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This Year, It’s The Not-So-Great Gretzky

March 10, 1995

CHICAGO (AP) _ Jari Kurri sees Wayne Gretzky breaking toward the net and makes the pass. The puck skips over Gretzky’s stick.

Later, Gretzky drops a pass in the offensive zone for Kurri, who quickly puts a return feed into the slot. Gretzky, having gone to the bench for a line change, isn’t there.

On another shift, Gretzky spots Tony Granato driving toward the net. His pass travels behind Granato.

It’s been that kind of year for Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in hockey history but anything but ``The Great One″ in his 16th season.

``You have to look in the mirror and be accounted for,″ says the 34-year-old center of the Los Angeles Kings. ``I haven’t done my part for the club and I’m disappointed in myself.″

He is closing in on the unheard-of 2,500-point plateau; Gordie Howe, the NHL’s No. 2 all-time scorer, had 1,850. But almost midway through this lockout-shortened 48-game season, Gretzky has only four goals. He went from Jan. 28 to Feb. 17 _ nine games _ without a goal.

He has won 10 league scoring titles and has a career average of more than two points a game. But Gretzky went into this weekend with season totals of 19 points and four multiple-point games.

He is a nine-time MVP whose annual salary is a league-record $8.366 million. But this year the Kings, Stanley Cup finalists just two seasons ago, have one of the league’s worst records and Gretzky has been accused of influencing trades and other front-office decisions.

Most incredibly, he has a minus-15 rating. That means opponents have outscored the Kings by 15 goals when he’s been on the ice in even-strength situations. A four-time league leader in plus-minus, Gretzky ranks dead last among NHL forwards in the category this season.

``Plus-minus is a bogus stat, most likely the worst one they keep,″ said Ace Bailey, the Kings’ director of pro scouting. ``But it’s still killing him. He won’t admit it, but he’s a perfectionist and it’s killing him.″

Bailey was right: Gretzky wouldn’t admit it.

``Believe it or not, I really never worry about statistics,″ he said. ``I think there are a lot of guys out there who don’t have great statistics but contribute to winners, and to me that’s more important. I’ve never been very concerned about statistics.″

He never had to be.

When Gretzky was 11, playing against much older players, he scored 378 goals in 85 games. He went on to set 61 NHL records, including most goals, assists and points in a season, in a career and in the playoffs.

He never had to be concerned about his image as a winner and ambassador, either.

He captained the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cup titles in the 1980s. After getting traded to the Kings in 1988, he practically invented hockey in Southern California. And he has been his sport’s one consistent household name and spokesman.

In every sense, Gretzky has earned his nickname, The Great One.

At age 34 _ at minus-15! _ does the nickname still fit?

``I still think he’s capable of being the greatest player in the world. We need him to find that spark and become that player again,″ Kings coach Barry Melrose said.

``But he is 34 and I’m not going to tell you he can do the same things, as frequently, as when he was 24 and scoring 200 points a year. Wayne’s played more hockey than anyone else and that takes it’s toll. Still, for periods of time, he does things that no one else can do.″

Those moments, those flashes of brilliance, simply haven’t come often enough to save Los Angeles this season _ just as they didn’t in 1993-94, when he scored 130 points but missed the playoffs for the first time in his career.

For the last couple of weeks, Gretzky has been given more freedom from Melrose’s dump-and-chase system. He has enjoyed carrying the puck and being creative again, even if his statistics have remained modest and his team continues to struggle.

``I don’t know why things aren’t clicking. If I knew, I’d do something different,″ he said. ``It’s hard right now because I know that I’ve got to do more to help this organization. If I play well, the team’s chances of winning are a lot better.″

Kurri said his longtime linemate and friend gets _ and accepts _ too much blame.

``It’s really unfair,″ he said. ``He’s only human. He can’t have a great game every night.″

Said Melrose: ``He’s judged by different standards. That’s one of the reasons he’s been so special. But the other side of that is if he’s not getting three or four points a night, people say that he’s finished.″

Gretzky won’t be finished until he says so.

``I can’t think about retiring right now. That wouldn’t be fair to myself, my teammates or the fans in L.A.,″ he said. ``I think there was a stretch where I got so down on myself, so disappointed with my effort, that it took away from what I really love to do _ and that’s enjoy hockey. But I realized that I still like coming to the rink and being part of this team. Besides, I’m not a quitter.″

Nevertheless, Gretzky added, ``When the season’s over, I’ll sit down and think about what the future holds.″

Bailey, who back in 1978-79 was an Edmonton teammate of the then-teen-age Gretzky, said he hopes the NHL has The Great One in its future for years to come.

``When the lockout ended, he was giggling. He couldn’t wait to skate. He was like a 6-year-old kid. He loves this game so much,″ Bailey said. ``Hockey is so lucky it has Wayne Gretzky. I hope he plays forever.″

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