By Dec. 7 he was back on the ice. Assistant coach Cap Raeder set up skating drills to supplement Gretzky's back rehabilitation exercises. "He ate it up," Raeder says. Gretzky was on the ice before his teammates practiced, sometimes skated while they practiced and was still on the ice when they finished. "He came determined every day, with a purpose every day," says Raeder. "It was like he was desperate, like he found out how much he missed it."
By Dec. 26, Gretzky was practicing with the Kings. He was pain-free, and aerobic tests showed him to be even fitter than he had been for preseason camp. His doctors, who had originally forecast a return to action in March, agreed to a mid-January debut. There was no reason to keep him out any longer.
By the time Gretzky made his first appearance, he had no apprehension about his back. His only concern, it seems, was about looking like an oaf. He had worried aloud that he would somehow mess up, make a fool of himself. He did not. During that first game Melrose watched Gretzky skate behind the net, fetch the puck and blindly feed it to a teammate. Afterward Melrose said, "He doesn't see that guy. I know he doesn't see him, yet he knows that guy is there. You know how they said Ted Williams could see the stitching on the ball? That's how Wayne sees the ice."
This brilliance was reassuring to a city and to a sport. Star-starved Los Angeles—and all of hockey—basked in Gretzky's light, for at least a little while longer.