Hartford, Conn. — Hockey is the most tightly woven of team sports, yet it's gaining popularity through the exploits of one young individual: the ever-explosive Wayne Gretzky. The Edmonton Oilers' 23-year-old center could break, again, his own National Hockey League season scoring records of 92 goals, 120 assists, and 212 points. He set another impressive record this winter by scoring in 51 consecutive games. Then, after missing several games with a shoulder injury, he came back and quickly resumed his meteoric pace with a couple of four-goal fusillades.
He does not lack for individual goals, however, in the motivational sense of the word. Gordie Howe's career records of 801 goals, 1,049 assists, and 1,850 points - gathered over 26 seasons - give him ample incentive.
Howe, who always has been Gretzky's hero, is also his most ardent admirer.
''I have a picture of me presenting him an award when he was 11,'' says Howe, now an ambassador of public relations for his last team, the Hartford Whalers. ''He'd scored 90 goals in 11 games or some preposterous thing. He was born to put the puck in the net.''
Ask Howe, looking dapper in a gray flannel suit, to analyze Gretzky and he immediately focuses on Gretzky's hands, which are quicker than a goalie's eyes.
''He has a great pair of hands - he doesn't miss good scoring chances. You can't coach that.
''It helped that he played hockey with a tennis ball a lot as a kid. That's a great way to develop hand action. He still works with a tennis ball when he's having trouble. He hit two posts in one game this year and went to practice his shot. How many players do you know who'd do that?
''The hands separate him from the rest. If the puck's in close to his body, he'll drop one hand off the stick to get the blade down and gain control.
''Against Detroit one time he used one hand to take the puck away from a defenseman from behind, wheeled around and shot, all in the same motion. The shot was right on target.''
Howe is more impressed by the accuracy of Gretzky's shot than the velocity or hardness, sufficient though they are.
''There are some harder shots, but his are so precisely pinpointed,'' Gordie says. ''We talk about shooting for a hole or even half a hole of two feet or so, but he'll shoot for a particular bull's-eye and hit it.
''Unlike most players, he'll shoot it in closer to the goalie's body on the glove side, so the goalie can't make a natural, uncramped reaction. That's how smart Wayne is.''
Why does Gretzky have trouble scoring on breakaways, when he has only the goaltender to beat?
''His game is based on reacting quickly to situations. He reacts better than he acts. On a breakaway he often has too little to react to, especially if he has to make the first move.''
Howe believes Gretzky, with all his goal-scoring, is an underrated passer.
''He shouldn't be with all those assists, but he is. I like the way he can make a soft pass and let a teammate skate to it. I used to do that a lot and people would think I'd missed my pass. Or he can pass a bullet to get the puck by a defenseman on a two-on-one rush. He almost always makes the right pass at the right time.''
How would Howe defense Gretzky?
''The Islanders have been successful taking away his wingmen. He can't do as much having to stickhandle more. He's too good to shut down, but that's how you can keep him from killing you.
''In the old six-team league, when teams played each other 20 times a season counting exhibitions, he'd have had more difficulty because the opposition would have learned more about him. But he'd still have been great. He's a remarkable player and a remarkable young man. He asks questions and then listens, which most people don't do.
''He asked me when he was a kid how I handled pro hockey at the age of 17. I said, 'You have two eyes and one mouth. Keep one closed and two open and you'll be alright.' He does and he is.
''At the rate he's going he'll break my records in half the time it took me to set them, and I'll be there cheering him on.''