He isn't the fastest skater, doesn't possess the hardest shot and he's hardly the strongest player in his game. But Wayne Gretzky operates on a different level than all other hockey players.
That isn't opinion, it's an accepted fact.
Gretzky, who turns 30 in January, will be at the Capital Centre tonight (8:05, Home Team Sports) as the Los Angeles Kings take on the Washington Capitals. He already has accomplished more than most other players have in a career. He is the first to surpass 2,000 points in the history of the NHL, and it would be easier to list the records he doesn't hold than the ones he has set. It takes 2 1/2 pages in the Los Angeles Kings media guide to document his statistical accomplishments.
He owns 49 NHL records -- 10 for a career, 20 for the regular season, 15 for the playoffs and four for All-Star competition. He has been the NHL's Most Valuable Player nine times in his 11 years in the league, including eight straight from 1980-87. It is almost frightening to think of a legend who has just reached what are considered the prime years of an athletic career.
When asked what Gretzky's accomplishments at such an early age mean to him, Washington Capitals coach Terry Murray paused for several seconds. "It's mind-boggling," Murray finally said, "even when you compare him to the great players in other sports."
Murray, who played against Gretzky in the early years, and Caps defenseman Rod Langway, who has played against him throughout his career, both use the same word to describe Gretzky -- elite.
"He is among the very elite of athletes to play any sport," saiMurray.
"He stands with the elite -- only a handful who have ever playecame close to making the contributions that he's made," said Langway.
What makes this man special? What is the one thing that standout? Despite Gretzky's greatness, those are difficult questions.
"Everybody's tried to describe him," said Murray, "and all thadjectives fit. Creativity, anticipation, awareness, imagination -- those are things you say about great players. He's got it all. Everybody comes down to a different level when he's on the ice."
Langway likewise had difficulty pinpointing one characteristithat makes Gretzky stand out. "As a person, I would have to say class," he said. "As a professional, someone who is in my profession, I'd say he skates on his own plateau. And I should rephrase that -- I'm in his profession."
It has been said that when he's on the ice, Gretzky sees the rinlike someone sitting above. "He sees the ice so well," said Murray, "he can anticipate what's going to happen."
Gretzky has scored five goals in a game four times in his careerThree times he's had seven assists in a game -- the first against the Caps more than 10 years ago. He's had eight points in a game two different times.
Yet Murray and Langway both say that Gretzky's skillsometimes draw too much attention. "When he's on the ice, right away you're thinking defense," said Murray. "Sometimes too much. You have to play tough five-man defense when he's on the ice, otherwise you get into a basketball-type situation, double- and triple-teaming. When you leave other people open, he will find them."
Langway agrees. "He's going to get his points," said the defenseman. "You know that going in, and you have to have some luck. He's going to make quality plays, but the way to play him is one-on-one and hopefully eliminate the passing lanes -- in other words, take away his receivers."
Langway thinks about Gretzky scoring 2,000 points before the age of 30 and just shakes his head in amazement. "It would take me until 60 to get that many," he quipped.
"And if he says he's going for 3,000, then it's a reality," said Langway. "From the stories we've been hearing, he's as happy as he's been for a while -- and he's got a goal to make Los Angeles a hockey-oriented city."
Gretzky isn't so sure that 3,000 points is a reality, but admits he's committed to making the Los Angeles franchise a success. "You might say that's the one thing left in my career that I'd like to do," he said. "I'd like to be part of bringing a [Stanley Cup] championship to Los Angeles. If we can accomplish that, it would be special."
There's plenty of time left for Gretzky's final ambition. "I'd like to play six more years after this one," he said. "I'd be 35 then, with 18 years of professional hockey, and by then it might be time to hang them up.
"You don't want to embarrass yourself, the organization or the game," said Gretzky.
Obviously, humility is another of his strong traits. Who else would even suggest that Wayne Gretzky might be capable of being an embarrassment to hockey?
THE GRETZKY FILE
* At 19 years, 2 months, he became youngest in NHL history to score 50 goals in a season (1979-80).
* Set the record for most assists in one game (7 vs. the Capitals) by a player in his first NHL season ('79-80). He has done it two more times.
* Scored 92 goals in '81-82.
* Scored points in 51 consecutive games in '83-84.
* Had 14 assists in one six-game playoff series vs. Chicago in 1985.
* Set NHL point record (215) and assist record (163) in 1985-86.
* Led the league in assists (109) in '87-88 despite missing 16 games with a back injury.
* Has 284 playoff points (89 goals, 195 assists), more than any player.
* Has 11 consecutive 100-point, 40-goal seasons, more than any player.
* Scored his unprecedented 2,000th point two weeks ago.