As the new National Hockey League season begins its long winter's journey into May, Edmonton Oilers' centerman Wayne Gretzky will be celebrating his 20th year playing the game. Even he finds it hard to believe. After all, the Great Gretzky is no flabby has-been; he won't turn 22 until January. In Canada proud parents are likely to mark the exact time and place of baby's first slap shot and the first teeth lost can be as significant as those newly arrived, so such precocity has plenty of precedent. Not so Gretzky's marvelous skills. So full have been his two unexcelled decades on ice that if any stage of his life has escaped his countrymen's fanatical scrutiny, it would have to be when he was weaned to strained vegetables. No sooner had his father, Walter, laced up baby Wayne's little skates and flooded the family's Brantford, Ontario backyard for a rink than the littlest Gretzky seemed destined for stardom.
Today his boyhood accomplishments roll off Canadian tongues like a litany. At age 10, for example, he scored a barely believable 378 goals in 68 games in a kiddie league he had joined at age 6. At 17, he was considered too slight (at 5'11", 165 pounds), too slow and too fragile to play with brawling grown men. Yet in his first three NHL seasons he has established a record of individual scoring dominance unparalleled in professional sport. Voted the league's Most Valuable Player every year since Edmonton was admitted to the NHL for the 1979-80 season, Gretzky last year bagged a staggering 92 goals in 80 games, breaking by 16 goals a record that had stood for 10 years.
Not only is his contract—$1 million a year for nine years—the heftiest in hockey history, the Toronto-based Sierra Sports Group has parlayed his unrivaled national stature into a long list of endorsement and licensing deals. The linking of Gretzky's name and image with life insurance, soft drinks, chocolate bars, jeans, a video game, a Gretzky doll, wallpaper and lunch boxes is worth a reported $2 million annually. The most sought-after Canadian for charity fund raisers, he sponsors his own annual golf and tennis tournaments to help Canada's mentally retarded and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. His fan mail—up to 20,000 pieces a week—is delivered in garbage bags to the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton. With the exception of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, he is his country's most recognizable face, and is unquestionably its most adored living hero. As with only a few of hockey's most revered players—like Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr—Gretzky has had an impact that both transcends and transforms his sport. Wayne not only plays hockey, he is doing his best to restore its good name. "In the U.S. people think there's no art to the game, that it's for goons," he says. "It's imperative to get rid of that image."
Off the ice, with his blond hair and bashful blue eyes, he exudes a too-good-to-be-true aura of teen heartthrob and unspoiled small-town boy who's made good. Somewhat self-consciously aware of his eminence, he has acquired a certain cautiousness in all public utterance. "Last season is scratched now," he says. "It's a brand new game. There'll be a lot of pressure on me. But I can't carry a team. If you win, you win with 20 guys." Still, beneath the assumed modesty there is justified pride. "Every year they've said it'll be tougher," he observes, "and my stats have always improved."
His reputation has grown in proportion. "We were in Winnipeg last season," recalls Oiler announcer Rod Phillips. "It was a shopping mall appearance before 6,000 people. I was joking that I had actually touched the Great Wayne Gretzky, so a woman holds up her baby son. I said, 'Lady, if your son is sick I can't do anything for him. I'm not the Pope, for cryin' out loud. I'm a deejay.' " A friend of Gretzky's remembers the time when "Gretz" told a girl at a Montreal shopping mall, "Tu es très belle." The stunned teenager fainted on the spot. Says another friend, unequivocally: "If Wayne ran for prime minister he'd win."
Commercially, he already has a constituency. "When Wayne started endorsing Titan hockey sticks," claims Michael Barnett, Gretzky's business manager, "sales went from 13th place to No. 1." A cereal company has spent $100,000 to develop a Wayne Gretzky breakfast cereal, and a sporting goods company asked to put Wayne's name on a baseball glove—never mind that it isn't his sport. "We said no to that one," says Barnett. "We're not a take-the-money-and-run organization."
Last summer, when many players had simply gone fishing, Gretzky was barnstorming through an exhausting round of contractual and charity commitments. During one golf tournament, it took him six hours to shoot and autograph his way around the course. Another match ended in a cold, driving downpour. Most of the other golfers gave up, but Gretzky tenaciously played all 18 holes, trotting along in the rain between strokes. Oiler management, aware that Gretzky never gives less than his all, asks him to take 30 consecutive days off—free of all business deals and appearances—immediately before and after each season. "That's to let him get his head back together," says Oiler owner Peter Pocklington. "He needs time alone, and for his body to rest after eight months of torture."
Gretzky doesn't seem to be worried. "It's great to be back in the routine I'm used to during the season," he says. "I love the summers, meeting people, the travel. But I get to do those things because of my hockey. I pay people well to worry about all those things so I can be free to concentrate on the game." Gus Badali, Gretzky's agent, admits that overexposure could be a problem for Wayne, but expects to ensure it won't happen. "Our plan is eventually to gear down to two exclusive endorsement deals that will make as many dollars as we do now," he says. "As for Canada's media saturation, I have no control over that."
Given his youth and his income, Gretzky could be forgiven the occasional spending binge, but his habits are surprisingly frugal. Gretzky has never had to buy himself a car though he occasionally drives a black Ferrari given him by Pocklington. The Oiler owner has also given Wayne a half dozen other cars, which Gretzky has quickly passed on to members of his family. "I enjoy the money to buy things when I need to," says Gretzky. "Money can distract and corrupt, it's true. But I was taught priorities by my parents and I don't worry."
When Gretzky traveled to Russia this summer for a TV documentary, Pocklington asked him to bring back a pound of caviar. "They told me it cost $250," says Wayne. "Hey, I like the guy, but come on. I got him a pound on the black market for $150 and a pair of Nike running shoes." Gretzky did invite the entire Oiler team to a black-tie housewarming in 1981 at his three-bedroom penthouse in Edmonton, and dispatched limos to fetch them. "But Wayne's not the kind of guy to throw his money around," says New York Ranger goalie Eddie Mio, a former Edmonton teammate. "He's not the cruiser type."
His tastes, in fact, are as basic as the steak and potatoes he devours before games. He enjoys going to Toronto Blue Jay baseball games incognito, and is a shameless soap opera fan whenever he travels. Occasionally he pigs out on junk food. "I play best on four hot dogs with mustard and onions," he jokes. "People ask me what's my secret on ice? Bad breath."
His exhalations, of course, would have to be prodigiously foul to repel the nightly pack of reporters who crowd around him in dressing rooms wherever he plays. "He's remained unfailingly polite through it all," says Edmonton Journal reporter Jim Matheson. "If he were going to freak out, he would have done it at 18."
One reason he hasn't may be his attachment to his small-town roots, and his instinctive aversion to glitz. Edmonton, poised in the rich farmland of central Alberta, is the kind of place where Gretzky feels he belongs. "I never considered New York or L.A.," he says. "This is a serious hockey town with great fans." Not to be numbered among them, however, is Wayne's stunning, effervescent girlfriend, Vickie Moss, 20, an Edmonton girl trying to make it as a pop-rock singer. They met three years ago when Vicky was performing at a local club. Wayne told her he'd leave her two tickets to a game and meet her afterward. "She said, 'What game?' " he recalls. Vicky finally took the tickets—for two of her nine brothers. The next time, she went herself, and she and Wayne have been together ever since. "She's great," says Gretzky. "She knows nothing about sports. She didn't even know hockey skates don't have picks on the blades like figure skates. She takes me completely away from it all." Says Eddie Mio: "He's gotta be real careful about the hangers-on, and she's given him stability."
In fact, Gretzky's life has been almost totally devoted to hockey. His father, Walter, a phone company computer technician, got him into it, and by the time Wayne was 14 he was playing with 19-year-olds and commuting to games 70 miles away. He dropped out of school at 17 to turn pro with the upstart Indianapolis Racers of the now-defunct World Hockey Association. When the team folded, Pocklington bought his contract, and Wayne unsuccessfully tried to finish 12th grade. "I spent all my time in class signing autographs," he explains. Soon afterward he began his assault on the NHL record book, blessed not so much with physical strength as with elusive moves, and uncanny hockey sense. "He's got a deceptively strong shot," says his father, "an unorthodox, perfectly timed release, and concentration so intense that he remembers everything he sees out there."
Though Gretzky's genius is not in dispute, he refuses to look upon himself as a superstar. "Not until I've played at a high level for six, seven years," he says. "The Reggie Jacksons and George Bretts, they're superstars. A couple good years doesn't make you one." The Oilers have never gone beyond the quarter-finals in the season-ending Stanley Cup playoffs, and Gretzky would naturally like a Cup ring by next summer. But until then he's at least got the limelight. "I'm not a private person. I like it," he says. "The only thing is, every person is human and normal, but sometimes I can't be. I can't stand in the street and holler at someone and get mad. Sometimes I get that urge, but I can't let it out. It's just part of being in sports."
In agent Badali's master plan, the public's perception of Gretzky is crucial. "We want to project an image—not goodie-goodie-boy-next-door, but a guy who cares about people, whom success hasn't changed," says Badali. "He doesn't have to smoke dope or be in Playboy either. I once said to Wayne, 'I'm sure you'd like to chuck it all now and then and be an ordinary guy. But you can't. Just keep it up. It means a lot more than you realize.' I had to remind him that it's important for kids. He sort of pondered what I was telling him and said, 'I know, I know.' But I sensed underneath his breath somewhere he was saying, 'Jeez it's tough, it's so tough.' "
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