Nevertheless, the series was a lot closer than New York had dreamed it would be, and it served notice that the Oilers may be the team of the not-too-distant future. Edmonton, needless to say, is rather pleased to have Gretzky aboard. For one thing, he fits the city's image—young, vibrant, confident. Edmontonians are ready to take on the world. The balance of power in Canada has rapidly been shifting west, where the money is, so it's only fitting that the present and future star of the national sport should come from this boomtown.

"They should rename the place Gretmonton," says Al Morganti of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Gretzky's picture is everywhere—on jigsaw puzzles, T shirts, key chains, billboards, television, drugstore counters. About every third kid wears a No. 99 jersey to the hockey games. Gretzky endorses seven products, ranging from hockey sticks to chocolate bars. His best-known advertisement in the States is an engaging 7Up commercial he does with his 14-year-old brother, Keith. The income from these activities nearly matches what Gretzky makes playing hockey. The Kid is hot.

This fact has not escaped the attention of the brighter executives around the NHL, who have winced at the league's pathetic attempts to market itself in the U.S. Nanne thinks that the NHL should start a films division, with the first assignment being to produce a highlight movie of Gretzky. Then The Kid could show up on, say, The Tonight Show, and television viewers could see the impossible things he does on the ice. You can't do them justice by talking about them. Eddie Mio, an Edmonton goaltender, says that even the players can't fully appreciate what Gretzky does because they're watching from ice level. "I sat in the stands one game when I was injured, and it was magic," says Mio.

Magic sells. Sather thinks the league should come right out and make a commercial about The Kid and pay for it to be aired. "You've got to create some sort of hero image in the U.S." he says. Gordie Howe, who once filled that role, has said, "The NHL needs someone to hang its hat on, and Gretzky looks like a hat tree."

He's already the most recognized athlete in Canada. Gretzky made at least two appearances in each of Canada's eight largest cities over the summer, and once, in Montreal, 7,500 people came to see him in a shopping center. During an autograph-signing session at a Toronto food fair, two girls stood and watched him for four hours, never saying a word, apparently too love-sick to do anything but gawk. "It wasn't normal," says Badali. Gretzky finally asked that the girls be requested to move along—they were giving him the willies—and he undoubtedly lost two fans as a result.

Badali, who handles Gretzky's schedule, is a gentle, soft-spoken man, and for years he has told Gretzky to model himself after Howe. He certainly could do worse. Howe, always modest, always patient with strangers, is beloved in Canada. Gretzky is following the same pattern and gaining similar affection. "So far he has been willing to take advice," says Badali. "As long as he does that, things will be all right."

It can be trying, though. Gretzky has been on the straight and narrow for a long time now. So much of growing up is learning from your mistakes, and it seems as if Gretzky hasn't been allowed to make any for years. "Back in the Sault Ste. Marie days, I did what I wanted to do," he says. "Right now my life isn't in my hands as far as summertime goes. It's in my management's hands."

In addition to trips around Canada, Gretzky made three appearances in New York City this summer and one in Las Vegas. Leroy Neiman painted a portrait of him, the original of which is immodestly priced at $125,000. Prints can be purchased for $2,675 in the U.S., $3,200 in Canada. Gretzky also taped a segment for ABC's Kids Are People Too, which is filmed in New York. As a surprise, the producers flew in his three brothers: Keith, Glen, 12, and Brent, 9. Gretzky was surprised, all right, but when his brothers ran out onto the stage, he hardly changed expression. "Nothing surprises me anymore," he says. After the show, Gretzky, alone with all his brothers for one of the few times in his life, took them to a Mets game.

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