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Great but Never Grating, He Keeps Skating to His Own Goals

What a weird and wondrous evening it was at the Great Western Forum for the Great Western Gretzky. We always half-suspected that Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick secretly was some sort of wand bestowed upon him by a puckish medieval goblin, or some sort of Excalibur that he extracted from Ontario stone as a wee lad, but Saturday night he made us believers. He scored three goals with one shot.

Honestly. Good King Wayne took but a single actual shot in 60 minutes’ time in Los Angeles’ 5-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, but was favored with scoring the winning team’s third goal, fourth goal and fifth goal, for the 44th hat trick of his career, and his first with the Kings. Hats off to Wayne, then, because this was some trick.

“Two of the three goals, I didn’t score,” Gretzky admitted.

One of them was tipped into the Sabres’ net by one of their own defensemen. Somebody in a white jersey nearby had to be given the goal, so it went to Gretzky, who always happens to be nearby when pucks go into nets. Wayne Gretzky could score or assist on a goal from his car.

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Another came with a second remaining in the game, when an exasperated Buffalo player, part of a blockade in the crease after the goaltender had been recalled to the bench, spotted Gretzky in the vicinity, got fed up, yanked the whole goal off its moorings and shoved the thing right at him. Rather than grant a penalty shot, since the game was virtually over and the goalie pulled, a goal was given to the nearest King. Yeah, him.

“The referee started yelling, ‘Penalty shot! Penalty shot!’ And I said, ‘Who am I going to shoot it against? There’s no goalie,’ ” Gretzky said.

“Oh, well. By the time summertime comes along, it’ll be an end-to-end rush. I’ll be telling people how I split the defense and went the length of the ice. Hey, they never ask how. Only how many.”

What a swell way this was for King Wayne to go into the National Hockey League’s All-Star break, to go back “home” to Edmonton for Tuesday night’s midseason Battle of the Net Stars.

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Not only had he taken it upon himself to brighten things up in L.A.'s red-light district--after not taking a shot during the first or second periods--but he led the Kings from the gloom of an eight-game winless streak, the kind of streak Gretzky had not had to endure very often back when he was toiling for the Oilers.

Wayne’s old friend from Edmonton, Cam Tait, 30, was waiting for him in the locker room after Saturday’s game, confined, as always, to his wheelchair. Wayne, as always, was glad to see him, and rustled up a couple of beers. When Cam tried to get a grip on one of the cans with his palsied fingers, Wayne shopped around for a straw, but came up empty.

“I get a hat trick, but we can’t find this man a straw for his beer?” Gretzky asked, smiling.

“Some hat trick,” said Cam, smiling back.

Two pro golfers, Craig Stadler and Dave Stockton, in town for the L.A. Open, dropped by with their sons for autographs and photographs. Gretzky, as always, obliged.

“Boy, good thing you guys don’t play golf in Canada this week,” Gretzky told Stadler and Stockton, thinking of his own upcoming trip. “It must be 40-below up there.”

He walked back to Cam Tait’s wheelchair. “Tell them about your golf game,” Wayne said. “Tell them how you took a 37 on the first hole.”

“Well,” Cam said, contorting himself in his chair for a better look at the golfers, motioning toward his coiled limbs, “at least I know what my handicap is.”

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Wayne Gretzky goes back to Edmonton today, goes back to what he expects to be the most exciting All-Star game of his experience, considering the circumstances and site. He cannot help but describe it as “a chance to go home, a chance to play in the old stadium again,” because home is where the heart is, not where you hang your helmet.

Put yourself in Wayne Gretzky’s skates for a while. New town. New life. New wife. New Bentley. New baby. New teammates. New coach. New owner. New uniform. New responsibilities. In half a year’s time, the man has experienced everything from life’s little pleasures to the trappings of sweet success, at the sacrifice of old friends to the north, all the while juggling commitments and forsaking privacy to accommodate anybody and everybody who crosses his path.

Gretzky has goals, see, other than those he scores while skating. For one thing he has, thank goodness, devoutly remained hockey’s model citizen, constantly conscious of the impression he makes, willing to give of self whenever possible, eager to influence others in a similar direction.

Only a couple of weeks ago, for example, did Gretzky again mount a soapbox from rinkside to voice his opposition to fighting. He wants nothing to detract from the game itself. He wants nothing for hockey but sportsmanlike conduct. If Wayne had his way, the penalty box would be boarded shut, with a “Condemned” sign nailed to it.

Other opinions, Gretzky keeps to himself. There is a suspicion that he has attempted, discreetly, without wanting to be called for interference, to counsel Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux on maintaining a good, clean image, on avoiding contract holdouts and fights, now that Lemieux, arguably, has become the No. 1 active player in the NHL, to Gretzky’s 1-A. Better there be no McEnroes, no Tysons, no Dickersons dominating a sport with domineering behavior.

Then there is a matter of the Kings themselves. We are willing to bet that Gretzky has swallowed much in his transition to a new team, including the on-the-ice minutes allotted him and the general use of him by a sometimes confounding coach, Robbie Ftorek, who wears a face as rigid and unreadable as a goaltender’s mask.

Gretzky generally keeps his complaints silent, for the public good of the club, so we must accept his word for it that he is happy with his new team and teammates. Some who know him, though, off the record, have their doubts.

We will let Gretzky do things his way, because he knows best. Nothing else concerns us, but the pleasure of his company, of watching him circle a net completely, see no openings, then patiently circle it completely again, leaving bodies from both sides comically sprawled on the ice, wondering where he went, as happened Saturday night.

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What joy there was in watching him pass the puck right onto Luc Robitaille’s stick for L.A.'s first goal, to watch him intercept an errant Phil Housley pass, take aim and flip the puck exactly where he aimed it, over the glove-side shoulder of Darcy Wakaluk, the Buffalo goalie.

“It was almost like he saw that pass coming, like he’d seen that pass somewhere before,” teammate Dean Kennedy said. “It was sort of spooky.”

“That’s why he’s the best player in the game,” goalie Glenn Healy said. “That’s why he’s the Greatest--capital G.”

And what did King Wayne have to say about it? Well, in his typical, arrogant, self-involved, me-me-me way, he said, “Aw, people who score the goals get the most publicity. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.” Yeah, lucky. Gretzky has been lucky now for a decade. Sure he has.

The man is modest and unassuming, and it’s nice to have such a man around the house. Cam Tait has known him a long time. Knew him when he first broke in, back when he first got to Edmonton, not too long after Muzz MacPherson, his old boss in Sault Ste. Marie, suggested to Gretzky that he peel off those No. 19 and No. 14 jerseys he had been wearing and do like NHL star Phil Esposito, who had started wearing No. 77, or Ken Hodge, who was sporting No. 88.

“I bought him his first beer in Edmonton; he was underage,” Cam said, never missing a chance to rib his friend. “He was 17, and I had to order it for him.”

“I was 18,” Wayne insisted.

They were both looking forward to the trip “home” for the All-Star game, to get back to familiar places and faces, to brave the ice and cold of Edmonton, indoors and outdoors, and return to what, for Wayne Gretzky, is now no more than his home away from home.

“I go to Edmonton games now but there’s no more magic there,” Cam Tait said.

No more Gretzky there. It’s Los Angeles’ win. It’s their loss.


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