INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Wayne Gretzky, a one-in-a-million hockey star, has been halted by what one of his doctors called a "one-in-a-million" back injury, the Los Angeles Kings announced yesterday afternoon at the Forum.
Gretzky, 31, a 13-year veteran who is the leading scorer in the history of the National Hockey League, is sidelined indefinitely, may not play this season, and may never play again. The Kings open the season Oct. 6 in Calgary.
"The only thing I'm dealing with is getting rid of this pain," Gretzky said when asked when he thought he might play again. "I'm a very positive, very optimistic person, but let's get rid of this pain."
Dr. Robert Watkins, a spinal consultant from the Kerlan/Jobe Orthopaedic Group who recently operated on injured Dodger star Darryl Strawberry, would not speculate on when Gretzky would be able to play again. He said he is not recommending surgery now, and added that despite a "very significant, severe injury," Gretzky has "an excellent chance of recovery."
Watkins added, "This problem can at times . . . it has the possibility of being career-threatening. But we are very optimistic."
The upper-back injury has been diagnosed as a herniated thoracic disk, with the disk extending into the spinal canal, putting intense pressure on a nerve running between his two ribs. Watkins said there has been a small amount of calcification, but that there is no "significant" evidence of spinal-cord injury.
"We have a certain concerted plan, a rehabilitation program," said Watkins, who has prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs for Gretzky and would not speculate on when rehab would begin. "I've taken Wayne through that, and we're continually re-evaluating the situation. His response to the treatment will tell us when he will be able to return to a more normal, functional level."
Gretzky's back problems date to a game against the New York Islanders March 22, 1990. In that game, he was checked from behind by winger Alan Kerr and went, head-first, into the chest of New York defenseman Ken Baumgartner. The lower-back injury sidelined Gretzky for three of the Kings' 10 playoff games.
Then, on Sept. 14, 1991, Gretzky was checked from behind by Gary Suter in a Canada Cup game, aggravating the back injury. He aggravated the injury again Sept. 27, 1991, in a preseason game in Las Vegas. But the only games Gretzky missed last season were five when his father suffered a brain aneurysm and one with a minor knee injury.