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Afterward, the Flyers' Bobby Clarke and Paul Holmgren violated an NHL taboo by visiting an opponent's locker room. "I know everything's been written about you," Clarke told Gretzky. "I think none of it is adequate." Two weeks ago, another familiar face popped into the Oiler locker room and asked Gretzky if he could please have an autographed hockey stick. It was Orr.
Much has been said about Gretzky's early on-ice training, about his dad, Walter, sailing pucks around a flooded backyard rink for little Wayne to chase. But the fact remains, most NHL players practiced hard as kids, and none of them is as good as Gretzky. "The idea that Wayne is the player he is because of how hard he worked is garbage," says Sather. "What he does on the ice isn't taught; it comes down straight from the Lord."
Sather's chief concern, naturally, is keeping Gretzky's skates on the ice. "His presence alone psychs out our opponents," says Sather. "My job is to manipulate Wayne so that he upsets them as much as possible, without wearing him down." Still, Sather regularly calls upon Gretzky to take abnormally long, 1½-to-two-minute shifts, which means he plays 32 to 38 minutes a game. Most first-line centers are on the ice about 22 minutes. Sather also "floats" Gretzky at center with all four sets of wings almost every game. At times Sather has even played Gretzky at wing and once used him as a defenseman. Last week, in a 6-3 loss to Montreal, Canadien Center Doug Risebrough was assigned to cover Gretzky, but Wayne's manipulations nearly drove Risebrough batty. At one point Risebrough went off the ice, on again, off, and on again—all in about 10 seconds. He was leaping over the boards like a man jumping rope, until Referee Andy van Hellemond finally resolved his dilemma by whistling him to the bench.
Sather has no problem assigning line-mates to Gretzky. All the Oilers practically beg for ice time with him. "Playing with Wayne's a career break," says Kurri. "With him, you know your plus-minus, goals and assists will go up." Adds Anderson, "He opens up the game, lifts the action to a higher level. He makes hockey more fun." In all, Gretzky has set up 14 different teammates for goals this season. Of the Oilers' 313 goals, he has scored or assisted on 152. He has gotten points in 52 games. In the six he hasn't, Edmonton's record is 1-4-1.
"Wayne's like having your own Fantasy Island," says Lumley, who should know. In November, Sather put Lumley on a line with Gretzky, and Lumley immediately went on a 12-game goal-scoring streak, one short of the modern record set by the Kings' Charlie Simmer in 1980-81. Right before the streak, Lumley had spent 13 games in the stands.
When Gretzky assumes control of the puck, Edmonton's Northlands Coliseum—or any other NHL arena, for that matter—crackles with electricity. He likes to set up in the 10-foot area behind the enemy goal line and quarterback the offense from there. Bowman says that from behind the goal Gretzky has such complete vision his passing becomes uncanny. "He's the only player I've ever seen who can consistently center the puck from there through three sets of skates—and softly," says Bowman.
According to Edmonton's backup goalie, Ron Low, Gretzky invented a behind-the-net shot whereby he blasts the puck off the heel of the goalie's stick so that it caroms into the net. He actually practices this play and has scored off it several times in games. Against Hartford last year, Gretzky was trapped behind the net, defensemen barreling toward him from both sides. Kurri was open in the slot. Gretzky flipped the puck onto the blade of his stick and flicked it over the goal—a perfect pass—and Kurri tapped it home. "I never saw that before," says Low. "Not even in practice."
Talent, leadership, savvy—all of these qualities combine in Gretzky with a deep, smoldering drive never to be beaten. "Wayne has simply got to be first," says Fogolin. "With him there's no other way. If someone takes the puck from him, he starts to get red spots on his face, and he becomes very intent. You know next time out he'll go like the wind, lift the tempo a notch. And if everybody keeps up with him, he'll lift it more, and more...until he feels he's gotten even." Gretzky doesn't deny this. "Hockey is supposed to be fun," he says, "but it's fun only when you're winning."
Being the best has made Gretzky rich, even though in his first two NHL seasons he didn't get all the money he might have. He was content with a salary of about $150,000 a year, despite reports that other NHL stars, notably Los Angeles' Marcel Dionne, were making close to $600,000. But before this season began he had a long talk with Pocklington, and two weeks ago Gretzky emerged with a 21-year deal. The first 15 years could be worth $20 million.
Interestingly, Gretzky shied away from any of the incentive clauses such contracts normally contain. "I believe that I sign a contract to do my best," he says. "I should be paid for that, not for scoring 20 goals or 90 goals." In place of such sweeteners, however, Gretzky's contract calls for extra money if the team does well, with increments for making the playoffs and then for each round it wins in them. Gretzky loves the arrangement. "I'm not the Edmonton Oilers," he says. "I'm part of the team." News of the contract also has enhanced Gretzky's image as a rising media star, replete with a fast-growing following of ogling fans and an ever-increasing entourage of newspeople from Canada and the U.S.