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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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Theories abound on how to stop Gretzky. The Bruins enjoyed some success by assigning a man to shadow him all night. Berenson, though, doesn't believe that tactic makes good sense. "If Gretzky plays 40 minutes," he says, "and I play my best defensive player 40 minutes, sooner or later Gretzky's going to score because he's better at his game than my guy is at his. Furthermore, Edmonton's going to win because when Gretzky's out there, he always has a chance to score, and my defensive line has very little chance of doing so. You have to stick with what you do best." It should be noted, however, that Gretzky got five goals and two assists in one game against St. Louis last season while the Blues presumably were concentrating on what they do best.

Nanne has a different idea. "It sounds stupid," he says, "but the way to play him is to put as many guys on him as it takes to keep him away from the puck and leave his teammates alone and hope they don't score. You can't say that if you cover Gretzky's linemates he'll have no one to pass to, because he creates his own scoring opportunities."

Another Nanne idea is to push the goal back against the boards so that Gretzky can't set up behind it. When Gretzky was 14, his junior coach told him to find a place for himself in the offensive zone where he wouldn't always get knocked down. So he went behind the net, and the tactic may revolutionize the game. "It's like having an extra player out there, particularly on the power play," says Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Calgary Flames. "He uses the net like a pick."

A puck fired around the boards invariably passes behind the goal—remember the drills Gretzky's father put him through—so when Gretzky is back there, he's easy to hit with a pass. The defenseman then has a problem. If he chases Gretzky from one side of the net, Gretzky will scoot out the other. If two players come after him, one from either side, Gretzky will slide the puck to one of the areas they've just vacated. A teammate should be sweeping in. And if the other team leaves him alone back there, he either will thread a pass onto someone's stick in front or come out in front himself, forcing a defender to commit himself. "The best you can hope for is to get on him quickly and force him to his backhand," says Berenson without much enthusiasm, because Gretzky, of course, will find a solution to that, too.

Team Canada is practicing in Edmonton. The style of play in the NHL is starting to change, starting to adopt aspects of the European game, which emphasizes speed and passing over size and power. Gretzky is now a role model, and it's possible that other young Canadian forwards will begin setting up behind the net, flicking accurate passes to teammates, using brains instead of brawn. In the post-Orr years, every young defenseman in Canada carried the puck into the offensive zone, an unfortunate habit that probably set back hockey in North America 10 years. But this style of Gretzky's, it will be something else, if it catches on. It's fun, creating plays. It can be seen in the way Lafleur, Perreault and Gretzky practice this day, in the way they weave and pass, nearly laughing.

Two girls are watching. They're oblivious to the wonderful hockey they are seeing. One says, "Did you hear?"

"What?"

"Wayne and Vickie are breaking up."

(Hopefully) "Really?"

"For sure. I feel really bad for her. She was the most popular girl in school, you know."

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