COMMENTARY : Injuries Not What They Are Cracked Up to Be : Hockey: Gretzky's 'charley horse' last month was really a cracked rib.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So, the next time a King limps off the ice in pain and the team says he has a charley horse, is that the truth?

Or if another King misses almost two months after re-injuring his arm and the club insists that, no, there are no broken bones, is that the truth?

When dealing with the Kings and the topic of injuries, it is important to read between the lines with a measured sense of skepticism. Even more so in the playoffs, when teams take on characteristics of the CIA after the slightest strain or sprain.

Today's twinge can quickly become tomorrow's herniated thoracic disk. Or, in this season's playoffs, Wayne Gretzky's charley horse can turn into a cracked rib a little more than three weeks after the fact.

With word leaking, Gretzky told Los Angeles writers on Thursday in Vancouver, before returning to Los Angeles for tonight's Game 3 of the Smythe Division finals, that he had suffered a cracked rib during Game 1 of the Kings' first-round series against the Calgary Flames.

He missed most of the remaining two periods of Game 1, but returned for the rest of the Smythe Division semifinal, with the Kings saying he had a charley horse.

Asked Thursday if he'd had a charley horse, Gretzky smiled and shrugged.

"If anybody had known I had a cracked rib, I wouldn't have been able to play," Gretzky said. "It's not a big thing. I cracked it and now I'm at the point where it's pretty much healed. We froze it before the games. I feel good out there. It's not going to affect me if I got hit there.

"I mean, I got hit by (Gerald) Diduck in Game 1 and I didn't feel it at all.

"There were a few people that knew it, so it was best to get it out there rather than hiding it forever."

Gretzky said he had to wear a flak jacket in Games 2 and 3 of the Calgary series but that he did not need it now. Team physician Ron Kvitne was in surgery on Thursday and unavailable for comment.

Were it not for Gretzky's honesty, the Kings probably would have continued with the off-ice game playing. Normally, the attention would be focused on Gretzky's outstanding performance--he had a goal and two assists in Game 2 against Vancouver--but the hidden injury has become a significant story for several reasons:

--The Kings' insistence on denying that Gretzky had suffered a cracked rib, even as late as Thursday. Here, the prolonged cover-up becomes more of an issue than the actual injury.

"No, there's no truth in that," King Coach Barry Melrose claimed. "He hurt his leg and the next game he strained (the rib). But there's no cracked rib. I don't know where that story came from."

King General Manager Nick Beverley was asked to comment on a Vancouver Province column in which Gretzky was quoted about the cracked rib.

"It's pure speculation on (the writer's) part," Beverley said. "I don't know where he got that. Maybe it's more important for him to dig up falsehoods like that than concentrating on the game Wayne played. If that wasn't one of his best games, I don't know what was."

--This is not the first time Melrose and the Kings have denied that a player had broken a bone this season. When forward Tomas Sandstrom returned from a broken forearm, he re-injured the arm in his first game back and didn't return to the lineup for almost two months.

Sandstrom said he had not re-broken the arm. Melrose kept saying that, too, as did almost everyone else. Finally, when Sandstrom returned, a team doctor told The Times that Sandstrom had suffered a hairline fracture when he tried to come back the first time.

--Gretzky has made a quick recovery from the injury. It is one thing to start playing vintage hockey shortly after suffering a charley horse. But it's another in the aftermath of a cracked rib. He has regained his jump and superb passing ability in the last four games, contributing 11 points. The Kings have won three of their last four games, the final two of the Calgary series and Game 2 against Vancouver.

"The last four games, I felt really good--no problem," Gretzky said. "More importantly, mentally my emotional level is really high. I'm just really excited about our team. I don't feel fatigued at all. I feel I can skate forever and that's a nice feeling."

By all accounts, he is playing some of his best playoff hockey as a King after being hampered during postseason play the last three years by injuries.

Now, Gretzky says he is fine. The Kings say he is fine. Considering the subterfuge common to playoff hockey--Kings' playoff hockey, at least--that's all the fan has to go on.

King Notes

The Kings' 6-3 victory in Game 2 at Vancouver was a breakthrough in more than one way. It was their first victory in six games at the Pacific Coliseum, and it marked the first road victory for the Kings in the second round of the playoffs since 1982. That year, they defeated the Canucks, 3-2, in Game 2 of the division final before losing the series, 4-1. . . . Even though the best-of-seven series is tied, 1-1, the Kings are struggling with their power play, going 0 for five on Wednesday night with the manpower advantage. Overall, they are six for 61. The Canucks were two for five in Game 2 and are eight for 39. . . . Defenseman Mark Hardy scored the opening goal in Game 2, meaning defenseman Tim Watters is the only King skater suited up in this series without a playoff goal. . . . Left wing Warren Rychel, whose nine points include four goals, has recorded points in seven of the Kings' eight playoff games. . . . Canuck Coach Pat Quinn was not displeased with goaltender Kirk McLean in Game 2, but decried the effort in front of McLean.

* NHL PLAYOFFS

Mario Lemieux returned, but goaltender Tom Barrasso was the star of Pittsburgh's 3-1 victory over the New York Islanders. Roundup, C8

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