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In N.Y., Gretzky on center stage

Wayne Gretzky officially joined the Rangers Sunday, ending a free-agent odyssey of three weeks that stretched from one end of the continent to the other.

"It's been a hard three weeks for me," Gretzky said after the Rangers announced at a news conference at Madison Square Garden that he signed a two-year contract. "So many teams were so nice to me and made some very lucrative offers. The hard part was, I could only choose one team."

Gretzky admitted a big factor was the chance to play again with Mark Messier, an old friend and teammate in Edmonton, and playing for a team "focused on winning a championship."

Gretzky said he took a pay cut to do it.

"I'm probably the only free agent to come to New York for less money," said Gretzky, who holds more than 60 NHL records, including most goals and points.

Gretzky made a league-high $6.54-million last year, splitting his season between the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues. He will make less than that with the Rangers, although still much more than most players.

"My instincts were that maybe money wasn't all that important," said Gretzky, who will be the second-highest paid Ranger behind Messier, who makes $6-million. "Don't get me wrong _ I'm still being paid very nicely. But my gut feeling was that I wanted to come here. I was always intrigued by New York. I always thought it was a great place to play.

"What tipped the scales was to play with Mark and with a team focused on winning a championship. I wanted to come here, and I'm thrilled they wanted me."

Gretzky said he felt New York would be his "last stop" in the NHL.

He added that he hoped to play even a couple of years beyond his two-year deal.

"He won't score 215 points anymore, but he will elevate our players to a different level," Messier said. "I've never played with anybody else of Gretzky's ability."

Gretzky was given his familiar No.

99 after being accompanied to the news conference by his wife, Janet, and his son, Ty, and Messier.

Gretzky and Messier, the Rangers' captain, were the mainstays of the great Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup teams of the 1980s. Together, they won four Cups.