July 5, 2009

DAN FOUTS ON BLADES:

'learned In All The Lore Of Old Men': Hiawatha was Sault Ste. Marie's first legend, but nowadays the town hero is a teen-aged hockey phenom named Wayne Gretzky, who plays with a maturity far beyond his years (E. M. Swift, 2/20/78, Sports Illustrated)

More than 7,000 people—the largest hockey crowd of the season in Canada's capital—came to the Ottawa Civic Center one night last month to get to the bottom of a 16-year-old wunderkind who plays for the Sault Ste. Marie ( Ont.) Greyhounds. His name is Wayne Gretzky. That's with a Zed-K-Y, please. The immigration guy fouled it up when his grandfather came over from Russia. In Peterborough the next night, the same thing happened: largest crowd of the year even though the last-place Greyhounds provided the opposition. The night after that, it was the same story in Hamilton: first sellout of the year for a Junior A game, and in a blizzard to boot, everyone out getting stuck in the snow to see some kid called The Great Gretzky, whom every paper in Ontario has hailed as the next Bobby Orr since he was eight years old, 4'4" and 70 pounds.

Gretzky is not just another star of the future. He is there, Canada's answer to Steve Cauthen and Nadia Comaneci, one of those rare youths who leapfrogs the stage where they speak of potential, whose talent is already front and center, which, incidentally, is the position he plays for the Greyhounds. Gretzky is only a rookie in the Ontario Junior A Major Hockey Association (OHA), a league in which the players range in age from 16 to 20, but he has exploded onto the Junior scene like no one since Guy Lafleur—and before that Orr. If Wayne Gretzky were never to play another hockey game, thousands of Canadian kids would remember him into their dotage. He is the stuff of their dream—that, lacking size, lacking strength, lacking speed, they, too, can somehow make it.

Gretzky did. He now is a wiry (read "skinny") 155 pounds spread over 5'11", but he should fill out enough to keep the pros happy. Gretzky describes his speed as "brutal"—meaning slower than slow. All the speed in the family went to his 14-year-old sister Kim, the Ontario Dominion champion in the 100-, 200-and 400-meter dashes and a good bet to represent Canada in the 1980 Olympics. Gretzky's shot is accurate, but far from overpowering. And if you expect to see him mucking it up in the corners, forget it. Still, without question, he is the most exciting Junior hockey player since Lafleur left Quebec City in 1971.

"They compare me to Orr and Lafleur, and that's very flattering," says Gretzky in his best "shucks, who, lil-ol-me? tone. "But basically, my style is different from anyone else's." True. Nevertheless, despite the qualifier, Gretzky lives quite comfortably with comparisons involving himself and Orr, Lafleur or any other superstar who comes to mind, including Cauthen. "We're both little runts who get a lot of publicity," Gretzky says of the latter.

Gretzky's talent is all in his head. "He's the smartest kid I've ever seen," says Fred Litzen, Sault Ste. Marie's one-eyed head scout who has seen a passel of talent over 40 years, even if he has missed half, as his friends suggest. Gretzky knows not only where everyone is on the ice, but he also knows where they're going. Uncanny anticipation, people call it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 5, 2009 3:40 PM
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