Still Going Great
Wayne Gretzky is still the game's great ambassador. He is still the NHL's most commanding presence and the only hockey player whose name is known in virtually every U.S. household. And on many nights this season the 37-year-old has still been the most magical, awe-inspiring player in the game.
As of Sunday, Gretzky had scored more points (45) since Jan. 1 than anyone in the league and had moved into a tie for fourth place in scoring (81) for the season. In the Rangers' 16 games since the Olympic break, Gretzky had four three-point games and one four-assist performance.
On March 18, with New York still clawing for a playoff position, he threaded a pass through traffic and onto the stick of winger Kevin Stevens, who tipped the puck past Jocelyn Thibault to beat the Canadiens 2-1 in overtime. Four days later, in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Flyers, Gretzky scored twice, including a goal to tie the game with 1:48 remaining. Then in the 3-2 loss to the Senators on March 25 that essentially eliminated the Rangers from playoff contention, Gretzky set up both of his team's goals.
"People say he's lost a step," says Rangers winger Adam Graves. "But I can't imagine anyone playing better than he has the past couple of months. He draws three defenders, and he still takes over games. Playing with him is a privilege."
Gretzky's surge has made fools of people like Swedish national team coach Kent Forsberg, who during the Olympics said Gretzky looked tired and "should quit." The Great One heard that barb, but he was too gracious to fire back. After all of his success he is still given to utterances such as "Everything I've got I owe to the NHL."
What the NHL owes Gretzky is immeasurable. When the Rangers played the Hurricanes in Carolina in November, for example, Gretzky took it upon himself to arrive a day early, meet the media and spread the gospel of hockey in Greensboro, where the team was averaging about 7,000 fans in the 20,800-seat arena. The next night the Hurricanes had their biggest crowd of the season (19,358). "That was probably the most important tiling that's happened in getting hockey noticed down here," says Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford. "Then he had a goal and two assists against us."
Rangers general manager Neil Smith says Gretzky can play for his club "until he decides he doesn't want to play hockey anymore." For now there is time to cherish Gretzky not as a symbol or legend, but as an elite player. In his 18th season he is still pulling up at the blue line to shake his defender, still completing cross-ice passes few others could even conceive, still setting up goals from behind the net. "You know what he's going to do, but it doesn't matter," says Hurricanes left wing Gary Roberts. "The same thing is true now that was true 10 years ago: You can't stop Wayne Gretzky."
A Losing Proposition
There has been a maddening in-conclusiveness to the 1997-98 season, with the 151 tie games at week's end putting the NHL on pace to break its record of 165 in 1980-81. The surge in ties stems largely from an overall lack of scoring, but it's also because mere's more parity and financial pressure to reach the playoffs. With teams afraid to lose a point within their grasp, overtime strategy is often defense-oriented.