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 Sunlast 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.

His injury would finally force him from the lineup. Without him, the Rangers played better, becoming more confident, aggressive, consistent, and exciting. In their 6-3-3 stretch, they beat strong teams— Philly, Toronto, and Phoenix. They beat Boston although they were outplayed, then lost a seesaw thriller return match in the waning minutes. They tied Dallas, the NHL's top team. They lost to Buffalo in OT and were simply outclassed by Ottawa.

For a spell, the Garden came alive again. The players explained they had to dig deeper to overcome Gretzky's loss and to chase their fading playoff hopes. Mike Richter, Ulf Samuelsson, and Adam Graves had performed well all year, but captain Brian Leetch seemed to rush the puck with his old speed and authority, Kevin Stevens returned from the shadows, Mathieu Schneider fired cannons from the point. John MacLean got hot. And three young centers— Nedved, Marc Savard, and Manny Malhotra— played dominant roles. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the Rangers dictated the style of play.

No contribution matttered more than 18-year-old Malhotra's, whose skating, stickhandling, and boardwork turned the Garden flirtation with his youth into a growing infatuation, vindicating Neil Smith's judgment not to deal him for Pavel Bure. The Daily News's Filip Bondy wondered if Gretzky's injury saved Muckler's job since the coach was reluctant to cut Gretzky's ice time. Bondy might have added Smith's job, too, because Gretzky's absence showcased the GM's rebuilding blocks.

Finally, in mid March, Rick Carpiniello in Gannett's suburban papers, asked THE question: "Are the Rangers better off without Gretzky?" He resoundingly answered: "NO!" noting that Gretzky remains "their best center, their leading scorer, their power play anchor, one of their core leaders, and one of the top playmakers in the entire NHL."

But in a telling paragraph, Carpiniello predicted Mucker would have to find a place for Gretzky without cutting much from the ice time of his three young centers, especially Malhotra, who was often benched when Gretzky played.

"When those three centers divided up Gretzky's 19-21 minutes a game, there was a noticeable difference for one reason. They all fly. So the average-speed Rangers suddenly looked several steps faster. The enthusiasm of the three young players, and the willingness to compete, gave the Rangers an effective forecheck and pressure on the puck in the neutral zone."

No surprise, Gretzky accelerated his comeback. But Muckler now had four centers in a three-line game. Malhotra was forced to the bench, diminishing the team's speed and forechecking.

Muckler adjusted. He reunited Gretzky and Nedved for the Islanders game, Gretzky volunteering for left wing. Malhotra returned to full duty. But— Ranger luck— Nedved injured his rib cage. With his status uncertain, we may not learn this season if Muckler's scheme will work.

"Two things make me think he'll be back," The Calgary Sun's Taylor wrote. "Gretzky remains a rink rat, loving everything about the game, from the thrill of competition to the sound of the Zamboni sliding over the newly gleaming ice.

"That, and the dream of skating around Madison Square Garden with the Rangers, hoisting the Stanley Cup one more time. If they re-sign Brian Leetch and are active enough in the free agent market to give it even a tinge of hope, I doubt he could turn away."

But what if the Rangers don't land a Recchi or Fleury, or want to develop their future and not contend now? Will Gretzky, whose prime motivation is always winning the Cup, want to be on a rebuilding team for his final kick at the can?

Or will he view next season as one last crusade, one more chance to defy the odds and baffle critics? "He has a great analytical mind," a colleague remarked last week, "and knows more hockey than you and I and 10 other writers will ever know, combined."

True. So much so that, whatever decision Gretzky reaches, it'll easily be the right one.

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