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Mike Downey

Life's Just One Big Empty Net for the NHL's Crown Prince

February 08, 1988|Mike Downey

At the beginning of what would be an eventful week, as well as an eventful year in his charmed life, Prince Wayne of Canada sat back on a peaceful morning in Los Angeles and thought about everything that lies ahead, including the royal wedding.

For starters, and for the 10th time in a 10-year career, Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers finds himself playing in the National Hockey League's All-Star game. This one takes place Tuesday night at St. Louis, where, once he is off the ice, Prince Wayne will be getting together with his fiancee's family for an engagement celebration party, St. Louis being the bride-to-be's home town.

Gretzky is going to marry actress-dancer Janet Jones ("The Flamingo Kid," "American Anthem") on July 19, in a ceremony that, as far as some Canadians are concerned, looms in importance just behind Chuck and Di, and possibly a notch above Andy and Fergie. Should Prince Wayne and Princess Janet produce an heir, the child undoubtedly will be besieged with baby booties with skates on the bottom, and golden pucks.

"I'm a very fortunate guy," Gretzky said. "She's a great lady, and we're very compatible."

Such a glamorous couple. They must have met under romantic circumstances--perhaps a secret rendezvous arranged by a mutual friend, or a blind date.

"Where'd you meet?"

"Here," Gretzky said.

"In L.A.?"

"Yeah. I did a show here, and she was on it."

"A show?"

"A TV show," Gretzky said. " 'Dance Fever.' I was a judge."

Well, why not? Some storybook romances begin with the accidental dropping of a textbook on campus, or the deliberate dropping of a lace handkerchief. Prince Wayne's began with a boogie by Adrian Zmed.

Jones, who used to date tennis player Vitas Gerulaitis, had to take up a new sport. "She didn't watch hockey, but she watches it now," Gretzky said. "Her first hockey exposure was the Canada Cup, so she got off to a good start."

Gretzky scratched the stubble on his chin, and bent forward to adjust the blue brace that shields his injured knee.

"I feel very fortunate, because right now things in my life are going very well," he said. "This thing (the knee) is better now. I'm playing again. I'm starting a family soon. They pay me a lot of money to do something that I love to do. It's a great life."

Gretzky, 27, just missed three weeks' worth of goal-scoring because of that banged-up knee, which was the worst thing that has happened to his body since surgery on his left ankle was required in 1984 to remove a benign growth that was caused by--really--lacing his skates too tight. Although Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins took over the NHL's scoring lead during Gretzky's recent absence, the great one is back on the attack, warming up for the All-Star game with one of the Oilers' goals in Saturday night's 7-2 loss to the Kings.

In the days to follow, there will be even more excitement than usual in Prince Wayne's home province of Alberta. The Winter Olympics will be getting under way at Calgary, and Team Canada will be trying to do what hasn't been done since the 1952 Games at Oslo, Norway--take the gold medal.

"When I grew up, Olympic hockey wasn't discussed all that much," Gretzky said. "Young players talked all the time about making it to the NHL, but not about the Olympics. It's just in the last 10 years that things have been heading kids in that direction again."

How come?

"My honest opinion is, it's dollars and cents," Gretzky said. "For a hockey player to groom himself for the Olympics instead of for a pro career, there was really nothing there for him, no inducement to support himself financially. Whereas, you could make it to the NHL at an early age and make a good living.

"Now, it's getting to the point where they're really like the professionals. Kids get paid to play in the Olympics. That's a big part of it. You've got kids 23, 24 years old, some of them are married, they've got to support families. Someone had to make it worth their while to wait so long before starting their pro career.

"Now, you take the Americans. The American people, they really put the Olympians up on a pedestal. If you win the gold medal, you can make a lot of money. Look at Mike Eruzione. Canada's just working all that out now. Now, athletes like Ben Johnson are coming along and making those sort of opportunities available for Canadian athletes."

To make a little money for himself, the 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky signed a contract with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Assn. as an underaged junior. Six months later, he was traded with two other players to Edmonton for cash and "future considerations"--considerations which, we hope for Indianapolis' sake, turned out to include the Hoosier Dome.

Since then, the Oilers have won several Stanley Cups, and Gretzky has won the Art Ross award (NHL Leading Scorer), the Lester Pearson award (Most Valuable Player), the Conn Smythe award (Stanley Cup MVP), the Lady Byng award (Most Gentlemanly Player), everything but the Adrian Zmed award (Best Dancer).

There was even some talk about using NHL players in the Olympics next time.

"No, I've got enough trouble just playing in my own league," Gretzky said.

Prince Wayne, you're way offsides there.

There is nobody in your league.

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