For Gretzky, great chase has been a painful event

March 13, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The year was 1978. The league was the World Hockey Association. The team was the Indianapolis Racers. The opponent was the New England Whalers.

On one side, playing for New England, was Gordie Howe, the grand old man of the game. On the other side, playing for Indianapolis, was the game's rising young phenom, a 17-year-old named Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky was awe-struck. There was his boyhood hero, Howe, in the flesh across the ice.

Howe knew all about Gretzky as well, having befriended Gretzky before he was a teen-ager, but was already creating a sensation across Canada with his early skills.

As they warmed up that day in 1978, Howe winked at Gretzky and tapped him on the shin pads with his stick as they passed on the ice.

Gretzky could barely contain his delight.

Then the game began.

On Gretzky's third shift in his second game as a pro, mentor and prodigy met in battle.

Howe was carrying the puck down the ice when Gretzky stepped in, stole it and began skating the other way.

Suddenly, Gretzky felt a crack across his thumb, causing him to drop his stick. It was Howe, wielding his own stick like a whip.

Gretzky watched helplessly as Howe regained control of the puck.

"Don't ever embarrass me on the ice," Howe told Gretzky.

Embarrass? Never.

Surpass? Any day now.

In the ensuing 15 years, the kid has become an even bigger legend than his hero, the man who played for 26 seasons.

And now, the greatest record of all, Howe's 801 goals, is a hat trick away for Gretzky.

This is Hank Aaron about to overtake Babe Ruth, Walter Payton on the heels of Jim Brown.

This should be the greatest of times for the Great One.

But it's not.

Things have been anything but great for Gretzky, who has seen:

* Howe embarrass him by refusing to be part of Gretzky's march to the record. Howe maintains his true goal record is 975, which would include his six seasons in the WHA.

* His friend and business partner, actor John Candy, die last week of a heart attack.

* His team, a Stanley Cup finalist a year ago, stuck behind an expansion club and a third-year team in a humiliating fight for a playoff spot.

* His owner and close friend, Bruce McNall, come under financial scrutiny.

* His home badly damaged by the January earthquake.

* His mother-in-law, Jean Jones, the nanny for his three children, wind up in a hospital where she has been for the past seven weeks, recovering from a broken collarbone and an injured leg, all the result of a traffic accident.

* His father, Walter, prevented from being as big a part of Wayne's life as he once was by a ruptured brain aneurysm suffered 2 1/2 years ago. Walter is slowly recovering.

Through it all, Gretzky has skated relentlessly toward the record. His 33 goals this year put him at 798 as he nears the end of his 15th National Hockey League season.

Gretzky has tried to maintain his focus and enthusiasm at reaching the mark in the face of all the adversity and the pressure and the controversy, but it hasn't been easy.

"It's tough," said his wife, Janet. "At such an exciting time in his life, there is so much trouble.

"It's hard for him to jump up and down. What's the record mean when he looks at John Candy's wife and kids? He would have loved to have gotten four goals the other night for John Candy [Wednesday, the day of Candy's funeral]."

Janet said her husband's admiration for Howe remains bright as ever.

"He keeps telling himself that Gordie and Colleen [Howe's wife] are good people," she said. "Wayne puts them on a pedestal. He hopes they are part of [the record-breaking event]. It wouldn't be the same if they weren't, but he knows they are entitled to feel the way they do."

Her husband agrees.

"To me, Gordie has done so much for our sport that the last thing I'm going to do is to get into a controversy with Gordie Howe," Gretzky said. "I have too much respect for Gordie. To this day, I still look at him the same as I did when I was 8 or 9 years old. If that's the way Gordie Howe feels, so be it.

"And if the National Hockey League wants to put a separate record in the books for professional goals, that would be great."

Gretzky knows his father will be there for the record-breaker, but he admits it's not the same.

"He'll be here when I get to 800 and 801," Gretzky said. "But I know my father. He would have been there at 796, 797, and that's where I missed him the most."

Walter Gretzky is still not strong enough to go make every trip.

"He's doing really well. He's really come along," Wayne said. "Hey, it's hard. He's come so far. Everything happens for a reason. His living habits [are better]. He hasn't smoked in three years, he rests more, he doesn't worry as much and he'll probably live 20 years longer because of it."

Besides the personal anguish, Gretzky has had his excitement over his record run tempered by his team's miserable season.

"It's unfortunate that such a great moment in his career is such a low time for the Kings," Janet said. "It's put a big damper on the whole thing.

"Can you imagine the pressure? [Reporters] keep asking, 'What about the record?' And he keeps saying, 'Wait guys, what about the playoffs?' How can he be excited when he carries the weight of the team on his shoulders? Wayne is Wayne. He cares very much. He's having a hard time with the losing, more than I've ever seen him have in his career."

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