The Gretzky Question

In Which The Rangers Contemplate Whether They Are Better With Or Without The Graying Great One

Hockey is no simple game but it can attract simple minds, like the know-it-all in the Garden's upper press box who proclaimed a few weeks ago that Wayne Gretzky was "an embarrassment. If he had any pride, he would have retired long ago." Ten days later, Gretzky's game winner against the Islanders— a match in which he was the Rangers' best player— established a new plateau for most big-league goals. He had rushed back to the lineup from injury a few games earlier, less than fully fit, to offset other Ranger injuries and bolster fading playoff hopes. He does it because he is the most proud, most driven athlete imaginable.

Wayne Gretzky knows the hardest part of being the Great One is being compared to himself. The 1999 model Gretzky may have shortcomings (one veteran talent observer says, "Gretzky still has his lateral mobility, and can still pass the puck. But he has a hard time playing defense now. He is small, not physical, and doesn't shoot like he once did."), but he has never embarrassed himself in a Rangers sweater, and what he has accomplished can, in good measure, be attributed to an inextinguishably fiery pride.

But will Gretzky be an NY2K Ranger? A $5 million team option remains on his contract, and Gretzky has indicated he wants to return. "We've got to make that decision down the road," Rangers president Neil Smith has said, adding "I can't see why we wouldn't do it [keep him on]." The Garden requires star power and none is more powerful than Gretzky.

Nothing, however, is certain.

Speculation on Gretzky's fate bubbled during his absence and will reach a high-rolling boil after the season concludes. It won't be the first time.

When a back injury forced him from the first 39 games of 1992-93, he rushed his rehab and endured the first prolonged slump of his career. There were pronouncements his sun had set. But when the playoffs began, he became The Great One again, leading Los Angeles in a come-from-behind charge to the Stanley Cup Finals, climaxed by a hat trick to eliminate Toronto. "To anyone who believed Wayne Gretzky is through," said Canadian TV's Harry Neale during that game, "tonight is proof that he's still got it."

The following season Gretzky won the scoring title. Two years later, his requested trade to contending St. Louis from foundering L.A. prompted Ottawa columnist Earl McRea to call him "a once-great hockey player unable to say goodbye, unable to go gently into the dark night, unable to adjust to a silent and empty life in the afterworld of the only life he has known since he was a small boy."

In St. Louis, Gretzky broke the team playoff record for assists in a series. He then signed with the Rangers where, in the 1996-97 season that followed, he led the NHL in assists and finished tied for fourth in scoring.

Defying odds and critics is the underlying theme of Gretzky's career. Jim Taylor, co-author of a 1984 Wayne bio, recalled in the Calgary Sun last week how the quest to surmount obstacles became integrated into Gretzky's personality. It began at age five in Brantford, Ontario, when he wanted to play in a league of 10-year olds. Told to go home, he practiced for a year and returned at age six. Again they said scram. At age seven, they could deny him no longer. "It was a thread that ran through all the childhood stories collected for the Gretzky biography," wrote Taylor. "If you told him it couldn't be done, doing it became a crusade."

Too small. Too weak. Always too something. All he ever did was score more than anyone ever and grow to become the most dominant performer in team sports. He can still summon his pride to accomplish great feats on the ice— but with less frequency. Now his pride is invested in showing up for work each morning, giving his best on the job, and, when hurt, getting up off the canvas to fight another day.

He began strongly this season, averaging over a point a game. On some nights, especially against the better defensive clubs, he has faltered. Following a November loss to Buffalo, Sabres forward Vaclav Varada struck a raw nerve by saying Gretzky's line with wingers Petr Nedved and Niklas Sundstrom, "don't really create a problem for us. We've played better first lines. Gretzky was just skating around with the puck. It was easy." The Rangers seethed, but coach John Muckler split Gretzky and Nedved and the Rangers went on a 5-0-1 run.

Around Christmas, Gretzky was seventh in NHL scoring. Then he began struggling, making an impact only sporadically. In mid January, a neck injury started nagging him, but he glittered in the less intense All-Star Game environment. Skating freely on a line with impending free agents Theo Fluery and Mark Recchi, he was easily the MVP.

When real play resumed he sputtered as the pain worsened. Frustrated following an emotional late-February loss to the Flames— where Calgary cheers brought tears to his eys— he suggested that the Rangers, who plan to rebuild with youth, accelerate their progress by signing free agent veterans this summer.

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