Gretzky Can Empathize With Jordan : Kings: The biggest name in hockey came close to calling it quits himself.


The talent that sets Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky apart from their peers put them in the same quandary last summer.

Both had had competed for so long at so high a level and both had lifted their teams to new heights, yet both questioned whether to go on.

After the Bulls won their third consecutive NBA championship--and after a turbulent summer marred by the murder of his father--Jordan decided he had nothing left to accomplish.

"At this particular time in my career, I've reached the pinnacle of my career, I've achieved a lot in that short amount of time . . . but I just feel that I don't have anything else to prove," Jordan said in announcing his retirement Wednesday.

After the Kings' loss to Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals, Gretzky--whose father is still recovering from a massive stroke--seemed ready to precede Jordan into retirement. Instead, Gretzky decided to continue, turning his disappointment into an incentive to succeed this season.

At first, he prepared for training camp strictly out of habit. Soon, the conviction that he has more to give and more to gain, even after four Cup triumphs, propelled him happily into his 16th professional season.

"Two or three weeks after the season ended, I just started working out," Gretzky said recently. "I usually do aerobic exercises to strengthen my back. I got three or four weeks into it and I said, 'I'm getting ready for hockey again.' After being home for two weeks I think my wife was ready for me to go back to hockey. And I was ready, after being so close.

"It's almost, in a way, easier taking it losing in the first round of the playoffs or missing the playoffs. If you lose in the first round, you didn't have a chance at all. And it's not like we lost to the (dominant) Bruins of the early '70s, or the Oilers (who won five Cups in seven years from 1984-90). We just lost to a good, hard-working (Canadien) team that was well coached, like our team. We lost in overtime in three games. I was frustrated."

His frustration boiled over the night Montreal completed its five-game triumph. Gretzky said he had completed his mission of establishing hockey in Los Angeles and the United States and having done all he could, he was ready to leave the game in the hands of owner Bruce McNall and Coach Barry Melrose.

He spoke sourly, bitterly. He was worn out at 32.

Four months later, he faces the season eagerly. The regular season and the playoffs are challenges, not the tedious course they had become for Jordan.

"The encouraging thing was to see we do have a group that can get back to the finals," said Gretzky, who did not score in the Kings' 5-2 season-opening loss to the Vancouver Canucks Wednesday night at the Forum.

"It's a good mix. We have the (Pat) Conachers, the (Charlie) Huddys, the (Dave) Taylors and we also have the younger guys who are expected to carry the team.

"We worked really hard last season and I think everybody should be proud of what we accomplished. Now, we have to take the next step from there."

For Jordan, that step was a step away. Some day, Gretzky will take that step, too. But unlike Jordan, who left open the possibility he might return, Gretzky is unlikely to come back once he quits. If he looks back at all, it will be on what he accomplished, not on what he missed.

"Mr. McNall and myself and so many people worked hard making the game go, they deserve the credit," Gretzky said. "Players like Dave Taylor and Luc Robitaille, we just play. Ten years from now, Barry (Melrose) will still be coaching the team and it will be great for him to say, 'This is how hard this group of guys worked.' He'll use our names as an example, but he'll carry that on."

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