Gretzky Still Elusive After All These Years

United Press International

Wayne Gretzky entered the National Hockey League as an 18-year-old phenom, a gangly kid with a golden scoring touch. Eight years later, he still dominates the game like no others before him.

In a brutal sport where careers are often measured in torn cartilage and bone fragments, Gretzky has survived virtually untouched. He has missed only eight of 640 regular-season games. And some wonder about an unwritten rule which protects Gretzky from getting hit.

“Never,” the 26-year-old great says during a break in the Campbell Conference final. “There has never been any coach who told his players ‘Don’t hit Gretzky.’ I’d bet my house on it. If I was coaching, I certainly wouldn’t tell players to lay off a guy like me.”


Gretzky, whose team has advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the fourth time in five years, is holding court with a handful of reporters jammed into the Oilers’ bench at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum.

“You’ve got to take a hit to make a play in the playoffs,” Gretzky says. “You’ve got to stick your nose in. You look at the (New York) Islanders and all the Cups they’ve won with a lot of guys nursing bad shoulders and bad knees. It takes a lot of heart to win the Stanley Cup.”

Gretzky shouldn’t have to remind people he can take punishment. An ugly welt has risen on the side of his face from a recent run-in with Detroit’s Shawn Burr. His head is still tender from the week before when he was knocked unconscious from a check by Winnipeg’s Dale Hawerchuk.

It’s not that people don’t try to hit him, Gretzky explains, it’s just that he has the mobility to avoid them.

“I was just putting myself in stupid positions,” he says about the Hawerchuk and Burr incidents. “It was my own fault. Usually I don’t put myself in positions to take those hits.”

But there are other reasons -- and they are usually found on the left wing. First, there was Dave Semenko, a 6-foot-3, 230-pounder who once challenged Muhammad Ali to a sparring match.


Then there was Dave Hunter and Mike “Crusher” Krushelnyski. Marty McSorley, a 23-year-old ex-dairy farmer who draws blood with punches, now holds the title of Edmonton Oiler enforcer.

“I don’t think they should eliminate fighting in hockey,” says Gretzky, who is 6-foot and 170 pounds. “What happens is the big guys try to intimidate the small guys. If they know that nobody’s going to come in there and let them know they can’t do it, then there’s going to be more and more of it. We have guys that are there to be policemen and enforcers and sometimes when guys like myself or (linemate Jari) Kurri are getting hassled, the policeman has to step in there and tell them not to do it anymore.”

Gretzky has grown used to being hassled by opponents, especially during the playoffs when most teams assign a shadow to the Oiler center. Gretzky doesn’t mind when the man given the job is willing to skate with him, but he gets annoyed with those who prefer to keep him under control with slashes, elbows, high sticks and late hits.

“Sometimes I wish I was the size of Gordie Howe or Jean Beliveau, then I’d know how to handle those guys,” Gretzky laments, invoking the names of other greats who have had to put up with the same tactics.

“I think the easiest job in hockey is to shadow some guy,” he adds. “There’s nothing to following a guy around. It’s the ones like (Montreal’s) Guy Carbonneau and (Chicago’s) Troy Murray that you have to respect. They don’t just stand beside you and hack away. You’ve got to watch them just as closely as they watch you because they can score too.”

Inevitably, the conversation is drawn toward Gretzky’s endless string of scoring marks. There is only a little exaggeration in saying Gretzky has rewritten the record books.


He has led the league in scoring every year he has played, except his first when Marcel Dionne tied him in total points and won the scoring title because of two extra goals.

No one has come within 65 points of Gretzky’s season scoring record of 215 points. It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Gretzky ever matching it in an 80-game season.

This season, however, Gretzky raised a few eyebrows when he scored “just” 62 goals and 121 assists for a total of 183 points. But that still accounted for 49 percent of the Oilers offenses. And he was 75 points ahead of his nearest rival, Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux.

“Oh, I don’t think it means I’m in a slump or past my prime,” Gretzky says. “After all, I was 75 points ahead of the other guy. It gives me something to shoot for next year. And if I get more than 183 points next year, they’ll say ‘God, he’s having his best year ever.’

“I think a lot of it had to do with the other teams in our division improving so much this year. Everybody else is getting better. Both Winnipeg and Calgary were up there with us.”

But Gretzky still has his detractors and he admits he is growing tired of them.

“It’s always been that way for me and I don’t know why,” he says. “It seems like I always have to prove myself. For what reason, I don’t know. I think I’ve proved myself over and over. At first, people said I wouldn’t be able to play pro hockey, and I did that.


“Then they said ‘I’m not a winner until we win a Stanley Cup.’ Then we won a Stanley Cup and all of a sudden people started saying, ‘Well he’s never won a Canada Cup.’ Then we won a Canada Cup. It’s always something. It’s always, ‘Well he hasn’t done this.’ But I’ve done it. The only thing I haven’t done is win three Stanley Cups and hopefully we can do that this year.”