People come from near and far to see Wayne Gretzky play hockey. But I am not impressed. I once flew 4,000 miles for 15 minutes with the man.

That is not something I do often. Not for athletes, anyhow. Usually, when you travel that far to interview an athlete, you lose your luggage someplace like Baton Rouge, and then in Salt Lake City your flight is canceled, and then, upon landing in Los Angeles, you realize your wallet is in your suitcase, which, of course, disappeared in Baton Rouge, along with all your clean underwear. And you need to rent a car. And when you finally arrive at the stadium where your man is talking jump shots or warm-up swings, and you haven’t eaten in 14 hours and your shirt smells so foul even the ball boys stare at you, and you fall to your knees and beg for just five minutes of question and answer, that is when the athlete says: “I only talk to media on Wednesdays. Today is Thursday. You gotta wait.”

Wayne Gretzky would not do that. I can vouch for it. The first time I met him was in 1983 when he won a Florida newspaper’s poll for “Athlete of the Year.” Did we say Florida? A hockey player? That was my boss’s reaction, too. The deal was the paper would do an in-depth feature on whomever won the poll, although, frankly, we were counting on someone from the Miami Dolphins, who were 20 minutes away. Instead, during that Christmas week, I was sent from Miami to Edmonton, Alberta, which — and I think I’m safe in saying this — is not a common route. It was 80 degrees outside when I boarded the plane and 23 below when I got off, and I remember the Edmonton taxi driver pointing to the empty white horizon and mumbling about snow spots, or something, and hours later, when I finally found Gretzky in the Northlands Coliseum, and I earnestly explained who I was and what I had come for — I was shivering the entire time — he looked at me and said, and these are his exact words:
“You’re bleeping kidding me.”

OK. Not his exact words.

So right from the start I confess a certain fondness for Wayne Gretzky. At least he has a sense of humor. I will also say now what I remember thinking back then: He is so scrawny. Not a you-and-me type of scrawny, but a star-athlete type of scrawny. Six-feet? One hundred and seventy pounds? If Great Ones were cold cuts, he’d be about a quarter pound.

Here is a guy who is to skates what Nureyev was to slippers. A guy who can take on half a team by himself, a guy who has so shredded the record book that Newsweek once wrote, “His point of reference is now himself,” and that was five years ago. Yet to watch Wayne Gretzky strip from his hockey pads is to watch a legend transform into a boy.

“You don’t like to fight, do you?” someone asked him after practice a few days ago in Edmonton. At the moment, Gretzky was shirtless, all ribs and bone and thin arms, and I remember thinking it was a pretty fair question.

“Well, I don’t think they should eliminate fighting,” he said, “because what happens is the big guys try to intimidate the small guys. And if the big guys know that nobody is gonna come in and stop them, they’ll do it more and more.”

Gretzky, now 26, still sees himself as one of the small guys. Which is both fitting and ridiculous. True, he once finished dead last in a team test of upper-body strength, and he adopted his favorite ice position — behind the opposing team’s net — because you avoid the most collisions there. Yet he can make any defenseman look like an old barrel, his shots are bullets, his passes are magnets, even opposing coaches such as Detroit’s Jacques Demers simply shrug and say, “We can’t do anything about No. 99. We have to concentrate on the rest of the team.”

One of the small guys?

It seems like I always have to prove myself,” Gretzky was saying the other morning, while sitting on the team bench. “I don’t know why. I’ve proven myself over and over. First they said I couldn’t play pro, then it was I’m good but I’m not a winner until we win a Stanley Cup. Then we won a Stanley Cup and all of sudden people said, ‘Well, he never won a Canada Cup, never won a Canada Cup’ — you know it’s always something. It’s always, ‘Well, he hasn’t done this or the other. . . . ‘ but I’ve done it.”

He sighed. This semifinal series with the Red Wings could be a prelude to Gretzky’s third Stanley Cup. “And then,” he said, “they’ll go, ‘Why hasn’t he won four?’ ” He was only half-joking. Certain folks keep dangling the carrot farther in front of Wayne Gretzky, not because they want him to go on but because they never want him to catch it.

Remember that Gretzky was a Canadian hero before he reached puberty. He was eight when he appeared on his first national magazine cover. At 10 he scored 378 goals — 378? — in one season with his hometown team in Brantford, Ontario. It didn’t leave much for others. “It’s human nature,” his father, Walt Gretzky, once said, “if your boy is on that team, too, you’re going to be unhappy.”

So there was always a kind of jealous backlash, from other parents, other players, and it lasted all the way through junior hockey and his brief stint in the World Hockey Association and when he signed his landmark contract with Edmonton on his 18th birthday, a deal that takes him through 1999. And some of the resentment still lingers, even though he is now widely accepted as the best of the best, the greatest of the great, so good that his closet is full of MVP trophies and so good his teammates just shrug when you ask for his
“best” play — “It’s a new one every day,” they will tell you — and so good that the easiest way to judge his statistics is to figure he owns every record in hockey history and work backward from there. He already leads the 1987 playoffs in scoring with 22 points, including 19 assists (through Friday).

“How do you defend him?” Mel Bridgman, the Red Wings’ veteran forward, was asked recently.

“First you watch him skate toward you,” he said, “then you watch him skate past you. Then you yell at your goalie, ‘Look out. Here he comes!’ “

So a guy like that has it made, right? You check his age, and his boyish face — actually it bears an uncanny resemblance to that of actress Meryl Streep — and you figure this guy could play forever.

But lately, according to Edmonton writers, Gretzky has taken to flirting with his future. “You’ll be surprised when I walk away,” he will say one day, and then the next day he will shrug it off: “Nah, I’m not even thinking of quitting.” He once predicted he would be out before age 30. And some claim he now deliberately alters his game, concentrating on passing one year, scoring the next, shooting at statistical marks — much the way basketball star Larry Bird has taken to the more complex, as a way of keeping himself motivated.

“Oh, I’m not like him,” Gretzky said when asked about the Bird comparison.
“He has such phenomenal talent.”

“And you don’t?” someone said.

He shrugged. “I’m just trying to put a puck in a net.”

Here is what I think. I think he is tired. Not of the hockey, but of the emotional baggage that comes with it. There seems to be a point in star athletes’ lives where, having done it all, they must do it again. And the second time around seems to move more slowly, the distractions are closer to the windows, the athletes find themselves sighing more and questioning more and finally saying no more. Julius Erving comes to mind. So does John McEnroe. And neither of them had to lug around “The Great” as a prefix.

“What have you grown most weary of?” I asked Gretzky last week.

“Ohhhh . . .,” he looked over at a local reporter. “This guy,” he said, laughing. “No. . . . I guess the travel, the flying (his fear of flying is well known; he often sits in the cockpit to feel more secure), I don’t like all that. That’s the hard part for me.”

“What about all of us?” I motioned to a crowd of reporters.

“Oh, you have to get used to that. If you can’t deal with that, you might as well get out.”

Which is not the same as saying he likes it. The demands on Gretzky’s time are astounding, any five-minute interview can turn into two hours, the offers he refuses could fill five men’s date books. These days he will even occasionally roll his eyes — the Gretzky equivalent of rudeness — at questions or fans’ behavior. Why not? He has been skating since he was two years old, when his father flooded the back yard to create a makeshift rink, and he has won nearly everything at least once, and there does come a point when “What’s next?” is replaced by “What now?”

“Do you have an ‘ultimate’ statistical mark for a season?” someone asked.
“Is there a number where you say, that’s the best I can do?”

“Two hundred and sixteen points,” he said. One more than the record of 215. Which, naturally, he already owns.

What now? He is racing only himself.

And yet you get the feeling if you asked Wayne Gretzky nicely enough to keep playing, he would. This is a guy who once sneaked through a huge autograph crowd at Joe Louis Arena by wearing sunglasses and a hat, then felt so guilty he came back out anyhow. His charity work is beyond the perfunctory sort arranged by many athletes’ press agents. He has an affinity for children that seems somehow special, bonded, as if, beneath the skates and the contracts, he has never really left those ranks.

In this playoff series with the Red Wings, even the Detroit fans, fanatical in their desire for a home team victory, stop to salute Gretzky’s talent with ovations. In Edmonton, every time he gets the puck on his stick, there is a collective guttural rise, like the “aaaaAAAAHH!” of a college football crowd as it leads the opening kickoff. Something is always coming when Gretzky is out there. “He goes sideways as fast as he goes back and forth,” said Detroit center Shawn Burr. “You blink and he’s gone.”

It would be a fitting description when he finally leaves the game. Blink and he’s gone. How many of us can relate to a career like his? Best of the best? Greatest of the great? You can picture him sitting on some mythical rock, high above it all, just looking around. The sentimental see him as a gift from the gods, a reminder that the biggest and strongest are not always the best, that a hero can still be afraid to board an airplane, that an ego stroked a thousand times a day can remain small enough to say, after Edmonton was upset by Calgary in the playoffs last year: “The real losers of the world are kids with incurable diseases, the people with true pain. We’re fortunate this is only a game.”

I never told you the finish of that Florida interview story. Once he realized I wasn’t kidding, Gretzky felt such sympathy he waved off the urgings of the public relations director and spent an hour alone in the locker room, answering any questions I could think up. Four years later I was in those same quarters, asking him what it would take for him to finally walk away from hockey.

“Ohhhh . . .,” he began, as he often begins, and then he clearly decided this, the playoffs, was not the time for such subjects. “I’m not really thinking about that now. I’m having a lot of fun.”

He was pulled away when a group of Japanese businessmen was somehow admitted to the locker room. They wanted his picture. Gretzky posed with them, one on this arm, one on the other, then two, then three, and it must have been his 100th picture of the morning, but just as the photographer was about to snap No. 101, he got this impish grin and stuck his glove in front of the face of one of the men.

“Shoot now!” Gretzky said, and the photographer did, and they laughed, even though none of them spoke English.

What next? Who knows? The shame would not be when this guy finally retires. The shame would be not appreciating him while he’s around. I don’t know how you lap another compliment on a man who already receives mail addressed:
“Wayne Gretzky, Canada.” I do know I once flew 4,000 miles for 15 minutes, and if you asked me would I do it again, I would say, yeah, I probably would.

And I’m not bleeping kidding. CUTLINE Wayne Gretzky hints he’ll walk away soon — but always changes his mind.

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