Sport: Hockey's Great Gretzky

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A 20-year-old sensation rewrites the record books

Two years ago, Hockey Legend Gordie Howe had some advice for Rookie Wayne Gretzky: "No matter how much you make, get out there and earn it." Now in his second season with the Edmonton Oilers, Gretzky, 20, obeys the commandment. The 5-ft. 11-in., 165-lb. center is the most exciting one-man show in the sport. Little known outside the puck-hustling world, the Great Gretzky, as he is called by ice-rink railbirds, blows N.H.L. records like wildcat gushers on the Alberta plains.

Gretzky singlehanded pulled the Oilers, an undistinguished expansion team, out of the basement and rewrote league history in the process. The slight youngster this season amassed 164 points —goals plus assists—well beyond the record of 152 held safely for a decade by Phil Esposito. In addition, Bobby Orr's 1970 mark of 102 assists fell to Gretzky's bombsight passing. New total: 109. Experts argue that it is easier for strong players to score goals and assists now that the N.H.L. is bloated with lackluster expansion teams. But Oiler Coach Glen Sather points out: "Wayne doesn't have an Orr passing him the puck like Espo did."

In fact, Gretzky contributed to eleven of the Oilers' 15 goals against the third-ranked Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. That performance forced hockey's class act into amateurish mistakes and French expletives, as Edmonton swept the series in three games. Says Sather of his center: "A guy like him should be a national treasure. There's no limit to what he can do."

Gretzky has long been a child of bright promise. His early ability to handle star turns began at age two, when Father Walter, a telephone company technician, flooded a piece of their Brantford, Ont., backyard to make a bumpy rink. Years of bruising youth games later, Gretzky's novice appearances were sellouts. Hockey greats like Montreal's Jean Beliveau came to marvel at his ability, and an amateur coach offered players $25 if they could stop the Great Gretzky. Apparently no one ever collected. Two years ago, Gretzky joined Edmonton, then part of the old World Hockey Association. Last year, Edmonton's first in the N.H.L., he tied Los Angeles' Marcel Dionne for total points, with 137, and was voted the league's leading player.

Blond-mopped and boyish-looking, Gretzky exploits a trick from novice days: too small to anchor himself in front of the goal like a normal center, he hides behind the net and passes from there. It is still his favorite ploy. Says Gretzky: "Some guys are defensive, some score goals, and some are tough. For me it's just as nice to pass the puck and watch someone else shoot as to score myself." Gretzky's game relies on deceptive speed and accurate but not hard shooting. His stick handling is the best in the N.H.L. He often plays keep-away against muscle teams like Boston or St. Louis. He is too fast to be slashed and high-sticked by hockey's ever present goon squads. "Some guys hit me, but guys miss a lot too," he laughs. Gretzky also plays hockey the way a grand master envisions chess. He anticipates passes and patterns that develop seconds later. Gretzky's only weakness is defense: he sometimes forgets it exists. Says Sather: "I have to remind him now and then."

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