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A GREAT ASSET NOT USED.

Byline: STEVE DILBECK

EL SEGUNDO - For a moment, he let himself wander. It wasn't so long ago, but with each passing day, the distance swells.

Yet in that instant, Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, was wistful, almost sad.

``It's such a great game, playing in the NHL,'' Gretzky said. ``It's the best professional sports hockey league in the world.''

Only they don't play hockey in the NHL these days. They haven't all season. The lockout continues, the new drop-dead date approaches. Only gloom fills the rinks.

``We're all hanging on a thread here,'' he said.

And Gretzky repeated his ominous sense of the failed negotiations. That if an agreement isn't reached soon, not only this season will be lost, but possibly next season, too.

``Players are paid from October until April,'' he said. ``If we don't get a deal done by April 1, that means they're not going to get paid all summer.

``I don't think they're going to be chomping at the bit to get a deal done over that six-month period. If we don't get it done in the next month, I don't see us going back for a while.''

This is an alarming forecast, a sobering one for those who truly miss hockey. Gretzky brings a distinctive view to the impasse, an exceptional former player who is now a part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Yet the NHL has turned to Gretzky for neither insight nor perspective. Not to utilize his stature to impact players or owners.

``I've spoken to the commissioner maybe two or three times over the last few months, just to kind of see if they're talking or any talks are scheduled,'' he said.

The first entire professional sports league canceled in North American history is apparently just days away, and the NHL leaves an incredibly valuable asset on the sideline.

Gretzky seems all right with that. Something about knowing your place.

``It's kind of like when you're a young kid and go in the locker room for the first year or second year,'' he said. ``You learn to go in there and listen to the older guys and keep your mouth shut. It's basically called respect.

``I'm relatively young and new at the management side of things. You have people who have been around a long time and they know the business side of this a lot better than I do. I just sort of listen to what everyone is saying.''

Everyone seems too happy to simply take direction from either commissioner Gary Bettman or union chief Bob Goodenow. Direction that right now has them headed toward disaster.

The league's all-time scorer is now an owner, and the closest he's come to organizing the return of hockey was at his fantasy camp at the Kings' training facility this week.

``I'd do anything to help the game,'' Gretzky said. ``But at this point and time, I don't know if I'm the answer. Maybe Mario (Lemieux) is the guy.

``Mario is an owner and is currently playing, and wants to get back to playing. Maybe everyone is looking in the wrong direction and he's the guy that can be the one person who goes in there that everyone says, 'Hey, this is making sense.' ''

Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins' player-owner, reportedly has not been approached, either.

Everyone just digs in, tries to make the other sweat, claim they're in this for the long haul, all under the guise of the betterment of hockey.

``Obviously ownership wants a cap,'' Gretzky said. ``I can't speak for the players. My direction at this point is as an owner, and we're following the lead of the commissioner.''

So many good little soldiers. Days slip past, games die, all while the generals hunker down, safe in their richly paneled offices.

The NHL needs a hero right now, and none with business-school backgrounds appear likely candidates.

There is a very real fear that hockey fans in warm-weathered cities in the U.S. could be lost through this process. Like fans in Phoenix.

The Coyotes have a new building outside Phoenix that now sits empty on those nights when hockey was supposed to rule the arena.

``It's not empty, it's empty for hockey,'' Gretzky said. ``That's disappointing. But it's pretty busy for a brand new building.''

Busy with people thinking about concerts or professional wrestling or ice shows. But not hockey. Not Gretzky's great game.

``It hurts everyone,'' he said. ``Whether you're a former player, a current player, a youngster, a fan who watches the game - it's obviously not a good time for the National Hockey League. We all miss it desperately.''

Not desperately enough. Not desperately enough to step forward, shed the new-kid label and try to lead the entrenched to a reasonable conclusion.

``This could be a long, long lockout,'' he said.

Gretzky tried a small, weak smile. And the games seemed a little further away.

CAPTION(S):

photo, box

Photo:

The Coyotes' co-owner Wayne Gretzky would offer his services to help end the NHL lockout. But he said no one's asked.

Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Box:

THE CLOCK WINDS DOWN
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 11, 2005
Words:854
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