The Edmonton-Philadelphia series for hockey's coveted Stanley Cup is different things to different folks. For some it is the much-awaited matchup of the teams that finished first and second overall during the regular season. For others it is a textbook test of Edmonton's pyrotechnic offense against Philadelphia's fortress-like defense. For still others it is a psychological case study of two splendid teams determined to make up for last year's playoff disappointments.
But for me it is, more than all of the above, a fitting showcase for Wayne Gretzky, the greatest entertainment in sports. On Sunday the incomparable center broke the scoring ice with the first goal of the series and assisted on another in leading the Oilers to a 4-2 victory. And he is sure to be the focus of attention again as the best-of-seven struggle resumes with Game 2 in Edmonton Wednesday night.
Anytime Gretzky gets the puck, I move forward in my seat, eager to see what work of art he will execute this time. Every time he is on the ice he stirs excitement. He specializes in the unexpected, inventing plays that the best coaches in the game have not yet thought to draw on chalkboards.
He is the best passer in his sport and the best goal scorer, as the statistics each year validate. He passes so adroitly he leads teammates into scoring situations they had not seen. Almost every shot he himself takes is on the net and aimed to throw the goaltender off balance.
Gretzky does all of this in an unspectacular manner that leaves fans wondering why he's so devastating. He seems to lack the poetic smoothness and crushing power of the great athlete.
``He isn't flashy, the way a Rocket Richard was,'' says former Montreal great Jean Beliveau, whose career playoff scoring record Gretzky has broken this spring at the unlikely age of 26. ``He's more like a chess player out there. He knows two plays in advance what his move is going to be.''
Toronto center Dan Daoust put it another way earlier this season. ``He's smarter than anyone else in the game. He's always doing something new. If you're checking him, he will skate toward another guy on your team and suddenly there are two of you on him and you don't know what to do.''
Gretzky has no doubt what to do. He dumps the puck to an unattended teammate. He is utterly unselfish about scoring goals - his latest league-leading points total this season broke down into 62 goals and 121 assists.
Says John Davidson, the former National Hockey League goalie who has become a refreshing television commentator, ``He controls the puck better than anyone else in the league and can put a pass on a teammate's stick at any time, regardless of the situation. He has incredible hands. As for goal scoring, he exploits the top part of the net better than any modern shooter. And he can make the puck rise or dip depending on how he releases it off his stick blade.''
More than once, Davidson notes, Gretzky has deliberately banked a shot into the net off the goalie's equipment. He can score when there is no true opportunity.
His weakness, if you will, has been on breakaways. That probably is because he will consider too many possibilities rather than simply shoot for an opening.
Gretzky's skating style is, well, less than pure. He appears to strain, and is not particularly fast from one end of the rink to the other.
``He is not the most classical skater, but he's efficient and gets where he's going,'' says Laura Stamm, a skating teacher who has worked with many NHL players.
Stamm tells her students to watch Edmonton defenseman Paul Coffey for a skating model. Coffey exemplifies a smooth, powerful, accelerating stride.
``Wayne is deceptive,'' she says. ``He relies a lot on quickness and anticipation.''
What would she change about Gretzky's style?
``He uses a lot of upper body when he skates. He works his shoulders more than I prefer. But he's successful, and you don't tamper with something that successful. I've worked with his two younger brothers. They are different from Wayne. They use the same low stance but generate more power from the quad muscles in their legs. They are purer skaters.''
Positive features of Gretzky's skating are his excellent balance and lateral mobility, which enable him to change direction abruptly and evade opposing defenders and their attempts to check him. Gretzky has to be the least hit center in hockey, despite taking frequent extra shifts.
He was unhappy earlier in the playoffs because he wasn't getting as much ice time as usual. But Edmonton Coach Glen Sather had his reasons; he wanted his chafing superstar as well rested as possible for the finals.
Personally, I don't care who wins the second game Wednesday night, but I can't wait to watch No. 99 perform his next magic acts. Move over, Doug Henning.