There are many things to like best about Wayne Gretzky's hockey. I happen to like best the way his unselfish and opportunistic passing has focused attention on the importance of assists. With the National Hockey League season winding down, Gretzky has amassed 123 assists -- 48 more than runnerup Marcel Dionne of Los Angeles. Gretzky is trailing his Edmonton teammate Jari Kurri in goals, 66 to 68, but is assured of another scoring championship because that honor is commendably determined by total points.
It's no coincidence that Kurri has compiled all those goals playing on Gretzky's line. Gretzky sets up more scoring chances than anybody this side of Larry Bird. He's averaging 1.6 assists per game.
I developed an interest in the subject of assists early in my career as a hockey father-writer because they tend to be awarded so carelessly at the youth level -- if at all.
A Peewee center might make a scintillating play to set up a goal, only to see his effort go unrecorded. The next time he'll probably take the shot himself.
``Usually you have no official scorer and only one linesman, so a lot is missed,'' says Bud Gallivan, who coached the New England championship Squirt squad a few years ago. ``It's a shame, when you're trying to teach a team concept. I'd even like to see two points given for assists in kids' games, to encourage passing.''
In the NHL, on the other hand, assists can be too easy to come by. One man who believes this problem needs to be addressed, and that assists should be awarded more selectively, is Bill Chadwick, the most famous US-born referee and a member of the Hall of Fame.
``Ever since I can remember, you could look in the morning paper and find two assists listed after nearly every goal,'' he says. ``But that's too many assists.''
In Chadwick's day, his word was accepted by the scorer on goals and assists. The referee continues to skate over to the scorer's box to give his version of a goal, but while the scorer usually accepts his report on a scramble or a deflection, he is not bound by what the referee tells him.
The rule book offers little more than general guidance when it comes to assists, reading; ``When a player scores a goal an assist shall be credited to the player or players taking part in the play immediately preceding the goal.''
Chadwick's firmly held opinion, after more than half a century in and around major league hockey, is that the only legitimate assist comes inside the blue line, unless it's a direct pass to the goal scorer.
``A lot of assists are given to defensemen who are just trying to advance the puck. In basketball, my statistician friend Art Friedman advises me, only one assist is given -- and then only if the goal scorer doesn't dribble the ball and the path led directly to the goal. But hockey's been doing it this way for a long while. It won't change now.''
The main reason it won't, affirms the NHL, is the need for consistent record keeping. If the criteria for assists are redefined, the scoring records become meaningless.
``I've wondered if maybe the second assist should have to be earned over the red line,'' concedes a league spokesman, ``but it would cause too much confusion with the records. Some general managers think a body check that leads to a goal should count as an assist. But it would be difficult to award, and I'm afraid you'd have cheap assists. Others say the goal scorer should get two points and all his teammates who are on the ice should get one each. But that wouldn't reward team play as well.
``There are more assists today for the simple reason there are more goals. The style of play is changing. The young teams like Edmonton carry and pass the puck instead of dumping it into the offensive zone.''
The norm is about one and a half assists per goal. A team does slightly better at home than on the road.
The NHL lives in dread of a neck-and-neck scoring race like the one between Dionne and Gretzky in 1980. Each finished with 137 points, but the Art Ross Trophy went to Dionne because he scored more goals.
That brings up the question: Why, when we are always told that assists are as important as goals, does the NHL use goals to break a tie for its scoring lead?
Gretzky has wondered the same thing.
``You tell kids that assists mean as much as goals,'' he says. ``I hope the rule is changed.''
Gretzky has the one-season record for assists, 151 in 1982-83. He has some chance to break it this year.
His long-term objectives are the career records of 1,850 points, 801 goals, and 1,049 assists established by Gordie Howe in an NHL career of more than a quarter century -- and who is to say they are out of reach?
It would be wonderful, in the meantime, if the NHL would establish an award to go to the player who accumulates the most assists each season, and name it after Howe. What better way to dramatize, in a lasting way, the value of teamwork?