Wayne (The Great) Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers came into the National Hockey League last fall correctly believing he had a lot to prove. He is proving all of it and more.
A teen-age superstar in the World Hockey Association last year, with 110 points as a rookie, he listened all summer to skepticism about his prospects in the realm major league. No way would be score like that against the big boys from Montreal, New York, and Philadelphia. Wait till the checkers and grinders get ahold of him.
Well, last week the fuzzy-cheeked Gretzky burned the Stanley Cup champion Canadiens for a goal and two assists which gave him 110 points for the season -- with several weeks still to pay. He is now second in the NHL scoring chase, having moved around Montreal's Guy Lafleur to trail only Marcel Dionne of Los Angeles, and is -- at 19 -- the youngest player in league history to reach 100 points!
"I hope this helps show that the WHA played good hockey," he says. "We didn't have the depth of the NHL, but it wasn't an inferior league, and I feel a responsibility to prove that. I know a lot of people will watch me, and if I don't do well they'll say the WHA was weak competition. Especially back home I would hear that."
Home is Brantford, Ontario, where his father began flooding a miniature rink for Wayne when he was three. The youngster was an exceptional player almost from the outset, and he soon learned to live with the pressure of being special. When he was five he played with and against kids who were 10; when he was 10 he played against 15-year-olds.
Also when he was 10 he met his hero, Gordie Howe, for the first time. They were speaking at the same banquet.
"I've never thought you should be restricted from advancing because of your age," says a quietly confident Gretzky. "That's why I'm grateful to the WHA for giving me a chance to turn pro early."
On his 18th birthday he signed a contract with Edmonton for 21 years and $5 million or so. He wears no. 99 on his blue, orange, and white jersey because the contract is up in 1999.
"Edmonton's a great hockey city, and I figured I want to stay there the rest of my career," he says.
It is such a good hockey city, in fact, that home games would sell out consistently even without Gretzky.
The length of his contract, which may be a record in modern sports, points up the youthful centerman's desire to enjoy a long career.
"Gordie Howe is an inspiration to me, playing good hockey when he's over 50. I've watched him practice, and he works hard at everything: his passing, his shooting, his skating."
Like Howe, Gretzky invariably will accomplish much more on the ice than he appears to.His style is understated and, for the most part, unspectacular. But as the players put it, the puck seems to follow him around.
"He'll be knocked down in the corner and out of the play," says an opposing defenseman, "when all of a sudden he turns up with the puck on his stick. Covering him is like trying to catch a feather."
Not a particularly fast end-to-end skater, Gretzky accelerates with startling effect.For the first 10 yards he may be the best skater in the game. He gets to more loose pucks than other players because of this quickness, and once he collects them he makes amazing plays.
On one recent early shift against the New York Rangers, he looked less than overwhelming when he collided with his own men twice, but he kept moving, moving , moving, and ultimately he stole a pass, he blocked a shot, and he slid a pass up the slot from behind the net that nearly resulted in a goal.
As the game went on, Gretzky continued to demonstrate great hockey sense. Somehow he knows what's going on behind him as well as everywhere else.
He isn't big -- 5 ft. 11 in. and 165 pounds after a steak dinner -- and he uses acute anticipation to keep from being banged about. "I don't have the size to knock people around, and I don't like to play that kind of hockey anyway," he says.
Gretzky is turning virtually everything he sees in the NHL to his advantage these days, as he goes about his business of proving a lot.