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Rinks of dreams: The Little One had style

 
Published Sept. 16, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

For the Great One, when he was only a little great, safe haven was the darkness under his bed. "The bed was a big spot for him, I guess 'cause the long arm of the old man couldn't get down under there to grab him," said Brian Rizzetto, who grew up next door to Wayne Gretzky in Brantford, Ontario.

"Everyone says he doesn't get mad, that he doesn't fight. Well, when he was about 8 _ I'm two years younger than him _ he pushed me through a window. I was teasing him and he finally retaliated and threw me threw a garage window and he got scared and took off for his bed."

Phyllis Gretzky, Wayne's mother, laughed at the recollection. "Oh, the bed," she said. "Yeah, he spent some time under there. One time he came flying into the house and ran into his room and hid. He and one of his buddies were walking home and they were throwing rocks. You know, the way boys do? And one of Wayne's hit a moving car.

"Wayne was afraid the man was going to come after him, so he ran home. We went in and asked him about it. He owned up to it right away, didn't lie or anything. I think he figured the man was going to come to the door anyway, so what was the use."

Not that Wayne Gretzky was the mischievous type when he was developing into the man acknowledged to be the greatest player in National Hockey League history. Far from it.

Although he was a celebrity throughout Canada by the age of 6, he was, for the most part, a shy, introverted youngster, albeit with a single-mindedness to be the best at whatever sport he happened to be playing _ or whatever he happened to be doing.

"One time when Wayne slept over at our place," said Mary Rizzetto, Brian's mother, "the boys got up _ I guess Brian was about 6 then _ and decided to have a toast-eating contest for breakfast. They went through a loaf and a half. Wayne won by a slice or two. They spent the morning rolling around on the ground, trying to get comfortable. Wayne always had a very competitive spirit."

Walter Gretzky, a telephone technician in Brantford, said his son never played with any of the toys or games he bought him. "He was totally obsessed with sports," he said. "Any sport." He would spend mornings, afternoons and evenings practicing lacrosse or pitching baseballs at a target.

"We used to play lacrosse _ a tennis ball, two sticks and the net in the back yard," said Brian Rizzetto, now sales manager of an auto dealership in Brantford. "He'd never quit. I'd be taking shots on him _ he was playing net _ and we were playing for money we didn't have, just joking like kids do. I think I got him up to about $27,000 on double-or-nothing and I kept scoring and he kept wanting to play until finally he broke even."

And, of course, there was hockey.

When Wayne was 2, Walter strapped a pair of skates on his son and took him to the park. "He wouldn't know enough to come off the ice and I'd be sitting in the car, freezing," his father said. "Out of self-preservation I built a rink in the back yard. He could stay out there as long as he wanted and I'd go in the house and stay warm."

The 35- by 60-foot rink became a magnet for neighborhood kids. "If there was a hockey game," Brian said, "Wayne would pick all the worst players and take on all the better ones and he'd set up (scoring opportunities for) those guys who weren't very good. It wasn't the winning or losing that mattered to him. It was just the game, having fun. I think that's why he's done so well, because he's having fun out there."

By the time Wayne was 12, hockey had become his principal obsession. He and John Mowatt, a classmate, would sit side-by-side in Mrs. Hunt's history class and talk hockey. "We weren't too interested in history, you could say," said Mowatt, who sells golf course maintenance equipment in suburban Columbus, Ohio. "Every day Mrs. Hunt would be calling out, "John, Wayne, enough!' and everyone would crack up. After a while the class got to think of us as John Wayne."

Long before then, Wayne Gretzky was a hockey phenom. "And the way he is now, that's the way he was then," Mary Rizzetto said. "He was a very modest person and he had nothing to be modest about."

At 10, playing in Atom League hockey (in which 100 goals is an achievement), Gretzky scored 378 goals. But in his just-released autobiography, Gretzky wrote that parents of children on his own team hated him and often called him a puck hog. After one game in which Gretzky had amassed nine goals, one mother told him he should have stayed home. "I went home, locked my door and cried all night," Gretzky wrote.

At 14, to escape the intense small-town pressure in Brantford, he dropped out of school and moved to Toronto, about 60 miles away, to play minor hockey.

He left his parents, his 12-year-old sister Kim and his brothers, Keith, 8, Glen, 6, and Brent, 3, and moved in with Bill and Rita Cornish, whom the Gretzkys had met through the hockey fraternity, and their 17-year-old son, Bill Jr. (Wayne's parents _ sometimes the entire family _ would drive the 60 miles two or three nights a week to see him play, and he often returned to Brantford on weekends.)

"I'd come home from work," Rita Cornish said, "and Wayne would have the table all set for dinner. He'd be standing around, waiting to ask me what he could do next. My own son, he was the troublemaker." She laughed. "Whatever Billy did, he'd say, "Wayne did it!' I knew darn well he didn't.

"But Billy brought him out of his shell. It was like he had an older brother to look up to. Wayne was the introvert, Billy the extrovert. One day Wayne was talking to someone and he pointed to Billy and said, "There's my personality.' "

Wayne Gretzky at 14 was like most people at 24, Walter Gretzky said. "We had no intention of letting him go, but he kept after us. He said, "You tell me why; I'll never ask again.' I hemmed and hawed and he said, "Are you afraid I'm going to get in with the wrong group, start smoking, drinking, doing drugs?' I told him, "Yeah, that could happen.'

"And Wayne told me, "Tell you what _ you give me some money, tell me what you want, wait here half an hour and I'll be back with it.' I damn near fainted away. He knew about where to get all that stuff but knew enough to stay away from it."

The Cornishes became his legal guardians, but the courts ruled that Gretzky had made a "hockey move" and barred him from playing minor hockey. "They tried to force him to come back," Walter Gretzky said, "but Wayne told me he didn't want to come home. Instead, he played Junior B hockey at 14. Some of those guys are 21 and fully grown. The first time he went on the ice I damn near died."

"He scored two goals," his father said. "After that, I decided he'd be okay."

Gretzky resume

Position: Center. Shoots left.

Height: 6 foot.

Weight: 175 pounds.

Team: Traded to Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988 by Edmonton Oilers.

Last season: NHL's scoring champion with 142 points, giving him his eighth Art Ross Trophy in his 11th NHL season.Led the league in assists with 102, extending his own record to 10 consecutive seasons with 100 or more assists.Became NHL's all-time scorer, passing Gordie Howe's total of 1,850 points on Oct. 15 in Edmonton.

Born: Brantford, Ontario, Jan. 26, 1961.

Personal: Oldest of 5 children.First hockey player ever to be names Sports Illustrated's Man of the Year.Wayne and his wife, Janet Jones, have a daughter, Paulina Mary Jean, who be two December, and son, Ty Robert, born July 9.

Game facts

What: National Hockey League exhibition game.

Who: Los Angeles Kings vs. Pittsburgh Penguins.

When: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Florida Suncoast Dome. Doors open 6 p.m.

Parking: Cars, $4; limousines, RVs, $10; buses, $15. Parking lots open 4 p.m.

Tickets: $10, $27, $35.

Information: 825-3337

The rules and terms

Icing has nothing to do with cake, charging doesn't require a credit card and backchecking doesn't call for a chiropractor. To the uninitiated, they are simply among the arcane terms of ice hockey.

Just as baseball has its infield fly rule and football its free kick, the National Hockey League has its rules to slow down or speed up play, to maintain a level of fairness and, in some cases, to protect the players from themselves.

For those Floridians not well-versed on professional hockey, here are some rules and terms which may help make Wednesday's Pittsburgh Penguins-Los Angeles Kings game a little easier to understand and enjoy.

PENALTIES

Most penalties are minor, meaning the offending player (or a stand-in, if the goalie committed the act) leaves the ice and his team skates one player short-handed either for two minutes or until the other team scores (a power play for the team with the extra man).

Before 1956-57, the minor penalty was two minutes, period. But the Montreal Canadiens were so powerful that they could score two, three, four goals or more in that stretch, so the league instituted the one-goal-and-it's-over rule.

A major penalty leaves a team short-handed for five minutes, with no limit on the number of goals that can be scored. A misconduct penalty is 10 minutes, although the banished player can be replaced on the ice. A game misconduct is suspension for the remainder of the game.

If a player breaking in alone on the goaltender is dragged down from behind, he is awarded a penalty shot, a one-on-one confrontation with the goaltender with all other players off the ice.

OFFICIALS

The officials are a referee (who calls penalties and is the game's ultimate arbiter) and two linesmen (who call offsides and icing).

THE PLAYERS

The players are the goaltender, two defensemen and three forwards (a left wing, right wing and center).

GAME TIME

The game is divided into three 20-minute periods, the teams alternating ends of the ice. If the game is tied after three periods, a five-minute sudden-death overtime is played. If it is still tied, that's how it ends (except during the playoffs).

THE ICE

The ice is divided into three zones with a blue line, 60 feet from the goal line, defining each team's defensive area and the neutral zone. Before the 1943-44 season, a player was not allowed to pass the puck out of his defensive zone. He had to carry it out (well, not literally carry it; he had to bring it out with his stick). A good team could bottle up the other team in its own zone for minutes on end with a man-to-man defense.

New York Rangers coach Frank Boucher suggested players be allowed to pass the puck out, to about mid-ice. So the league added the center-ice red line. The subsequent passing restored end-to-end play.

THE SHOTS

The two basic shots are the wrist shot (flicking the stick) and the slap shot (winding up and slamming the puck). Deking is the art of feinting an opponent out of the way, either to skate around him to to get off an unobstructed shot. If he's good enough, he will some day get a hat trick _ three goals in one game. Wayne Gretzky has 46 hat tricks in his NHL career. No one else is close.

SOME TERMS

Offsides: There are two kinds of offsides: when an attacking player precedes the puck across the other team's blue line or when the puck is passed across two lines (the red line and one blue line) to a teammate.

Icing: Icing is the act of passing the puck from your own half of the ice past the other team's goal line. It is a defensive maneuver, usually to reduce pressure on the goaltender. When the opposing team touches the puck, play is halted and the puck is brought back to the other end. Teams that are killing a penalty, however, are allowed to ice the puck.

Freezing the puck: Another delaying tactic is freezing the puck, pressing it against the boards with the stick or skates. If a player does that with no opponent nearby, he can receive a two-minute delay-of-game penalty. Play starts and resumes with a face-off, hockey's equivalent of the jump ball in basketball.

Crease: The crease is the area directly in front of the goal. Only the goalie is permitted there. No player can score from the crease unless is is pinned in there by an opponent. And a player can not kick the puck into the goal (although he can direct it in), nor can he bat in a puck above his shoulders.

Checking: Checking is the act of guarding or defending against the opponent with the puck. Poke-checking and sweep-checking are ways of separating the skater and the puck with one's stick. Body checking, usually with he hip, is using the body to block or hit the puck-carrier. Backchecking is checking in your own defensive zone. Forechecking is checking in the other team's defensive zone (your attacking zone).

By BRUCE LOWITT