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Gretzky's getting shut out was no longer a UPI flash. It barely made the game notes. He was 30, looking down a long, dark tunnel and seeing only a gold watch. He thought long and hard about taking it and getting on with the next life, driving his kids to dancing lessons, trying to break 80 and being introduced at championship fights. "The whole thing just hit me," he says. "It went from bad to worse, to the point where I had serious conversations with my wife about my career. I hate playing bad. That's my biggest pet peeve.... The last thing I wanted in my career was to not earn my money. And I realized, 'I'm being overpaid out here.' "
The one guy he would have liked to hash it out with, he couldn't. Wally was awake and talking, but he was not quite the same. Once Wayne might have said, "Hey, Wally, we're going to Chicago tomorrow," and Wally might have answered, "Gonna be tough there, very tough game." Now the answer was just, "Oh, that's good."
Wally could remember the past but not the present. He could remember the great games, but not what he had had for breakfast. If, say, Keith visited him in the morning, Wally had no recollection of it an hour later. "It's not really him," says Wayne. "I'd always considered him a very smart man, but now, his common sense isn't there. He's not a very smart man right now.... Here was a man I'd talked with just about every day of my life, and now I don't have that." Gretzky felt a new emptiness.
But what Wayne Gretzky found out is that he had other best friends. "Janet told me, 'You love to play hockey. How can you not play?' And I realized that was the bottom line: I did love it." Then there was Messier, Gretzky's former Oiler teammate who at the time was a new New York Ranger. "He told me, 'The thing that's made you one of the best players over the years has been your mental edge,' " says Gretzky. " 'You've just lost it now. You'll get it back. You've got to regroup.' " And finally, there was help from an unlikely source—Raeder, the affable, cupid-faced Kings assistant. "Relax," Raeder told him on Nov. 23. "You don't have to take the whole world on your shoulder. Have fun. Love the game."
One thing about life: You never know who or what is going to rekindle a spark in a man. For some reason this did it, this tip from a former goalie who had never played a single game in the NHL.
"Cap," said Gretzky, as he left the room, "it starts tonight."
And it did. From that night, against San Jose, through last weekend, Gretzky went ballistic—six goals and 15 assists in nine games, including a hat trick. He had points in all nine games and moved from nowhere in the NHL scoring race to sixth and closing fast. To scoring leader Kevin Stevens of Pittsburgh, it must have been like looking in your rear-view mirror and seeing a 747.
The worm had turned. Suddenly, Gretzky was Midas. The CFL's Toronto Argonauts, the team he owns along with McNall and comedian John Candy, won the Grey Cup. This came a day after Gretzky learned that Golden Pheasant, one of his 16 thoroughbreds, had won the $2.77 million Japan Cup. And there was talk that the Honus Wagner baseball card he and McNall paid $410,000 for last March would someday be worth more than $1 million. The way things were going, Gretzky could have put a quarter in a pay phone and expected 20 to 1.
Unfortunately, the Kings' number still hasn't come up. The team was last seen somewhere below .500, having lost five in a row and having gone 3-6-1 in its last 10 games. In one horrid two-game stretch last week—in which Gretzky had a hand in every Kings goal—the Los Angeles defense gave up 100 shots on goal, 49 to the formerly toothless Sharks and 51 to the grateful Chicago Blackhawks. "It's Murphy's Law around here right now," said Raeder in Chicago.
Part of the Kings' slow start is short health, and part is short tempers. Gretzky, Kurri, goalie Daniel Berthiaume and defensemen Rob Blake, Marty McSorley, Charlie Huddy, Larry Robinson and Jeff Chychrun have all missed serious swatches of games with injuries, though none of them has missed more than their coach, Tom Webster. His 12-game suspension for chucking a stick at referee Kerry Fraser on Nov. 16 meant that including time off for punching a player (last April he took a swipe from the bench at Calgary's Doug Gilmour) and the days he was absent because of an car infection, he will have missed, by the end of the month, 31 regular-season games in the past two seasons. Add it all up, and he has been around for only three quarters of the Kings' games. He's the Johnny Carson of NHL coaches.