Nagging back has Gretzky mulling end

January 16, 1992|By Tim Panaccio | Tim Panaccio,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- There are fewer rockets off his stick.

Instead of sprinting the length of the ice, he paces like a fighter, picking his spots. His shifts are shorter. His pirouettes, which could mesmerize opponents, are more cautious, tighter.

Wayne Gretzky is no longer invincible, unhindered and unencumbered. The Great One is ailing. And distracted. He'll be in his 13th All-Star Game on Saturday at the Philadelphia Spectrum, but he's facing his 31st birthday and an uncertain future.

"I don't know if he is actually conscious of it. Some games he seems to be flying, and some he's not," Kings owner Bruce McNall said. "We've been seeing quite a bit of his play, and some of it has been awfully good. But his back still acts up."

The physical slide started with a crackling check by Gary Suter during the Canada Cup in September. It wracked Gretzky's back and ruined his October, and the pain recurs frequently. Then his spirit took a hard shot when he almost lost his best friend.

On Oct. 16, Gretzky's father, Walter, collapsed while repairing TC fruit cellar at the family farmhouse in Ontario. The diagnosis was a brain aneurysm. His life teetered in the balance.

When Gretzky returned to the Kings after missing five games, he was visibly shaken. Hockey's greatest player, who owns or shares 57 NHL records, couldn't buy a goal. During one six-game stretch in November, Gretzky went pointless in four games, something he'd never done in his career.

The dream line of Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Tomas Sandstrom was disbanded. Frustration mounted. Coach Tom Webster, angered over a call by referee Kerry Fraser during a loss to Detroit on Nov. 16, threw a stick at Fraser. The coach got a 12-game suspension.

As Gretzky goes, so go the Kings, who began a free fall toward the bottom half of the Smythe Division.

Gretzky, lacking his father's support for the first time in his hockey life, publicly ripped himself. Privately, he told his wife, actress Janet Jones, he was considering retirement.

"The biggest thing for me is that I don't want to accept mediocrity," Gretzky said during a recent visit to Philadelphia. "Through my first 25 games, I played mediocre. I wasn't contributing. A lot of things were happening in my life."

Kurri could see his friend was suffering. The two were linemates in Edmonton and were reunited in Los Angeles this season.

"I don't want to speculate just how much this has affected Wayne, but it has not been easy for him," Kurri said. "But as his father got better, Wayne's (spirits) got better and he got excited about hockey again."

Walter Gretzky, whom Wayne calls Wally, has been moved to a rehabilitation facility. He is slowly recovering.

"He has his good days and his bad days, but he seems to be fighting a pretty good fight," Gretzky said.

But on the ice, Gretzky continues to struggle. The magic is still missing from the stick. McNall says Gretzky misses the daily chats with his father.

"When he has problems, he likes to talk to his dad," McNall said. "What Wayne misses is that communication. He has no one to go to, to kick things around and relax."

Although Gretzky has just 18 goals this season, 13 of that total came in his last 20 games.

"I feel the last 20 games, I really played much better and the team is much better," Gretzky said.

Still, at his present pace, Gretzky will have his poorest season ever in the NHL (113-point pace). Gretzky's supporting cast is not as star-studded as the one in Edmonton, yet he still averaged 157 points over his first three seasons with the Kings.

Regardless of how his season is going, Gretzky is making this all-star appearance intent on having a good time. Too many players, Gretzky says, see the All-Star Game as "a chore."

"I'm probably a little different there than most players, in that I come to enjoy myself," Gretzky said. "This is an opportunity to meet other players. It's a joyous time, the way I look at it."

Gretzky believes the Spectrum ice brings out the best in him.

"I love playing in this building," Gretzky said. "The greatest thing about hockey is playing with atmosphere. This rink has tremendous atmosphere."

Gretzky has played some of his greatest games at the Spectrum some without actually scoring any goals. His three assists and deft passing in Game 4 of the 1987 Stanley Cup finals gave the Oilers a 4-1 victory. On one shift, Gretzky remained on the ice for four minutes.

"It's always a battle here," Gretzky said. "Every time you'd win, it was a hard-fought effort. Win or lose, the Flyers have a history of making it tough here. That's why it's fun to play here."

Gretzky has not had many uplifting moments this season. Joyous though this All-Star Game might be, his thoughts will remain several thousand miles away on Saturday.

"This All-Star Game will be different for me because my dad won't be there," Gretzky said of his father, who has never missed his son in an All-Star Game.

In a season of self-doubt, Wayne Gretzky has grown accustomed to going it alone.

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