Ice Hockey: Gretzky stumbles on his way to coronation: Any day now the 'Great One' will break the NHL goalscoring record. Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AMERICAN sports fans are beginning to get a little impatient. For days now, they have been waiting to uncork the champagne to celebrate the crowning glory of the man who is known, even by his opponents, as the 'Great One'. But Wayne Gretzky, the Pele of ice hockey, has so far been unable to deliver.

Wednesday's game was the most frustrating occasion of all. For most of the night Gretzky, usually such an agile figure, looked about as likely to score as a frozen mackerel. Nor were his fellow Los Angeles Kings any less plodding. When they eventually traipsed off the ice, to boos and cries of 'Refund' from the sell- out crowd, they were 4-0 down to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Every team and every superstar has an occasional lean patch. But Gretzky's has come at a bad time. He is only four goals away from becoming the National Hockey League's highest goalscorer in history, smashing the record set by Gordie 'Mr Hockey' Howe. For ice hockey fans, it will be the equivalent of the day in baseball when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs.

These days when the 33-year- old Canadian dons the silver and black Kings strip, more than 100 journalists and photographers are rinkside, waiting to witness the making of history. But for the last three games, Gretzky has not found the net once.

There is, however, no doubt that he will do so eventually. And when it happens, it will be the crowning achievement in a career which has made him the undisputed all-time champion of ice hockey, or - as the Angelenos prefer to call him - the 'King of the Kings'. As one commentator observed: 'There is no need to wait for his retirement to declare him the greatest player of all time.'

Wayne Gretzky's trophy cupboard is already pretty full. He holds some 60 NHL records, including the largest number of points (goals plus assists). Between 1981-87, he won the scoring title for six seasons on the trot. He was on the winning side in the Stanley Cup - ice hockey's Super Bowl - four times.

Last season, after being sidelined for 39 games with a back injury, he won the adoration of thousands of Californians by taking the Kings to the Cup final for the first time in their history with a stunning hat-trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs. (The Kings eventually lost to the Montreal Canadiens.)

But he has done more than that. When Gretzky was sold to the LA Kings by the Edmonton Oilers six years ago, for dollars 18m ( pounds 12.3m), the sun-loving Californians were not much impressed with ice hockey. The arrival of the Canadian superstar and his actress wife, Janet Jones, appealed to the celebrity- conscious Hollywood set.

These days Kings fans include Geena Davis, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell and - until last week - John Candy, the roly-poly actor and Gretzky's co-owner of the Toronto Argonauts football team, who died of a heart attack.

Even the Walt Disney company joined the fray, by establishing an NHL team, the Mighty Ducks, in Anaheim. Ice hockey - so long the poor cousin of US sport - was finally on the map in the world capital of popular

culture.

Gretzky is well used to fame, but he will still regard Howe's goalscoring record as a formidable prize, especially as he has taken 10 fewer seasons to reach it. Howe remains a giant to ice hockey fans and for a long time his record was thought to be

unbreakable.

Born in the frosty climes of Saskatchewan in Canada, the sixth of nine children, Howe learned his skills on the ice as a youngster, playing hockey with a tennis ball on frozen ponds. As the temperature frequently plunged below -30C, the ball would often turn into a hard lump of ice, and would have to be thawed out in an oven.

After leaving school, he got a job in the construction industry, which toughened him up still further. Once he was on skates full- time, with the Detroit Red Wings, he was hockey's hard man - a 14 1/2 st hunk of goal-hungry muscle, who was quite happy to bundle into any knot of battling sticks and skates if he thought there was a chance of emerging with the puck. Such aggression paid off,

although at a price: he suffered broken bones, a near-fatal skull fracture, lost teeth, and enough stitches (500 in all) to sew up a pair of hockey gloves.

Howe was also an astonishingly enduring player. After a quarter of a century with the Red Wings, the right winger took two seasons off and then spent six years in the long-defunct World Hockey Association (with the Houston Aeros and New England Whalers).

In 1979, he returned for a final fling in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers. By now, he was 52, and was playing alongside his two sons.

American sports fans are even more hopelessly addicted to statistics than they are to fast food, but they have a point when they brandish Howe's figures in the face of anyone who dares to question his record. He led the NHL in scoring six times, and scored 1,850 points - 1,049 assists and 801 goals (a record he snatched from Maurice 'The Rocket' Richard, who had 544).

Gretzky's fluent style, and slender build, could not be more different. He is not so much fast and ferocious, as brilliantly balanced and deft. As the Washington Post observed recently: 'He's a finesse player who, with his scoring and passing, controls an offense like a puppeteer.'

Long before dropping out of school to pursue his career on the ice, Gretzky was an admirer of Howe and dreamed of wearing his No 9 shirt. When he was 11, and already something of an infant prodigy, he sought Howe's advice. 'Practise the backhand,' came the great man's reply.

Gretzky did. Very shortly he will reap the reward and Wayne's World will be complete.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments