Wayne Gretzky is not one of those picture hockey players who drive admirers to sputter prose-poetry, like the Guy Lafleur or Gil Perreault of a few seasons back. The picture hockey player - Bobby Orr may have been the classic case - is a freestyle improviser who sets the home crowd roaring by circling behind his own net and moving with fluid strides through center ice, pirouetting away from a hip-check here, a stick-check there. Then, with a sudden burst of speed, he splits the defense and heads for his opponents' net as if body, stick, and puck were one. A shoulder fakes one way, the head fakes the other, and with a graceful, teasing gesture the puck is drawn away from the sprawling goalie and flipped almost casually into a corner of the net. The whole event has the appearance of being choreographed.
''The Great Gretzky'' lacks this majestic air of visible command, as if a Big Boy were toying on a pond with the Little Kids. At 23, Gretzky looks more like a Little Kid - too slender, too nice, with his shy smile and diffident manner, to be a hockey player at all. He comes across as the earnest squire perennially aspiring to be a knight. There are players who can outskate him. There are players with harder shots. There are players who can stickhandle more magically. In this very physical sport, there are players who can outmuscle him.
But nobody can come close to outscoring him. At the end result of the game - putting the puck in the opponents' net, or passing it to a teammate who can - Gretzky is already the all-time overachiever.
A Gretzky-watcher is always celebrating. Just a week ago the most successful player ever to skate for the Edmonton Oilers (or any other hockey team) broke his 37th National Hockey League record, stringing together 51 consecutive games in which he scored either a goal or an assist. When Gretzky breaks a record, he shatters it. The old record stood at 30 games. While breaking Phil Esposito's old record for most goals scored in a season, Gretzky exceeded it by the awesome margin of 92 to 76. For rough equivalent, imagine Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs by hitting 72 instead of just 61.
Game after game, season after season, Gretzky gets the puck into the net with a frequency and a consistency that make other hockey players seem to be playing another game on another planet. Yet nobody quite understands how he does it, including other prolific scorers like Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull. He is credited with a ''quick realease,'' with superior ''mental concentration,'' with ''being in the right place at the right time.'' Every cliche in The Jock's Book of Non-Explanations is trotted forth in print and in broadcasts.
Hockey players are not given to mysticism. But a mystical theory has been concocted, involving a measurement called the ''panic point.'' Gretzky, these theorists maintain, has the poise to hold onto the puck longer, without panicking, than any other hockey player in history. What the ''panic point'' theory fails to explain is why other talented and aggressive players cannot take the puck from him.
It is a mystery - this domination by a fragile, unspectacular youth in a swift and violent game.
In Canada, for this 37th record and all others, ''The Great Gretzky'' has won his due - a $21 million contract, extending to 1999, plus maybe $2 million a year more on the side from endorsements. There is a Wayne Gretzky wristwatch, a Wayne Gretzky doll, a Wayne Gretzky pillowcase, and, of course, a Wayne Gretzky candy bar. General Mills is said to have invested $2 million in a Wayne Gretzky cereal that has all of Ontario crunching.
In the United States, where hockey is a local but not a broadly national enthusiasm, the name-recognition value of ''The Great Gretzky'' seems to fall somewhere between an assistant secretary of state and the winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for economics. When the names of 24 athletes were offered to the American public for identification by pollsters, Wayne Gretzky ranked 23rd on the ''Who-he?'' list, outdone in anonymity only by another hockey player, Mike Bossy.
Was there ever a case of overwhelming superiority so neglected by an otherwise sports-mad public? This, too, is a mystery. For in a world where politicians, poets, carpenters, and chocolate-chip cookie makers do not necessarily seem to be improving, it's comforting to think they don't make hockey players the way they used to, either. They make them better.