Gartner working hard to be one of the most valuable Rangers

February 17, 1991|By Michael Lewis | Michael Lewis,New York Daily News

NEW YORK -- He is a skating testimony to perseverance, consistency and durability.

While many of his contemporaries have retired or are on the downside of their careers, New York Rangers right wing Mike Gartner has shown no signs of age or slowing down. If hockey is a young man's game, Gartner has become a noted exception. His birth certificate may say 31, but his legs and body go at a pace of a player a decade younger.

"He's that kind of a guy who takes care of himself," said teammate Jan Erixon. "If he wants to, he can probably play until he's 40."

Gartner is a perfectionist who has combined his talent and work ethic into a career that has spanned 12 National Hockey League seasons, 905 games, 478 goals, 449 assists and 927 points.

Reasons for longevity? It's in his body and mind.

The 6-foot, 188-pounder is only three pounds over his rookie weight and has missed a total of 21 games. "I don't think there's any secret," Gartner said. "I've just been fortunate to stay away from injuries. I work hard during the season and I worked hard after it."

And during practice, too, treating it as if it was a game. During the Rangers' recent mini-training camp in Banff, Alberta, coach Roger Neilson used a grueling and not-too-popular drill in which players battled for the puck in the corners. Gartner and another 31-year-old, John Ogrodnick, emerged with the top grades.

"It's great to have a veteran like that," Neilson said. "He pushes himself every practice and every game."

That comes naturally to Gartner. "I think my faith has had an influence," he said. "I feel very strongly that anything less than my best is a sin."

He and his wife, Colleen, became devout Christians 10 years ago.

"My attitude has changed," Gartner said. "I'm a more patient person then I was years ago. That's where the work ethic comes in. I'm more responsible. I have an inner peace because of my faith."

While January and February are the dog days of the NHL, Gartner hasn't missed a beat, collecting eight goals in the past 11 games. His 29 goals lead the team as he heads toward his seventh 40-goal season.

"He's tough to play against," said Erixon, recalling the years when he was assigned to shadow Gartner when the Rangers played the Washington Capitals. "He's so quick. He's in excellent shape, so he can keep going at full speed for a full shift. He's one of those guys if you give him a second, he's gone. He has a hell of a shot, too."

But don't call Gartner a sniper. When he scored 48 times for the Caps in 1980-81, it was the most goals Gartner had accumulated in a season, and that's including midget and junior hockey.

"For me, it wasn't something that came naturally," Gartner said. "I'm not a natural goal scorer. I have to work hard for my goals.

"When I think of goal scorers, I think of Mike Bossy and Brett Hull. I don't put myself into the category of pure goal scorers."

Last year Gartner realized that someday he might wake up and find that speed gone, so he modified his game just a bit, trying to score more goals off tip-ins and rebounds in front of the net.

"Goals when you're getting pounded," he said. "I still feel I'm improving."

Born in Ottawa and raised in Toronto, Gartner started his pro career as an 19-year-old earning $75,000 with Cincinnati of the World Hockey Association in 1978-79 while finishing second in the Rookie of the Year balloting Wayne Gretzky. He joined the Capitals the next season and became the youngest player to be named team MVP. He went on to score 50 goals and 102 points in 1984-85 and wound up holding every important club scoring record.

He is a goal shy of reaching 30 goals for the 12th season in a row, a feat accomplished only by four other players in NHL history.

But Gartner isn't all that impressed with his accomplishments, at least not yet.

"I'm not like Pete Rose, where I look at my stats all the time," he said. "I can't say I don't really care. I don't really care about it right now. Maybe in 10 years time I'll look back. They'll be milestones, something you can look back at when you've stopped playing."

Right now, he's more concerned with one particular goal, taking a victory lap with the Stanley Cup.

After spending his entire NHL career with the Caps, Gartner was sent to Minnesota on the trading deadline two years ago. The North Stars sent him to the Rangers on the trading deadline last year in the deal that sent Ulf Dahlen to Minnesota.

"I was really excited about playing for the Rangers," he said. "I knew they were making a run for first place. I feel we are one of five teams who have a legitimate shot at it this year. The others are Chicago, Boston, Edmonton and Calgary. Then there are teams like Los Angeles, St. Louis and Montreal that could slide in there. Who knows?"

Gartner has never gotten past the divisional finals.

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