To figure Gretzky's greatness just tally up the numbers

In the wake of Wayne Gretzky's retirement earlier this week after 20 seasons and 1,695 games in the National Hockey League, we've been subjected to an outpouring of glowing observations on the sport's best-ever player. This is the conventional way that respects are paid.

We've heard from former coaches (repeated ad nauseam was the comment by Barry Melrose, coach while Gretzky played for L.A.: "The reason he's dominated is that he's the smartest that ever played the game"), commentators, players, fans, even Michael Jordan.

The problem is that while this technique works in the case of most athletes leaving the game, it makes no sense for someone of Gretzky's accomplishments.

Conventional yea-saying works when dealing with conventional athletes. Gretzky, however, is an extraordinarily rare unconventional superior star who doesn't require definition by others and who doesn't have to have his deeds uplifted by word.

No one else - and that includes sports columnists - can add an iota to the conversation. That's because Gretzky has posted numbers that stun in their sweep.

It's these numbers that prove the case, not what others say about him.

How refreshing that the walk matters way more than the talk. Consider that Gordie Howe traditionally was the standard in hockey against which all others were measured. Gretzky bested Howe's most-career-goals record almost a decade ago. In 1981-82, Gretzky scored a season-record 92 goals, obliterating the mark of 76 set by Phil Esposito. In 10 of Gretzky's 20 years in the NHL, Gretzky led in scoring.

Gretzky holds 61 records.

Perhaps best of all, Gretzky did honor - in a record-breaking way, of course - to a grand old game that demands many skills from players who often have too few. Assists document who best understands hockey and the team concept. OK, OK, this is again way too many words of explanation. Fact: Career leader in assists is Gretzky with 2,223, having passed Howe more than 11 years ago.

One problem is that we have way overused the word "great," applying it indiscriminately to people who in no way are deserving. Therefore, Gretzky's nickname - The Great One - falls way short of its desired reach. Past hyperbole has robbed us of much needed vocabulary today.

Again, that's why Gretzky soars today. No hyperbole required. Look at the numbers. Fifty times he scored three goals in a single game; next best is Mike Bossy with 39. Gretzky had 13 consecutive 100-point seasons; next best is Bobby Orr with six.

Any explanation required?

Happily, Gretzky's numbers seem even shinier because of how he conducts himself off the ice. Conversely, Babe Ruth was well, great, between the white lines but elsewhere, not so great. Examples of many others cascade through our minds and over police blotters.

Gretzky also understands ego, having played with players who are chock-full of it, but ego is absent in his own makeup. His demeanor is more that of the rising young assistant manager at the grocery store - polite, cheerful, helpful, respectful.

Nevermind the money he has made, because he deserved all of it and, frankly, a lot more. He's a textbook example of length and breadth in a world in which too many exhibit the short and narrow. No assembly required with The Astounding Great One.

Gretzky, the only person worth listening to on the subject of Gretzky, says his love and passion for the game are stronger than ever. But the problem, he says, is "I'm not as good as I was in 1980." He's right, but few want to admit such heresy. Yet, again the numbers tell the tale. He clearly has been sliding in the decade of the '90s, ending this season with just nine of his career 1,016 goals. Over the last six years, only twice has Gretzky's team even made it to the playoffs. He hasn't been a first-team NHL All-Star choice since 1991.

"This," says Gretzky, "is a great game, but it's a hard game, too."

For years he made it look too easy. Yet, The Greatest One never was a great skater, never particularly powerful. All he could do was play. His passing was a joy to watch. In a brash and rough-and-tumble sport, he competed with finesse.

But, again, such explanation of his talent is superfluous. Look at the numbers.

Of his career, which ended with the Rangers, Gretzky says, "No regrets." Us either. We look at the numbers and salute.

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