BACK while still a willowy teenager, playing with the Indianapolis Racers in the World Hockey Association, Wayne Gretzky stepped onto the ice one night to go up against his boyhood hero, Gordie Howe.
Gretzky was nervous. But the man whom he once idolized (to the point of adopting his tight-cropped hairdo) winked at him in warm-ups and gave him a friendly tap on the shin pads.
As soon as the game started, though, Howe, who always played with the requisite amount of missing-tooth machismo, rapped Gretzky on the thumb with his stick and warned: ``Don't ever embarrass me on the ice.''
Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe are about to meet again, in the record books, and there will be nothing embarrassing from Gretzky. He is poised to break Howe's all-time scoring record of 801 goals -
one of the great milestones in the sport.
It will further chisel a place for Gretzky on the Mt. Rushmore of great athletes, though it's not as though he needed the extra tap from his aluminum stick.
The Great One, who has done little to besmirch that sobriquet since receiving it at age 10, already has surmounted almost every goal, statistical and otherwise, of his sport. He holds 60 National Hockey League (NHL) records, a record itself.
``Gretzky is the single most important player the game has ever had,'' Bobby Clarke, the former Philadelphia Flyer star, recently told ESPN.
Yet even Gretzky, who has dealt with pressure and the burden of great expectations most of his life, may have been feeling some of the Churchillian weight of history of late. Up until the game March 15, the Los Angeles Kings' captain remained four goals away from 802, even as the now-omnipresent eye of the media chronicles his every shot.
Like Babe Ruth's home-run record, Gordie Howe's goal mark was always considered unassailable. It was set by a man who played 26 seasons in the NHL, Nolan-Ryan-like longevity in a sport where players hit back.
Gretzky is set to break the mark in his 15th season, helped by a relatively injury-free career. The Ontario native has also benefited, he is the first to admit, from the top-notch players and offense-oriented teams with which he has been associated.
Yet even with all this, Gretzky was an improbable choice to assume Howe's mantle. When he entered the NHL in 1979, many thought Gretzky was too small (6 ft., 170 lbs.) to last in a league that some say could use a three-strikes-and-you're-out law. He wasn't the fastest skater. His shots didn't pierce armor. Even today, the soft-spoken superstar is better known for his passing and playmaking than for his goal scoring.
``Nobody ever dreamed, including myself, that I would be this close to breaking Gordie's record of 801 goals,'' Gretzky says. ``People would say, `Well, if you saw Wayne Gretzky play, what would you look for?' The first thing everybody would say is, `Watch how he passes the puck and sees the ice.' ''
Those skills have been enough to transform the game. He took a trick used by Clarke, setting up behind an opponent's net and passing out front, and turned it into an art form. He was one of the first to curl up at the blue line and pass to teammates coming in behind the play when entering an opponent's zone on a rush - a tactic that is now de rigueur.
``Everyone was programmed to play a certain way 15 to 20 years ago,'' says Rogie Vachon, a former NHL goaltender who works in the Los Angeles Kings' front office. ``He has changed all that.''
His signature soft passes always seem to find a teammate's stick and land like a Q-tip. He has unusual vision - an ability to see where everyone is on the ice and anticipate moves.
``His greatest genius is that he reads the play so well and has so much patience and insight,'' says Marty McSorley, a Kings defenseman who also played with Gretzky at Edmonton, which won four Stanley Cups during Gretzky's tenure. ``It is almost like the game reacts around him.''
Still, the Great One's greatest rendezvous with the record books comes at a bittersweet time. He came back from a career-threatening injury last season to help lift the Kings to their first Stanley Cup final ever.
This year, fully recovered, he has continued his old antics: vying for the NHL scoring lead (goals plus assists). He also recently signed a three-year contract with the Kings for $25.5 million, making him the NHL's highest-paid player.
It is an amount that almost seems to embarrass Gretzky, who grew up in a household where his parents once had to forgo drapes to buy him skates. Defenders of the platinum paycheck, however, point out that his presence here has helped boost hockey across the Sun Belt.
Yet, for Gretzky, the individual achievements have been tempered by the recent loss of a close friend, actor John Candy, and the listless play of the Kings. They are struggling to catch the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Mighty Ducks - an expansion club and a once-unmighty team - for a final playoff berth.
AT this point in his career, Gretzky may no longer be able to lift his teammates to the level he once could. But neither does he want the klieg-light attention surrounding the chase for 802 to distract anyone from the team's mission. The attributes he most wants to be remembered for, after all, are hard work and winning.
``From my point of view, the only pressure I feel [right now] is winning,'' he says.
Howe is expected to show up at the game after 802 for a presentation. Hockey's other legend has been reminding people lately, perhaps in a last-minute moment of ruffled pride, that his real career goal record is 975. That includes the 174 he scored in six years in the now-defunct World Hockey Association. He has been a virtual Gretzky groupie in the past, however, and will likely be a gracious supporter again.
Gretzky, who donned a Howe jersey as a lad, now will have another generation clamoring for No. 99. He keeps autographed sticks, shirts, and pictures in his hillside home here for youngsters who happen by. Yet he is still an uncomfortable hero.
``It is hard for me to relate to kids looking up to me,'' he says. ``I never have considered myself different from anyone else.''
Humility is something his father, Walter, always taught. And if Wayne ever forgets the lesson, he may learn it from someone else in the family. When kids at his four-year-old daughter Paulina's school recently made a fuss over him, she had only one question: Why do the kids like you, Daddy?