LOS ANGELES -- In most instances, Wayne Gretzky controls his emotions every bit as well as he does a loose puck in the open ice.
But this little smile keeps creasing Gretzky's face these days, and its source can be found in the uttering of two short names: Jari Kurri.
For seven full seasons with the Edmonton Oilers, Kurri and Gretzky were line mates. During those years, Gretzky averaged 68 goals and 195 points a season, Kurri 52 and 110. And, oh yes, the Oilers won four Stanley Cups.
So it is no small wonder that Gretzky's mouth keeps impishly curling up. After three years apart, Gretzky and Kurri will be reunited tonight, when the Los Angeles Kings open their 25th National Hockey League season in Winnipeg against the Jets. The Kings play another road game Sunday in Edmonton, then play their home opener against the Oilers on Tuesday.
"He's such an unselfish player," Gretzky said of Kurri, who spent last season playing for Milan in the Italian League. "I think people are going to be in for a little bit of a surprise."
The Kings were nothing if not surprising last season. After a difficult 75-point season two years ago, the Kings finished 22 games above .500 in 1990-91 and won the first regular-season Smythe Division title in their history. But none of that mattered when the playoffs arrived, as the Kings were ousted from the second round by the Oilers.
Thus, changes were made, and the big one involved the acquisition of Kurri, 31. He'd left Edmonton after winning his fifth Cup with the Oilers in 1990, and said he thought at the time he'd never return to the NHL.
"I'd had a great 10 years in Edmonton," Kurri said. "We won the Cup that year, and I'd always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to play in Europe. Somehow, that year was time to move on.
"The World Championships that year were in Helsinki [Finland], and I hadn't been back to play for my country in a long, long time. The timing was good."
In the back of his mind, though, Kurri contemplated playing again with Gretzky. Theirs had been an instinctual bond on the ice, a bond renewed with the three-way May 30 deal with Philadelphia and Edmonton in which Steve Duchesne and Steve Kasper went to the Flyers.
"You play with a guy so long, you know him," Kurri said of Gretzky. "Somehow, our styles clicked together. He's a great passer, and I like to get in the holes, I like to shoot the puck."
That gives Gretzky two sharp-shooters to pass to: Kurri and Tomas Sandstrom, a 45-goal scorer in 1990-91. Said Gretzky, who led the NHL last season with 163 points, "We all know our roles. The biggest thing for me is that I'm trying to get those two guys the puck. When you've got guys like Sandstrom and Kurri, the way they shoot the puck, you want them shooting as much as possible. They have the ability to score 50 goals each."
But while the Gretzky-Kurri-Sandstrom combination has been the talk of the preseason, it is hardly the only issue surrounding the Kings:
* Gretzky's back: He first injured it two years ago, then re-injured it during the recent Canada Cup tournament. Gretzky played in just one preseason game with the Kings, but is doing his best to downplay fears that his is a chronic condition.
"The two hits I've taken have made me understand and realize that you're not invincible, that things can happen," Gretzky said. "I wake up some days and have a little bit of pain. I'm probably never going to be able to go a whole period of time where I wake up every day and don't feel my back. But I understand that situation and we monitor it, and I do some extra work for my back to make sure it's as strong as possible."
* Depth at center: With Todd Elik in Minnesota as the result of the deal that brought defensive center Randy Gilhen and defenseman Charlie Huddy to the Kings, Bob Kudelski is the second-line center.
Kudelski's career has been spent as a penalty killer and utility man, but unless the Kings trade for an established offensive center, Kudelski's adaptation to his new role is imperative. His line mates -- 45-goal scorer Luc Robitaille and 30-goal scorer Tony Granato -- should make things easier for him.