The magic numbers for Wayne Gretzky, who is rapidly establishing himself as the greatest offensive force in hockey history, are nice round ones now: 100 and 200. If the 21-year-old Edmonton dynamo continues at his current pace, he will reach the nearly unthinkable milestones of 100 goals and 200 points in a season.
''I have a chance and I think it can be done,'' says Gretzky with easygoing self-assurance. ''Until recently, no one believed it was possible, but someone will do it.''
That someone almost certainly will be Wayne Gretzky. With 17 games still to play, he has already eclipsed his own record of 164 points and tied Phil Esposito's record of 76 goals.
''Power to him,'' proclaims Espo, a popular New York Rangers telecaster these days. Can he score 100 goals?
''I have to draw the line somewhere.''
The sharpshooting Gretzky is taking far fewer shots than Espo launched in his prime. He scored his 76th goal on only his 292nd shot; Espo did not get his 76th until his 550th shot.
If Gretzky's main statistics were translated into baseball terms, he would be batting more than .400 and threatening to hit 75 home runs.
So comprehensive is his assault on the record book, it becomes difficult to write about him without using more numbers than words. He is averaging an all-time high of 2.6 points per game; he should shatter his own season record for assists; he will score 500 points earlier in his career than anyone else, and so on.
There is, however, one hidden statistic that speaks volumes of his overall value to a team, forgetting - insofar as that's possible - his individual achievements: Gretzky this year has assisted on goals scored by 14 different teammates. He is a consummate play-maker whose first thoughts are teamwork and winning.
Edmonton Coach Glen Sather uses him with almost every conceivable line combination, partly to keep the opposition from keying on the superstar and partly to pick up faltering Oiler forwards. Often Sather will keep No. 99, who is averaging 30 minutes of playing time a game, on the ice for two straight shifts.
''By leaving him out there when two new wingers come on, you get two combinations going,'' Sather says. ''If a line isn't doing well, I'll put Wayne with that line to motivate it. That's a big reason we're running away with our division.''
Dave Lumley, a little known Edmonton winger, had no goals until he recently landed on Gretzky's line. He then scored 12 goals in the next 12 games. ''I wasn't doing anything until I began playing with Wayne,'' he says. ''Now I'm in the record book.''
NHL statistician Ron Andrews has been with the league for nearly 20 years and considers Gretzky the most amazing passer he has seen, including the Russians.
''He is the first player in my memory who under no cirumstances can be said to have received an unwarranted assist,'' claims Andrews. ''I heard complaints on Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, and Phil Esposito. But I have not heard a single word questioning an assist of Gretzky's.
''He can be over there in a crowd near the boards, without the puck, and all of a sudden he has the puck and threads it through several players right onto a teammate's stick in front of the net. He very, very seldom misses his wingers.''
And when Orr was asked to rate Wayne on a scale of 1 to 10, he quickly gave him a 60.
His mind working as fast as his body, Gretzky possesses a rare ability to size up an overall situation instantly, sensing how everyone on both teams will react to his moves before he even makes them. For him, a game contested at dizzying speeds must seem to be unfolding in slow motion.
''Most people think I play by instinct, but I don't,''says Gretzky, pointing out that just as a lawyer, teacher, or other professional person devotes a lot of time to the study of those specialties, so has he spent a great many hours studying hockey.
Physically, Gretzky is rather ordinary -- 5 ft., 11 in. and 170 pounds at best, with less upper body strength than all the other players on his team. (It is my personal suspicion that his arms are uncommonly long, enabling him to reach into tangles of players and slip away with the puck, or coddle and protect it out of the reach of would-be checkers -- an impression heightened by his odd, hunkered-over skating style. However, I was unable to confirm this with the Edmonton publicity department, which is overwhelmed by such esoteric inquiries about the game's dominant player.)
In any event, what makes Gretzky special is much more mental than physical, and his thinking-man's style is a windfall for a sport that still abides excesses of violence to the detriment of its inherent appeal. The pity is that so few people are getting to watch him add to his greatness, what with the NHL's heavy new emphasis on divisional scheduling and lack of a network television contract.
He's simply the best show in sports today.