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Wayne Gretzky was not depressed. No. For instance, last month he only thought about quitting hockey twice a day—a.m. and p.m.
"This is the end," he told his wife after another in an assembly line of odorous performances. "This is the end of the end. I never, ever dreamed I could play this bad."
At first his wife, actress Janet Jones, thought he was kidding. So did his coaches. So did former teammate Mark Messier. But Gretzky was serious. "I hate mediocrity," he told Los Angeles Kings assistant coach Cap Raeder. "If there's one thing I can't accept, it's mediocrity."
Actually, "mediocrity" was overdoing it a bit. The way Gretzky was playing, mediocrity was still two floors up. Gretzky was just slightly above horrid and just below rotten. Here it was the 10th game of the season, and he had no goals. Wayne's World without goals? No way! In Canada people checked their calendars to be sure it was hockey season. The Great One had become the Great None. In one 0-4-2 stretch for the Kings in November, Gretzky contributed three whole points. The greatest player in hockey history suddenly couldn't dump a puck into a swimming pool. "I'm the weak link on this team," he told reporters.
Maybe even worse, he had taken the Kings' expensive new foreign import, winger Jari Kurri, and blown his engine. Gretzky's former right wing from the glory days with the Edmonton Oilers had returned from Italy at Gretzky's sincere urging and Kings owner Bruce McNall's sincere $850,000 a year. Talk about steep. To get Kurri, in the off-season the Kings traded their power-play point man, Steve Duchesne, and their best checking center, Steve Kasper. Kurri, who averaged 47 goals a year while playing on Gretzky's line in Edmonton, had a hat trick in the season opener and then scored only two goals in the next nine games. This is the greatest scoring combination of all time? "Maybe we should look at some old tapes," joked Kurri.
All in all, hockey for Gretzky seemed to be one long headache, starting with the day last season when he used his face to stop Duchesne's shot in Game 3 of the Kings' Smythe Division finals loss to Edmonton. Gretzky got 36 stitches and a permanent crease in his left ear by which to remember what he calls "my first blocked shot."
Then, about the time he could hear without having to stand sideways, it was time to play in last summer's Canada Cup. In Game 1 of the best-of-three finals in Montreal on Sept. 14, Gretzky took a dubious shot in his legendarily tender back from Team USA's Gary Suter, who made a run for the border while Gretzky, the eventual tournament MVP, went home crumpled over like Felix Unger.
Then, about the time Gretzky could pick up the morning paper without wincing, it was time to play the NHL exhibition season. He rushed his poor lumbar into action to help his boss fill the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for an exhibition game against the New York Rangers. When your boss is also your business partner in such hobbies as million-dollar racehorses, a Canadian Football League team, priceless baseball cards and precious coins—most of which you know precious little about—you like to keep him happy. But in Vegas, Gretzky got a shove from the Rangers' Mark Hardy in just the wrong part of his back, and it crapped out.
And so it was that Gretzky's back started the regular season in about the same shape that JFK's left the war. By the fourth game the back was less painful, but his game was still hurting. Gretzky was starting to get worried. So he called—who else?—his dad, Walter, affectionately known to him and others as Wally.
"Wally, did you ever think I could play this bad?" he asked glumly from his car phone on the way to practice in L.A.