Unspectacular hockey whiz

Wayne Gretzky, the Wunderkind of the National Hockey League, was enjoying a rare night off recently from the steady grind of playing or traveling. So what did he do in the entertainment capital of the country -- drop in at disco, catch a Broadway play, treat himself to a gourmet meal?

He went to watch A New York Ranger game at Madison Square Garden.

"I know it's unusual," said Gretzky's coach, Glen Sather, "but you have to realize he could still be playing junior hockey this season. He just turned 20 ."

The only thing more unusual than Gretzky's presence on the Garden press row was the way he was able to move through the crowd at intermission without being recognized, an unheralded hero in one of the world's most star-conscious metropolises.

Said one Ranger veteran, "If he played here and got rid of his helmet, he'd be the toast of the town. But he plays in Edmonton, and people can't see what he looks like. Also, it's hard to believe anybody can be that good at his age."

In his first year in the NHL last season, a teen-age Gretzky, looking more like a lead singer in a rock group than a superstar in a contact sport, won the Hart Trophy as Most Valuable Player and the Lady Byng Award for sportsmanship.

This year, facing the well-known danger of a second-year letdown, and playing on a weak team, he has broken Phil Esposito's league scoring record of 152 points and Bobby Orr's record of 102 assists -- this while being hounded at every turn by the opposing team's strongest defensive forward, and sometimes by two men. The Philadelphia Flyers disdained special coverage of Gretzky, only to see him score four goals in the Spectrum recently and beat them almost by himself.

"I guess when you have a player of his quality, you should put somebody on him," Bobby Clarke conceded afterward. "Next time we'll do something different."

For Gretzky,s part, he is used to the extra attention. He doesn't care for it, but he's used to it.

"It's been like that since I was 7," he says. "Sometimes I get checked when I'm a long way from the puck, and I think interference should be called. But how many times are interference penalties called in this league?

"Any player who scores a lot has to expect more intense checking. If they concentrate on me, one of my teammates should be free for a pass. I developed my passing game in junior hockey when I found myself checked by two defenders and learned to dish the puck out to the open man.

"I like to remind people that hockey's scoring system is unique. An assist counts the same as a goal in the individual statistics. I get as big a kick out of setting up a goal as I do scoring one."

Already the premier playmaker in the game, Gretzky surpassed Esposito's record with a final regular season total of 109 assists and 55 goals. Espo set the record with 76 goals and 76 assists in 1970-71, the same year Orr established the old assists mark.

If Gretzky can blend inconspicuously into a crowd as a spectator, he can do the same thing on the ice, seeming to emerge only when it's necessary to make the big play that results in a goal. Spectacular he is not, but perhaps only because he is such a rounded performer.

It has been pointed out that No. 99 lacks the speed of a Howie Morenz, the desire of a Maurice Richard, the strength of a Gordie Howe, the shot of a Bobby Hull, the smoothness of a Jean Beliveau, the acrobatics of an Orr. Still, he is blessed with some measure of all those qualities, has no conspicuous weakness, and is durable enough to play more than half of every game.

His principal strength would seem to be his extraordinary knack of anticipation. Frequently he is operating half a play ahead of everyone else, seeing in his mind's eye what they are going to be doing before the action actually evolves.

Constantly moving in his hunkered-over, hawklike skating style, the slender Ontario native finds openings for himself and the puck before players of normal perceptiveness can expect them.And he is an absolutely superb passer.

Unlike any center I have observed, Gretzky prefers to set up plays from behind the opposition's goal, as if he were a defenseman getting organized to bring the puck out of his own zone. With a full view of the nine other skaters, he stick-handles until he spots an opportunity, then as often as not slides the puck to the right place at the right time.

"You might think it's instinct," he says, "but it really isn't. It's practice. My dad taught me to size up situations and take advantage of them, to figure where the puck was going to go rather than just follow it."

Considering Edmonton's shortcomings as a team (the Oilers completed the regular season tied for 13th place in the 21-team overall standings, just making the playoffs), it's really amazing that Gretzky has done so much so soon.

How good do you suppose the NHL's Wunderkind will be when he grows up and gets to play for a good team?

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