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Gretzky is discreetly affectionate with people to whom he feels close. A family friend once described him as "a toucher." Vickie, who describes Gretzky and herself as having a "great, close, backing-each-other, busy relationship," says, "Probably what's most important to him is pleasing his father. His father's brilliant. He's always right. And he's old-fashioned when it comes to family upbringing. When he says 'Jump,' they say, 'How high?' They all have a lot of discipline. It's in their blood."
Even with mere acquaintances, Gretzky displays a puppy-like desire to please, to be liked. For a while he winked at everyone. "He's more outgoing and seemingly younger than Orr was at the same age," says Nanne. "As a result, Gretzky's presence does not command that mystique. He's more like a kid brother or a son."
Orr wasn't particularly concerned about cultivating his image. He was very much a player's player. One of the guys. Gretzky is well liked by his teammates, but he's clearly on a different track. In 15 years it's unlikely that he'll be a scout or a general manager or a player representative. He'll be a corporate executive or a movie star, or something outside hockey. He mingles better with people outside his profession than those in it. The thought of Thicke and Murray discussing him so tickled Gretzky because he has not fully come to grips with the breadth of his celebrity. "He still thinks of himself as an average Canadian guy," says Sather, "and the public responds to that."
This summer in Las Vegas, Gretzky practically gawked when he met Judy Landers of B.J. and the Bear. Says Mio, who was there, too, and admits he did the same, "It's all right for me to do that but Gretzky shouldn't. He's one of them."
Gretzky took August off from personal appearances to get in shape for the Canada Cup. Not that he ever gets really out of shape. He ran a little and lifted weights, beefing up to 173 pounds. In strength tests the Oilers held in 1979, Gretzky finished last. Yet on tests that measured endurance and recuperative powers, his performance was outstanding. Those results help explain why he picks up so many of his points at the tail end of shifts or in the third period. Since turning pro, Gretzky's speed has improved greatly, and he's now one of the fastest forwards in the league, despite an awkward skating style. "He's not what you'd call fluid," his father says. "It's because of his arms. Watch his arms. I always told him to hold them away from his body. You can't do anything with your elbows tucked up against your body, but keeping them out makes you look funny when you skate."
When the best players in the NHL assembled for Team Canada, the coach, Scotty Bowman of the Buffalo Sabres, assigned Gretzky to center a line that had Lafleur as right wing. Bowman later settled on Gil Perreault, who is naturally a center, as their left wing. "They couldn't wait to play with Gretzky," Bowman says. Lafleur and Perreault each had had his most disappointing season in 1980-81, but in Team Canada workouts each was skating as he had in his prime. "The Kid has gone into rejuvenating careers," said Frank Orr of the Toronto Star. It became obvious how badly Lafleur missed his old centerman, Jacques Lemaire, who left the Canadiens after the 1978-79 season. Since then no one has been able to get the puck to him consistently. With Gretzky, it was as if he and Lafleur had played together forever. "Lafleur is kind of a free-spirit player, as is Gretzky," says Berenson, who was one of Bowman's assistants on Team Canada. "They can anticipate each other's moves. And they have a mutual respect, the kind great, great players have for each other."
They played with total selflessness. No egos were at stake, no attempts at one-upmanship were made. At times, they over-passed, forgoing good shots in an effort to make the perfect play. Perreault caught the spirit, too, and until he broke his leg, they were the best line in the tournament. In the world. But it was Gretzky's show. He had brought out the best in the other stars. Gretzky, though, doesn't accept that assessment.
"He doesn't think of himself as the greatest, because of his respect for Guy," says Mio, who, of Gretzky's peers, may know him best. "He just loves Guy. He'd like to have the same public image as Lafleur—not sophisticated and not a jerk."
Gretzky isn't the only one who loves Lafleur. During the Canada Cup games in Edmonton, the fans chanted "Guy! Guy! Guy!" whenever he touched the puck. It was the first time he had been the object of such an outpouring of affection, and Lafleur joked that it was Edmonton's way of thanking him for the way he played in last spring's playoffs. But it was more than that; it was for services rendered, for the years when he was the greatest and carried the burden that will be Gretzky's for the next little while. "They give more to the game," Sather says of the few true superstars. "They care about it more. Gretzky's got to pay his dues yet, but I'm 100% sure he'll do it. The way it shows is how the team around him plays better each year."
Sather thinks this season will be Gretzky's toughest. The main reason is that with the new unbalanced schedule Edmonton will play each of the clubs in its division eight times. "They're going to have to figure out a way to stop him," Sather says. "Last year you'd play a team once and might not see it again for two months."