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He may be the most precocious athlete of our time. At six Wayne Gretzky was competing against 10-year-olds; at 16 he was dominating 20-year-olds; at 17 he was the youngest athlete playing a major league sport in North America; and at 20 he broke the NHL single-season scoring record. "I've always done everything early," says Gretzky.
As youngsters, most athletes who become superstars are blessed not only with extraordinary coordination but also with other physical advantages, such as exceptional size, strength and speed. All they lack are experience and the insight that derives from it. Gretzky, on the other hand, has been, as Longfellow wrote of Hiawatha, "learned in all the lore of old men" since his early teens. His speed was average, his size and strength below average, but his coordination and aptitude for his sport were so advanced that by the time he was 19 he had proved himself to be the best hockey player in the world. Still, as he matured physically, there was more to come.
Last season, at 21, Gretzky put together a year that no one in hockey had thought possible: 92 goals and 120 assists for 212 points in 80 games. These totals are so far beyond the previous records that they're difficult to put in perspective. It's as if some kid suddenly hit 78 home runs, passing 60 by mid-August. Our sense of history was offended. The NHL's second-leading scorer last season, Mike Bossy, had the fourth-highest point total (147) in league history, but he trailed Gretzky by 65 points. That's half a season's work for most big scorers.
The last time anyone wreaked so much havoc on his sport's record book was in 1961-62, when Wilt Chamberlain led the NBA in scoring with a 50.4 average, 12 points higher than the previous mark. Walt Bellamy, the league's No. 2 scorer in 1961-62, had a 31.6 average. But Chamberlain's feat was understandable. He was a phenomenal physical specimen, 7 feet tall, enormously strong, marvelously coordinated. Furthermore, he had a coach who told Wilt's Philadelphia Warrior teammates to feed, feed, feed him the ball. Gretzky is as normally proportioned as the newspaperboy. He's a shade under 6 feet tall and weighs 172 pounds—and not a particularly muscular 172 pounds, either. Gretzky registered last in strength evaluations conducted by his team, the Edmonton Oilers, in 1981. "He tests very normally in other areas, too," says Glen Sather, the Oilers' coach and general manager. "I think he runs totally on adrenaline."
Gretzky certainly doesn't run on iron. When his blood was tested near the end of last season, he was found to be close to anemia. Yet there he was playing with a bunch of guys like Lumley and Kurri and Callighen—talented players but hardly stars—and taking us to scoring heights never imagined. Along the way this nearly anemic wunderkind-next-door shattered Rocket Richard's mark of 50 goals in 50 games, probably the most hallowed record in hockey. It had stood since 1945 and had been equaled only once, by Bossy in 1980-81. Gretzky, who sets up many more goals than he scores, many more than Richard or Bossy ever set up, got his 50th goal last season in his 39th game. Afterward, Richard, who seldom praises modern players, said, "I have now seen Gretzky enough to say that in whatever decade he played, he would've been the scoring champion."
Gretzky now holds 27 individual NHL records. Gordie Howe is next with 14. Gretzky has been in the league three years, and three times he has been its Most Valuable Player. (He played one season, 1978-79, in the WHA and was its Rookie of the Year.) Yet he has remained unchanged and respectful through it all, almost awed by those players whose achievements he has been surpassing. He's the young champion hockey so badly needs.
Bobby Orr sits in the upstairs study of his home in Weston, Mass. Ten years ago he was hockey's champion, its wunderkind, although he didn't relish the limelight as Gretzky does. No one has ever controlled the flow of the game as did Orr, who's the only player other than Gretzky to have had more than 100 assists in a season. Now 34, Orr has been retired for four years, his astounding career cut short by a series of knee injuries. He represents Nabisco Brands, traveling around the country to make personal appearances and give youth hockey clinics. With that curious loyalty that former hockey stars feel toward their sport—even if the sport has hurt them—Orr cares deeply about the future of the game, the kids. "How do you look after a house?" he asks. "The foundation. We're not looking after our foundation."
It has been suggested that Gretzky, like Orr, like many of the great ones, must see the game at a slower speed than the rest of us. You hear of batters who can see the stitches on a ball before they hit it. Orr, asked about this, smiles. "That's too deep for me," he says. "I'm sure Wayne does things there's no darn way he can explain. I know I did. I remember one game I played against Montreal when the puck bounced into the air near the boards. I just swung at it. I didn't know what else to do. The puck went right into the corner of the net. You think I planned that?" He laughs. "You don't explain things like that.
"To me what makes Wayne different is the little things. Not big technical things. His strengths are fundamental. He's not real fast, but he's faster than you think. He doesn't have Bobby Hull's shot, but he shoots better than you think. He passes better than anybody I've ever seen. And he thinks so far ahead. There was one game last January, against St. Louis, when Gretzky was coming down on the left wing. The right wing had the puck." Orr pauses here, smiling at the difficulty of describing the play. He stands up and walks across the study to grab a hockey stick leaning against the wall. "The right wing passes Gretzky the puck, only it's behind Wayne," says Orr. "The defenseman in front of Gretzky straightens up. Only instead of reaching back for the pass the way the rest of us would have done [ Orr now reaches awkwardly behind him with his stick, making himself easy prey for the imaginary defenseman], Gretzky keeps skating. The puck skitters off the boards and past the defenseman, and Wayne's looking back for it now. He picks it up and is on his way. I'm sitting there saying, 'That's what makes him different.' He keeps things simple. That to me was the highlight of the game.
"People keep waiting for him to fall on his face, but as long as he doesn't tire mentally, he'll play the game. That's my only fear, that he'll get mentally worn out. Wayne does many, many more things off the ice—appearances, endorsements—than I ever did. I did what I thought was my fair share, but it wasn't my thing. I just hope he has good people around him who are watching him. He's young and full of energy, and when you have that, you feel you can do it all forever. But hockey can't afford to lose its Gretzkys." Orr says this without a trace of bitterness. "Hockey would have survived the last three years without him; hockey will always survive. But if Wayne is influencing the hundreds of thousands, the millions of kids that I think he is—well, put it this way: Thank God he's around."