The Great Gretzky gets double-teamed at last

WAYNE GRETZKY of Edmonton has become the Great Gretzky of Los Angeles in a trade that threatens to leave the citizens of Edmonton in a permanent state of mourning for the loss of ``a Canadian national treasure.'' Meanwhile, hockey fans the world over will not soon stop asking suspiciously: Did the National Treasure skate south eagerly across the border, as if heading for the opposition's goal on a breakaway, or was he pushed from behind? Cross-checked! Blind-sided! Whose idea was the trade? The question may never be answered, but it reminds us paying customers a little sadly of the difference between sport and life.

Let's start with sport. On the ice, Gretzky's game is to play the escape artist - the master eluder. Even his offense is based on defense, starting with the principle: Never be cornered.

Other hockey players put up a fine scramble too when they carry the puck, feinting with little head and shoulder fakes, shifting speed and direction, teasingly offering the puck to a defenseman, then pulling it back. But sooner or later, if both teams are at full strength, the virtuoso soloist will get trapped. His stick will be lifted. His body will be rudely unbalanced. He will lose the puck. Checkmate.

As a Scarlet Pimpernel on skates, Gretzky is in a class by himself. So slight in build as to constitute a confidence trick among athletes - the bottom of the squad in strength tests - at 27 he still looks like a boy playing a man's game. Yet in a punishing contact sport he seldom gets injured, he seldom even gets hit.

If two players go for Gretzky, he lures them like a frail matador, then pirouettes in the tiniest of circles and passes the puck through a barricade of sticks and skates to land precisely on the blade of a teammate's stick. If the defenders cautiously keep their distance, he executes a geometric pattern of zigs and zags, casually encroaching toward the center, snapping off a shot just at the moment the goalie - tormented by the suspense - freezes. He is so clever at setting up a play from behind the enemy net that the tiny space has been dubbed ``Gretzky's office.''

So much for sport and its arabesques. Back to the sidelines, where grace and skills do not necessarily prevail. In so-called real life, Gretzky's enemies, and purported friends, have been manhandling him as the dirtiest of hockey players were never able to do.

In the brief period since the trade, Gretzky has been accused of having ``an ego as big as Manhattan'' - by Peter Pocklington, owner of the Oilers, who was in the process of pocketing $15 million or so and collecting five pretty fair Los Angeles hockey players in exchange for Gretzky and a couple of spear-carriers.

Gretzky's new wife, Janet Jones, an aspiring actress, as they say, has been charged with luring the superstar to her hometown of Los Angeles, thus breaking up the Edmonton team as Yoko Ono allegedly broke up the Beatles when she married John Lennon.

And so it goes.

Being a gentle man on the ice and off has not saved Gretzky from the prevailing cynicism that reduces news stories about celebrities to gossip, if not sniggering sagas of sleaze.

The skater has clay feet!

In fact, the skater is comporting himself with considerable dignity. If there were justice in life as there is, at times, in a hockey rink, the critics who have been mugging Gretzky would be waved to the penalty box.

The mean cycle of hero-inflating followed by hero-bashing is getting to be a bore, and an irrelevant bore at that. For an athlete - unlike us kibitzers and peeping Toms - sport is life. And so true Gretzky fans (and Gretzky himself, you may be sure) can hardly wait for him to return to his proper world on ice - and never, never be cornered.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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