Stage Set for Gretzky to Call It Quits


The NHL is on the verge of losing the greatest player and best ambassador it has ever had.

Wayne Gretzky, who has rewritten hockey’s record books during his brilliant 21-year career--including 20 NHL seasons with Edmonton, the Kings, St. Louis and the New York Rangers--is expected to announce his retirement today at a news conference scheduled for 1 p.m. PDT at Madison Square Garden.

Although his wife, actress Janet Jones, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman were among a circle of friends and associates who were urging him to play one more season, the Rangers’ second successive failure to make the playoffs and dim prospects for quick improvement apparently hastened his decision to retire after the Rangers’ season finale against Pittsburgh on Sunday at the Garden.


“Unless a miracle happens [Friday morning], either [Friday] or Saturday morning, I will probably go and make it official,” Gretzky said after the Rangers’ 2-2 tie at Ottawa. “It’s not 100%, but once I make my decision, it will be 100%. The next time you’ll see skating, if I make the decision, is with my kids.”

Gretzky, 38, said he planned to meet today with James Dolan, president and chief executive officer of Cablevision, the Rangers’ parent corporation. Dolan, who has been urging Gretzky to return, will probably make one last pitch at that meeting. “At this point in time,” Gretzky said, “I haven’t swayed a lot.”

Gretzky said Thursday in an interview on the MSG Network before the game at Ottawa he had been mulling retirement for several months but did not solicit friends’ opinions until several days ago. Bettman spoke to him for 20 minutes on Monday and Ranger General Manager Neil Smith and Coach John Muckler talked to him at length Wednesday, lobbying him diligently on the team’s charter flight to the Canadian capital and assuring him he would be an important part of the rebuilt Rangers next season.

Gretzky on Thursday added fuel to the rumors he had made the irrevocable decision that will result in the NHL losing its most prolific player and best salesman, the man universally credited with popularizing the game in previously uncharted territory and glamorizing hockey in Los Angeles for a brief but memorable interlude. He has only nine goals and 61 points this season, his lowest total for a full season.

“I’ve spent a lot of time the last two days with people I’m really close to, my wife and [his agent] Mike Barnett, and [Wednesday] the Ranger organization, John and Neil,” said Gretzky, who was greeted by a warm ovation in Ottawa and signs imploring, “Say it ain’t so,” when he took the ice for what he acknowledged was almost certainly his final game in his Canadian homeland.

“I just kind of took in what everybody said. Everybody’s been really nice and there were a lot of kind words,” said Gretzky, whose wife, parents and children attended Thursday’s game.” But at this point in time, quite honestly, I haven’t heard anything that’s going to sway me. I’m still leaning heavily toward what I said the last couple of nights.”

Gretzky, who was serenaded with chants of “One more year!” toward the end of Thursday’s game and was accorded a standing ovation, said nothing is apt to change his chosen course. He was not moved when Smith personally delivered papers stating the Rangers want to pick up his $5 million option for next season or when Dolan, president and chief executive officer of Cablevision--the Rangers’ corporate parent--told him the Rangers would spend liberally in the free agent market this summer to again thrust them into contention for the Stanley Cup.

“That’s what’s tugging at me and that’s what makes my decision tougher and tougher, but I haven’t heard anything that would sway me,” said Gretzky, who changed sticks frequently during Thursday’s game--apparently to provide game-used mementos for gifts for display in the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I don’t believe at this particular point there’s any one issue that would make me say, ‘I’m 100% coming back.’ . . .

“I would have kept this 100% quiet had this team been battling for a playoff spot. From the time we were mathematically eliminated, I talked with five, six, seven friends in the game of hockey, and once you ask one or two people, you kind of let the cat out of the bag.”

While retaining hope Gretzky would reverse course at the last moment, Bettman said he wouldn’t presume to change Gretzky’s mind.

“Obviously, whatever Wayne decides to do is something we’re all going to respect,” Bettman said. “I hope he continues to play, but that’s a personal decision.”

Bettman said the magnitude of the league’s loss should Gretzky retire cannot be quantified, his 61 records and four Stanley Cups aside.

“It’s a huge loss for any sport to lose a player who has accomplished as much as he has and has been such a good ambassador,” Bettman said. “There will never be another Wayne Gretzky. But let’s not talk as if it’s decided.”

Before the game, Muckler and Smith also held out hope Gretzky might yet be persuaded to reconsider. “I won’t stop thinking he’s coming back, and until I hear anything, I won’t think different,” said Muckler, who has known Gretzky since Gretzky was a child and knew Gretzky’s parents, Walter and Phyllis, before they married. “[Thursday] at the pregame meal, he was joking. It was a very relaxed atmosphere.”

Said Smith: “I met with Wayne [Wednesday]. It was a great meeting. We talked about a lot of different things and it was emotional. He told me the pros and cons and what everybody had been saying to him. I told him I hope he’d return for as long as he wants.”

Smith also said plans were underway to stage ceremonies to honor Gretzky on Sunday. “We would recognize his great career and his great time as a Ranger,” said Smith, who signed Gretzky as a free agent in July 1996, five months after the Kings had traded him to St. Louis. “We’re doing some preparations because we don’t want to get caught unprepared, but I’m hoping it’s all for naught.”

It’s impossible to imagine any ceremony that would do justice to Gretzky’s spectacular career.

Frail in appearance and often scrawny by the end of a grueling season, Gretzky nonetheless is known as “The Great One.” His genius lay in the subtle elements of his game: his vision, anticipation and superb passing skills, not obvious elements such as a blazing slap shot or swift feet. He has more assists--1,962--than career scoring runner-up Gordie Howe had points (1,850).

A central figure in an extraordinary array of talent assembled in Edmonton, initially during the team’s World Hockey Assn. days and, after the WHA folded in 1979, in the NHL, Gretzky led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups. Cash- strapped Oiler owner Peter Pocklington engineered a trade that sent him to the Kings on Aug. 9, 1988 with Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft picks and $15 million, a deal that was decried across Canada as the selling of a national treasure.

Gretzky spent 7 1/2 seasons with the Kings, winning three of his 10 scoring titles. Although he missed much of the 1992-93 season because of a back injury, he returned in time to lead the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals for the only time in their history.

But instead of building another dynasty, the Kings missed the playoffs their next three seasons. Gretzky openly urged management to boost the offense by acquiring a 50-goal scorer, and when the team did not improve as quickly as he had hoped, he requested a trade. Gretzky was sent to St. Louis for Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat and two draft picks.

Gretzky’s collaboration with Brett Hull did not create the fireworks that were anticipated when Mike Keenan, then the Blues’ general manager, acquired Gretzky from the Kings. Unhappy with Keenan’s abrasive style, Gretzky left St. Louis after five months to sign with the Rangers.

That marriage has not been entirely successful. The Rangers made the playoffs only in his first season with the team and have not given him the opportunity he coveted to win one more Cup championship. Even so, playing in New York opened up new endorsement opportunities for him, and he remained a willing and enthusiastic spokesman for the game.

Said David Poile, general manager of the Nashville Predators: “He has been tremendous in every way, shape and form, on the ice and off the ice. Clearly he has been the best player, possibly ever, and has been as good an ambassador as there has ever been. He’s been everything to the game.”