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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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Wayne Gretzky shares a 14th-floor two-bedroom condominium in Edmonton, Alberta with Kevin Lowe, a teammate on the Edmonton Oilers. Lowe has temporarily moved out so Gretzky's mother, Phyllis, and his 18-year-old sister, Kim, who are visiting from Brantford, Ontario, can stay with Wayne during the first week of the Canada Cup series. The night before, Team Canada, for whom Gretzky plays, won its first game, beating Finland 9-0. Today the team practiced at noon, and it has the afternoon off. Phyllis is sitting at one end of the living room couch, and Kim is sprawled at the other end, looking slightly catatonic. Gus Badali, Gretzky's agent and a friend of the family's, is seated across the room beside a stack of life-sized cardboard cutouts of the Boy Wonder himself modeling jeans, which are headed for clothing stores around Canada. A man from GWG jeans, the brand Gretzky endorses, sits near Badali. Gretzky is seated at his desk opening mail, and his girl friend, 19-year-old Vickie Moss, is bouncing off the walls, as usual. She's what's known as vivacious. It's a pretty good crowd for a weekday afternoon, but Gretzky is used to that. He likes gatherings. "I'm not big on independency," he says.

"So who wants to hear my song?" asks Vickie.

Everyone would like to, but no one is feeling chipper enough to make much of a fuss over the offer. Gretzky had a midnight curfew the night before, but his guests were all out on the town till four a.m. Drinking ice water seems to be their top priority. Badali finally gurgles, "I do." Phyllis and Kim are content just to rattle their ice cubes in concurrence.

This will never do. "Who wants to hear my song?" Vickie, a budding vocalist, demands. She's a very pretty girl, but she's also an accomplished arm wrestler, and this time there are five or six I do's and half as many please's. Vickie flashes an accommodating smile and turns on the tape, a fight song for the Edmonton Drillers soccer team that she recently recorded.

"Chalk up one more win for the Drillers," the song begins. Other lyrics encourage the Drillers goalward, and Vickie is singing along with herself, pretending to kick and block shots at the appropriate moments. It's a terrific little number, and if it's possible for a career to be launched by a soccer fight song, hers will be. When it's over she asks, "Want to hear it again?" and she's virtually bowled over with I do's and please's and the clicking of cubes.

Alan Thicke calls from Los Angeles. There isn't much news to be had there about the Canada Cup, and he wants to hear about the games. Thicke is sort of a Canadian Merv Griffin, and Wayne and Vickie were guests on his show this summer. Gretzky calls everyone older than he "Mister," and when he says "Mr. Thicke" over the phone, he makes Alan sound like a frozen milk shake. They talk hockey for a while. Then Mr. Thicke tells Gretzky about a funny thing that happened. Anne Murray, the singer, who's also Canadian, had called him that morning to find out if he had any amusing stories she could use for an upcoming concert. Mr. Thicke said he did. He tells Gretzky one. It must be a pretty good one because Gretzky is really tickled when he hangs up, and can't wait to relay it.

Problem is, Gretzky is a bad storyteller. He laughs all the way through his delivery, so when he gets to the punch line, it doesn't sound like a punch line. However, that doesn't keep him from trying. He's a game one and outgoing when relaxed. He has been like that ever since he was a kid—always ready with an answer, always striving to be the center of attention. This story has something to do with a supposed rumor that Murray wants to go out with Gretzky because she would like to find out what the "Great" stands for. That's what the GWG jeans people call him—The Great Wayne Gretzky. In the newspaper headlines it's usually THE GREAT GRETZKY. It has been like that since he was 16 years old. Now, at 20, he carries the title well.

It wasn't that the joke was so funny to Gretzky. It was the idea that Murray, the singer, and Thicke, the talk-show host, would casually refer to him in such a way—ho-hum, just another celebrity-rumor joke. Hockey players aren't used to that. Not since Bobby Orr came into the NHL in 1966 as an 18-year-old has anyone captured the imagination of hockey fans the way Gretzky has, and no one has appealed to the general public like Gretzky since Bobby Hull appeared on the cover of TIME in 1968. Gretzky, a center, is the most dangerous offensive player in the game, the most exciting, the most fun to watch. But he's more than that. He's The Kid. There has always been something special about that sobriquet, something that reaches out to everyone. The Kid. Someone who will grow up before our eyes.

"He's only 20, and he's torn the league apart two years in a row," says Red Berenson, coach of the St. Louis Blues. "It's scary to think what he might do before he's done."

Scary to Berenson, who must coach against Gretzky, but fun for the rest of us because we know, as good as he is now, that we haven't seen his best. There came a time with Orr, who's generally acknowledged to be the greatest hockey player of all time, when we knew "that's it, he can't show us any more, no one can." The remaining question was, how long could he continue to play at such an extraordinary level? But with Gretzky, we still don't know what his best will be. We can't yet know just how many points this phenomenal performer will amass in a single season once he matures physically and his team matures around him. The Oilers are a young club. They have no other star. "The mystery about Gretzky is the things he has been able to do with the players he has had around him," says Bill Torrey, general manager of the New York Islanders. "Everything that happens when he's on the ice revolves around him. Either he's got the puck or the other team does."

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