LANDOVER -- He is first on the ice for practice at the Capital Centre. He skates around, pushes a puck up the ice. He takes some long shots, one from beyond the far blue line, ripping them into the empty net. He gets all the pucks out of the goal and begins blasting shots from close and medium range.
The Great One -- Wayne Gretzky -- the best hockey player in the world, works out by himself for nearly 10 minutes until his Los Angeles Kings teammates begin arriving on the ice in ones, twos and threes.
He skates around and around the rink with coach Tom Webster, then goes through a two-hour practice with his teammates. After the day-off workout, Gretzky answers questions from the media for nearly a half-hour, then leaves for an autograph session at a suburban Washington mall, where he will sign copies of his book, "Gretzky, An Autobiography."
Gretzky is a superstar, always in the limelight, most recently for becoming the first player to reach 2,000 points in a National Hockey League career. Is 3,000 out of the question?
"Right now, I don't think it is reachable," he said. "It took me over 10 seasons to get this far. I want to play six more years; that would bringme to 35 years of age. I'd have to average better than 150 points a season, and that would be pretty tough to do. I've been fortunate in that I've only had two serious injuries -- ones that kept me out of action for more than two weeks -- in 13 seasons, and I don't know if that can continue.
"I'm 29 now, and it's not as easy to stay in shape as it was when I was 21 or 22. I have to work harder during the season and also during the off-season to stay in shape.
"You see guys like Carlton Fisk and Nolan Ryan, and they are still performing into their 40s. What a lot of people don't realize is that theydidn't think about getting and staying in shape when they were 37 or 38; they did it when they were in their 20s."
Washington Capitals coach Terry Murray said he will use the Mike Ridley-Kelly Miller-Steve Leach line against Gretzky and try to get defensemen Rod Langway and Kevin Hatcher on the ice against him in their game at the Capital Centre tonight.
"Gretzky makes other hockey players around him better players," Murray said. "He is very hard to defense. He sees the ice so well that he avoids the hits and still gets the job done. You can sit in the press box and wonder why he's never getting hit. The reason is that he's so quick that he anticipates the hits, and he's not there when they are delivered."
Capitals goaltender Mike Liut said the only thing worse for a goalie than a Gretzky breakaway is Gretzky on a two-on-one.
"On a breakaway, it's only him you have to stop, and he can't pass the puck to himself," Liut said. "But on a two-on-one, you're between a rock and a hard place."
Langway said: "You just have to let Gretzky do his thing and shut down the other guys on the ice. You can't double-team him because he is a master at finding the open man. You have to play your man and not try to overcompensate to help out when Gretzky gets free."
+ Opponent: Los Angeles Kings
Site: Capital Centre, Landover, 8:05 p.m.
Radio: WCAO (600 AM), WMAL (630 AM)
Tickets: Sellout expected
Outlook: The Capitals, riding a two-game winning streak, return from a trip during which they won three of five. G Don Beaupre (pulled groin muscle) and C Peter Zezel (sprained left ankle) are expected to be out at least two weeks. The Capitals also are without RW Dino Ciccarelli (broken thumb), D Neil Sheehy (broken leg) and RW Alan May (bruised knuckle). Los Angeles leads the Smythe Division. C Wayne Gretzky has 9 goals and 17 assists. D Rob Blake leads NHL rookies in scoring with 14 points.