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Hockey's gentleman on ice.


The hockey game had long since ended, yet a fair-sized crowd still lingered outside the Maple Leaf Gardens on a bone-chilling winter night in Toronto. Not all the people were waiting for the home team to emerge. In fact, most were there to see just one player--Wayne Gretzky of the visiting Edmonton Oilers.

Tension, almost palpable, rippled through the crowd until someone shouted, "Look--there he is!' Gretzky and some aides had piled through a side door to avoid the inevitable stampede. The crowd momentum shifted to the other side of the building, then became hysteria. Gretzky was pulled this way and that until, disheveled, he made it safely to the team bus. It was another hairbreadth escape for the blond darling of Canadian hockey fans.

Crowd behavior normally reserved for high-flying rock stars is routine these days for Gretzky. Not only is he recognized as the best hockey player for his amazing scoring proficiency, but the Oilers' center is also the sport's most popular figure and its best good-will ambassador. "From a promotional standpoint,' says John Halligan, public-relations director for the National Hockey League, "he is hockey. We have always had international stature, but because of Gretzky we have it to a greater extent now.'

No player in the history of hockey has captured the imagination of fans and media alike as Gretzky has in his seven seasons as a professional. He has the game's most recognized face, its most sought-after autograph and its most lucrative contract. His number, 99, is already a synonym for "great' in Canada, where he usually enjoys better press than Pierre Trudeau and receives far more fan mail than the Canadian prime minister. Gretzky's mail at one recent count reached 20,000 pieces a week, some of it addressed only to "Wayne Gretzky, Canada.' "It's like writing to Santa Claus,' says Mike Barnett, the president of CorpSport International, the Edmonton-based firm that handles Gretzky's many marketing deals.

The United States, generally blase about hockey, has felt Gretzky's influence as with no player before him. Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull, two of hockey's other greats, penetrated the U.S. consciousness to some extent. But Gretzky's impact has been far more dramatic. He is seen not only on national-magazine covers in America, but also on billboard advertisements from coast to coast, where his face --sans identification--smiles down and promotes one of his major endorsements, a camera. His name is also on the lips of world leaders. Once, at a White House gathering, President Reagan joked that he would trade "two draft choices and the state of Texas' to get Gretzky for his hometown Washington Capitals.

A quick glance at Gretzky would hardly suggest the most potent scoring machine in hockey. He is barely six feet tall and weighs not much more than 170 pounds, a relatively frail figure among the bullies who abound in one of the most violent team sports in the world. Out of uniform, he is usually dwarfed by his broad-shouldered teammates. But on the ice, he is most certainly in place.

"I played a lot of lacrosse, and that taught me how to roll with checks, slip away from them,' Gretzky says, explaining his uncanny ability to avoid collisions with heftier players. "I only get hit head-on about two or three times a year.'

At the age of 17, Gretzky was playing professional hockey, and not many years later he was dominating it and making the pre-Gretzky record books almost irrelevant. Gretzky quickly became his own point of reference. In his fourth season as a professional, 1981-82, Gretzky broke the record for most goals--92--in an NHL season and erased Phil Esposito's mark of 76. (He produced 87, the second-best mark in history, last season.) In 1980-81, Gretzky had broken Orr's record for assists with 109 while establishing a total-points standard (combined goals and assists) of 164. Gretzky improved this mark the following year when he scored the 92 goals and gave out 120 assists for 212 points. The 200-point plateau, once unimag-inable in hockey, became almost a perennial occurrence for Gretzky. He compiled 205 points in the 1983-84 season, when he also generated electric excitement in the sports world by scoring in 51 straight games. Journalists looked to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball as a comparable accomplishment.

"This may have been one of the harder records to break,' Gretzky points out. "When you score 90 goals or break the record for points, you can do that over 80 games. But the streak itself is pressure every night to be at your best, be consistent game in and game out.'

Although Gretzky humbly states, "I just feel lucky to be one of the 420 guys who get to play in the NHL,' he is surely head and shoulders above the field. What is it about him that has put him in a class by himself, that inspired the soaring, alliterative title of "The Great Gretzky'?

Observers say he has a special "sixth sense' that tells him where he should be on the ice at all times, like a divinity tapping into some mystical information not available to mortals.

His style on the ice is far from classic. Hardly a skating beauty, bent over awkwardly, he has been described as "Quasimodo on double runners.' He does not possess the speed of Bobby Orr or the power of Bobby Hull, but when it comes to shooting accuracy, he leaves other skaters in the ice. His phenomenal passes, which usually find teammates' sticks like heat-seeking missiles, account for his unusually high total of assists each year.

Bruce MacGregor, the assistant general manager of the Oilers, who was instrumental in acquiring Gretzky for the Edmonton team, puts it this way: "He has the thing that unique athletes have--a peripheral vision. He not only sees things, he sees them faster than other players. His peripheral vision helps him as he goes across the ice. Players don't get good shots at him. I saw him get hit solid only twice in all the times I've watched him play. Also, he has great hands and a great ability for lateral motion, stopping and turning. He's pretty elusive, tough to match up against.'

Gretzky's mental game is just as important as the physical. Says his father, Walter: "What gives Wayne the edge over other players is his total devotion and concentration during a game. He's playing the game while he's on the bench.'

Gretzky's father, a Teletype repairman and former minor-league hockey player himself, provided some early inspiration for Wayne, though he points out he never pushed him toward hockey. "I told him not to count on a hockey career because he wasn't that big. The Philadelphia Flyers were the big team at that time, and they were all big and rough.'

Nonetheless, Walter Gretzky would ice down the back yard so Wayne could have a place to skate, and he strung up lights so his son could practice there on cold winter evenings. The Gretzky back yard became an intensified training ground for Wayne, who swirled between tin cans and pylons, jumped over sticks and shot at continually shrinking targets. He developed his skills to such a degree that he was able to play against older competition in local leagues--and usually play better than anyone else.

Gretzky was playing for a team called the Sault Sainte Marie Greyhounds when he signed a lucrative professional contract, at the age of 17, with the Indianapolis Racers. After playing eight games for Indianapolis, he was sent to Edmonton for money badly needed by the financially troubled Racers. Edmonton, a bright, young boom town predicated for the most part on oil, turned out to be just the right place for Gretzky's booming career. Before long, he became the city's greatest natural resource. "I never considered New York or Los Angeles,' said Gretzky. "This is a serious hockey town with great fans.'

Gretzky's first season in Edmonton was outstanding, but it was only a hint of things to come. By the time Gretzky was rewriting the NHL record book and helping his team win a league championship, he was also setting new standards in financial areas for hockey players. A lucrative contract he had signed when he first joined the Oilers was eventually retooled to roughly $21 million for 20 years. As the Edmonton owner, Peter Pocklington, explained, "I felt that he had earned a lot more than the original contract put out. Therefore I gave him what I thought he was worth.' The new contract included Gretzky's own shopping center, to be added in 1988.

As it turned out, his hockey salary became only part of his income. Off the ice, Gretzky has become a oneman conglomerate with the help of Mike Barnett, who parlayed the player's unrivaled stature into a long list of endorsements and licensing deals that link his name to life insurance, sheets, pillowcases, a camera, chocolate bars, a video game, a Gretzky doll, wallpaper and a Gretzky clock on a Gretzky mirror. The money Gretzky makes from such deals is estimated at $650,000 to $2 million annually.

All this fame and fortune hasn't turned his head, his associates, friends and teammates say. One of five children who grew up in the Anglican Church, Gretzky stresses family in his life and goes home whenever he can. He has also found a second home with the family of his girl friend, Vickie Moss. Miss Moss is Wayne's constant companion, sometimes with one of her sisters or brothers, at late-night meals after home games.

Along with a Michael Jackson record, a prerequisite for Gretzky at these late-night gatherings is privacy. It's something he doesn't usually get. At other times, he eats up the public attention.

"I'm not a private person,' says Gretzky, described by close friends as a "toucher.' "I like the attention.'

Along with his many trophies as the league's MVP, he has also been the recipient of the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly conduct on the ice. Temper flare-ups are rare for him and fights nonexistent, particularly because he has an on-the-ice bodyguard--Dave Semenko, Oilers' left-winger. "I get criticized for not fighting my own battles,' he says, "but I can't do my job from the penalty box.'

In Canada, where home-grown heroes are not as plentiful as in the United States, Gretzky would seem to fulfill a crying need.

"If I'm the first,' he says with some modesty, "I hope I'm not the last.'

Photo: The hottest thing on ice (and off), fair-haired Wayne Gretzky has become hockey's No. 1 good-will ambassador. Unique to the game, he prefers breaking records to breaking his stick over the heads of Oilers' opponents.
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Title Annotation:Wayne Gretzky
Author:Rappoport, Ken
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1985
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