With Gretzky, finality hits home

Emotions run gamut at his last practice

Garden ceremonies set


RYE, N.Y. -- There were more smiles and laughter than usual yesterday for a team out of the running for the playoffs and going through the motions of a final practice -- at least until the end, when New York Rangers coach John Muckler gathered the team and demanded that Wayne Gretzky skate a couple of more laps up and down the ice.

His teammates clattered their sticks on the ice in encouragement, but Gretzky, for once, chose to exercise his clout.

"He told me to do a couple extra down and backs," Gretzky said afterward. "I said, `No, I'll retire right here.' "

So Gretzky led the stretch instead, taking a spot at the center of the ice at Rye Playland with his teammates gathered around him. The jokes and banter went on, the sort of thing that Gretzky is well aware he will miss more than anything.

This was his final practice, the final preparation for a final game at Madison Square Garden this afternoon that he admitted there was no way to prepare for.

Gretzky announced his retirement on Friday, but as he made his last appearance at Rye, the reality was setting in.

"I don't think I've ever been in a situation like this," Gretzky said. "I've been in the Stanley Cup Finals, in All-Star games, the Canada Cup, and I've always found a way to get through. I think the best way is the way I always do. I'll prepare like every game. Other things will go on around me that I can't change, but my routine will be the same."

On the schedule yesterday was a phone call from President Clinton, which Gretzky headed home to receive. Today, many of the players he has befriended in 20 years in the NHL are expected to be at the Rangers' game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Former teammates Mark Messier and Paul Coffey told him they would make the trip, and he also expected his former Edmonton coach, Glen Sather. The Penguins' Jaromir Jagr, who had planned to sit out the game, said he would now play.

The doors will open at Madison Square Garden a half-hour early, at 1: 30 p.m., for the 3 p.m. game, and the Rangers will conduct a ceremony following the warm-ups.

Gretzky will use 40 sticks in the game, change among three jerseys, and there will be none of the usual sponsored events during television timeouts. Instead, the Rangers will air a video tribute to Gretzky during each break in play. At the end of the game, there will again be a video tribute.

"I can say honestly that the last four days have been a tearful time," Gretzky said.

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