RIC DOLPHIN February 20 1989



RIC DOLPHIN February 20 1989




It took Wayne Gretzky just over a minute into last week’s National Hockey League all-star game at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum to demonstrate yet again how he came to be called The Great One.

At the 1:07 mark, Gretzky—who was Edmonton’s most famous citizen until Oilers owner Peter Pocklington sold him to the Los Angeles Kings last August—set up former teammate Jari Kurri for a breakaway goal. Three minutes and 26 seconds later, Steve Duchesne of the Los Angeles Kings fed the puck to Gretzky, who scored. By the end of the evening, Gretzky had added another third-period assist to help the Clarence Campbell Conference team to a 9-5 victory over the Prince of Wales Conference. Playing for a team that included, in addition to Kurri, three other former Oilers teammates,

Gretzky was named the game’s most valuable player and won a Chrysler Le Baron automobile— the 14th car he has won during his 10-year professional hockey career. In a typically generous gesture, Gretzky then announced that he planned to give the car to his friend and former Oilers teammate Dave Semenko.

It was a fairly typical night for the man whose name has become almost synonymous with hockey excellence. Despite the concentrated campaign being waged by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux to usurp Gretzky’s crown, Number 99 remains for the moment hockey’s leading exemplar and the game’s foremost diplomat. “Mario Lemieux is having a great year,” said Gretzky in a reference to the Penguin centre’s 25-point lead over Gretzky about two-thirds of the way through the season. “It’s great for hockey that he won the scoring title last year. I won it seven times, and it’s great if I win it again. But if I lose, fine, it’s not the end of the world.”

Record: Indeed, while Lemieux chases after Gretzky’s records, Gretzky has set a goal of his own for this season—to tie Gordie Howe’s NHL lifetime record of 1,850 points. Said Gretzky, who had 1,786 points by the time last week’s all-star break took place: “I think I have still got a real good shot at it. That is about 2.5 points

per game for the rest of the year. That is an average I am pretty much accustomed to maintaining.”

In Los Angeles, where Janet Jones’s $250,000 Rolls-Royce Comiche—a wedding gift from her husband last July—shares the long, winding driveway of a luxurious Encino Hills house with Gretzky’s Nissan 300 ZX convertible, Gretzky has settled into a life of sunsoaked celebrity. Two weeks ago—seven days after eclipsing the second-place career scoring record of Marcel Dionne—Gretzky appeared with his sbc-week-old daughter, Paulina, on CBS Television’s late-night Pat Sajak Show. After chatting with Sajak, an avid Kings fan, about fatherhood and his move to California, Gretzky launched a familiar attack on hockey violence.

“In five to sbc years,” said Gretzky, “fighting will be totally eliminated from hockey.” Referring to tough new rules for high-sticking, cross-

checking and other offences, he added, “Before the rules were changed, fighting was the way players had to protect themselves because the rules didn’t.”

Voluble: The publicity is part of Gretzky’s stated intention of increasing the understanding and appeal of hockey throughout North America. During road trips, Gretzky, once known for his shyness, has become voluble. In interviews, he tells reporters that new NHL franchises should be created in Seattle, Houston and Dallas, and he has criticized the league’s system for drafting young players. As well, he has expressed disappointment at the American media’s exaggerated depiction of hockey as a violent sport. But Gretzky’s most important single accomplishment during the past six months has probably been almost singlehandedly turning hockey into a major spectator sport in the sophisticated Los Angeles market. In his six months with the Kings, Gretzky has begun to make the team worthy of its name, while he has emerged as a star in a city of stars.

By last week, the Kings and the Edmonton Oilers were fighting for second place behind the Calgary Flames in the NHL’S five-team Smythe Division and were almost assured of a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Last year at the same time, the Kings were in fourth place and subsequently failed to make the finals. “It’s been an interesting year and it’s been a fun year,” said Gretzky. “The thing that has been very gratifying is that the hockey team was in the bottom five last year and, for most of this season so far, we’ve been up near the top five. It’s nice to see owner Bruce McNall walk into the locker room with a big smile on his face.”

Explosion: McNall has every reason to smile. Since Gretzky joined the team, at an estimated salary of more than $2 million a year, the average attendance at the 16,005-seat Los Angeles Forum has risen to 14,273 from 11,066—increasing revenue per game by roughly $200,000. Season-ticket sales have more than doubled to 10,000. And 15 of the 29 home games have been sold out, with the city’s two major daily newspapers regularly featuring

the Kings on the front pages of their sports sections. “He is worth every cent,” McNall said of Gretzky, who went to Los Angeles as part of an $ 18-million deal between McNall and Pocklington. “He has doubled our projections across the board. It’s just been an incredible explosion in terms of advertising, merchandising and ticket sales.”

Gretzky is characteristically modest about his contribution to the city’s hockey mania. “Los Angeles is no different than any other city in that they like to be treated with winners,” he said. “If you win, you’re going to fill the building. It’s just the fact that we’re winning.

People enjoy the atmosphere in here.” Kings general manager Rogie Vachon gives Gretzky full credit: “He has done tremendous things on and off the ice. He gives us real respect around the league—among fans, other teams and the media.”

Stardom: Alan Thicke, the Canadian-born star of the ABC television comedy Growing Pains and a close friend of the Gretzkys, said that Gretzky is adjusting well to stardom in Los Angeles. “Wayne has been a celebrity in the United States for many years,” said Thicke. “He was well-groomed for whatever publicity and pressúres would be faced here.

It was not like leaving the farm.”

And next month, Gretzky, Thicke and Victoria-born pop music composer David Foster are scheduled to preside over a blacktie fund-raising dinner for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation in Los Angeles. The event is just one of Gretzky’s many involvements in

major U.S. charitable events. Said -

Thicke: “Wayne’s name is magical right now.”

The magic has already been discovered by corporate advertisers.

Last November, Coca-Cola USA of Atlanta signed Gretzky to a multimillion-dollar, four-year endorsement contract. In a commercial currently on U.S. television, Gretzky is shown walking along the pier in Santa Monica, Calif., watching a group of youngsters play hockey on roller skates. As the commercial concludes, he leans against a palm tree and drinks from a can of Diet Coke.

“He is the superstar of hockey,” said Donald Lenehan, director of Cola products for Coca-Cola USA. “He has the bigness and superstar power we like to associate with Diet Coke.” As well, Gretzky holds endorsement contracts with eight other companies, including Nissan Motor Corp.,

Titan-Jofa hockey equipment, Zurich Insurance of Canada and Nike Inc. sporting goods.

In the meantime, hockey night in Edmonton has never been quite the same since the departure of The Great One. The loss of the player who led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1988 is still mourned. Last

week, Oilers coach Glen Sather said, “We don’t have the same things we used to have, but we still have a great city here.” Following last week’s all-star game, Oilers defenceman Kevin Lowe, who played on the Campbell team with Gretzky, said that the thunderous ovations accorded his former teammate reflected the magnitude of the loss of Number 99. “The louder the ovation got, the sadder I became,” said Lowe. “Life goes on, and you have to forge new relationships. But it was very hard on me. I realized what we had and what we could have been.” The Oilers are now in sixth place in the 21-team NHL. Said co-coach John Muckier: “We have been trying to get to the point all season where we’re consistent. So often, the intensity hasn’t been there.” Added Oilers forward Craig Simpson: “It’s only 24 games until showtime,” referring to the NHL playoffs. “Somewhere along the line, we’ve got to put a string together.”

Bronze: In the meantime, Edmontonians are planning to erect a statue in honor of their departed superstar. = Last year, Edmonton city council * formed a Wayne Gretzky task force to consider ways of honoring the ij departed hockey star for his decade t of service to the city. Suggestions 5 from the public included naming the 1 artificial waterfall on the city’s High ” Level Bridge “Gretzky Falls.” Another called for “lots of statues downtown— some of them pointing up at Mr. Pocklington's office.” In the end, the task force decided on a life-size bronze statue of Gretzky holding the Stanley Cup aloft. The city is now trying to ~ arrange to have the statue executed and erected outside Northlands Coliseum by next fall.

Gretzky was expected to fly to Edmonton for the unveiling. During his years with the Edmonton Oilers, the Brantford, Ont.-born star had been a white-knuckle air traveller, who at one point even tried hypnotherapy in an effort to overcome his fear of flying. But since he moved to Los Angeles, Gretzky says that he has overcome the problem and become a relaxed and cheerful flyer. “Flying hasn’t bothered me at all, not one bit,” said Gretzky. “That’s been the biggest surprise. Maybe I won’t have the problem at all anymore.” Indeed, it seems that the high-flying hero of the Los Angeles ^ Kings has only one important proba lem in his life—the hovering threat of Mario Lemieux.