Watching the great Gretzky, or reading about his latest little miracle, some people think of the ancient Broadway delight Damn Yankees. There is this fat old real estate salesman in Washington listening to the radio as his beloved ball club, the Senators, is dismantled by the Yankees. In dismay he mutters that he’d sell his soul to see the Senators win the pennant from the damn Yankees. Instantly the Devil appears, a jolly fellow in a silk cape, offering him a deal: for his soul he’ll transform him into a virile young star who’ll beat the Yankees.
“We’ll call you Hardy, Joe Hardy,” the Devil beams. “You’ll be 22 years old. They’ll put a new wing on that baseball museum at Cooperstown dedicated to you, the Hardy shrine.” And when Joe agrees he becomes, overnight, the greatest ballplayer since the days of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, blessed with supernatural skills, mesmerizing rivals, toppling the giants.
So much for fables. Now the reality— Wayne Gretzky. Is there a plausible excuse for what this scrawny kid is doing to the National Hockey League record book? Who’s to say that back there in Brantford, Ont., a few years ago a jolly dude in a cape didn’t wave a wand at some puffing old turkey chasing a bus, and whisper: “You’ve heard of Howie Morenz? You know about Howe and Hull? Babies? Amateurs? Now, what I have in mind for you ....”
The point here is not that Gretzky is awfully good or really astonishingly good, but that he is spooky good. This guy is doing things at age 20 (he turns 21 on the 26th of this month) that some of the game’s most immortal immortals never accomplished, you know what I mean? Such as Robert Gordon Orr, who in the 1970-71 season accumulated the unheard-of total of 102 assists. Last year, age 19, Gretzky piled in 109. Such as Philip Anthony Esposito, who did the impossible a decade ago: he topped 150 points (he got 152). To give you an idea, Stan Mikita had won the scoring title with 87 a mere three seasons earlier. And Gretzky? Oh, he reached 164, barely sweating.
That’s another thing about this kid, he barely sweats. Other all-time alltimers suffer and strain and lie on hospital beds, and this guy never gets a hangnail. Immortals suffer, right? Van Gogh lost an ear. Louis Riel was hanged. Ezra Pound went to an insane
asylum. Morenz was a broken man at 34 and died on a hospital floor. Rocket Richard had broken arms and legs and ankles. Bobby Orr had six operations on his left knee. Gretzky? Nothing, literally nothing. Mosquitoes veer from his path for fear they might inadvertently administer a bite.
Good as Gretzky was last season, he is better this season, or at least he is piling in points at a brisker clip. Bighearted bookmakers are so terrified of this guy that they are laying odds of 5 to
1 that he doesn’t score 100 goals this season. Anybody else, anybody, and the odds are 50 to 1 against. Does this make him 10 times a greater threat than any other player in hockey today? It must. Bookmakers do not get their garages filled with Mercedes-Benzes because of their charitable donatiôns.
For all of this, it’s a mighty funny thing about Wayne Gretzky that when you go to the rink and the Edmonton Oilers are playing, you’ve got to search for him. He is not spectacular. If his shot is hard, it doesn’t look hard. Often it’s a poke right where the goaler used to be standing, or a little lift over where he is sprawling. Skating, Gretzky cannot carry Bobby Hull’s blades. He moves with quick little choppy strides the way Northern Dancer used to run.
He is a marvellous stickhandler, so deft and quick that you’re apt to miss it. The only time you’re really conscious of Wayne Gretzky is after an Edmonton goal when the guy on the PA is reading off the goal and the assists. If he reads three names and none of ’em is Gretzky’s, there are grounds for holding up the face-off while an oversight is investigated on the videotape.
For a time it was suspected Gretzky’s astronomical stats were the product of a break the Oilers get in this year’s new unbalanced schedule. Under the ’81-’82 format they face the toughest teams only three times each—the Islanders, the Canadiens, the physical Philadelphias, Boston, Buffalo. They get to play the relative patsies in their own division eight times each—Colorado, Los Angeles, Calgary and Vancouver. Even so, Gretzky is a terror against the giants, too. The Oilers played Montreal to a 3-3 tie in the Forum on Dec. 1. Man named Gretzky had three assists. Not only that, but as an aside Habitant publicist Claude Mouton said Gretzky’s No. 99 sweater outsells all Canadiens’ shirts combined in Forum souvenir stalls. A couple of weeks later the Oilers greased the Stanley Cup champion Islanders 4-3. Gretzky had two assists and two goals, including the winner, and a week later he massaged potent Minnesota for three goals and four assists in a 9-6 win. After 37 games this paragon had scored 41 goals and was 34 points ahead of his nearest rival for the scoring title.
All right, so if this guy is practically invisible to the naked eye, how come the magic? In Peter Gzowski’s warmly fashioned book, The Game of Our Lives, there is the fascinating theory that Gretzky may possess a sort of delayed time frame that in the midst of furious action slows everything down for his perception, enabling him to react, or even anticipate, with a better view. Gzowski writes of a paper by Dr. Adrian Upton, head neurologist at McMaster University, who compares the difference between the neurological systems of superior athletes and those of ordinary folks to the difference between a highly tuned sports car and the family sedan.
Gzowski theorizes that what separates Gretzky from his peers “may well have nothing to do with physical characteristics but be a matter of perception, not so much of what he sees but of how he sees it and how he absorbs it.”
One thing is certain, my dear Gzowski: he’s devilishly clever.
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