When Tony Granato was a young TV viewer, he would watch Wayne Gretzky in awe and tell anyone who would listen: " I could score goals skating on his line."
General Manager Glen Sather of the Edmonton Oilers once said: "A fire hydrant could score 40 goals on Gretzky's line."
Several players, as it turned out.
Skating with the Great One, it seems, is one thing. Supplying some greatness of your own is quite another.
A team's first line requires more than simply the team's three top scorers. Somebody has to get the puck, somebody has to pass it, somebody has to clear out the opposition and somebody has to score.
Yes, Gretzky can thread a pass through opposing skaters. And Gretzky can certainly score with the best who ever played.
In Edmonton, he found the perfect complements in Jari Kurri, a master passer, skater and scorer, and teammates such as Esa Tikkanen and Dave Semenko, who could put some muscle to the opposition when needed.
But when Gretzky came south four years ago, he found that his reputation had preceded him. Some players, intimidated by the legend, were too unsure of themselves to function with Gretzky, too afraid they would be in the wrong place or do the wrong thing.
Finally, two seasons ago, Gretzky found his linemates in Tomas Sandstrom, a European skater like Kurri, and Granato, a battler like Tikkanen.
Then, last spring, the Kings obtained Kurri, and the organization had the Great Line--Gretzky, Kurri and Sandstrom.
It was great for one night.
Opening night in Winnipeg, Kurri got a hat trick, and the line got a total of seven points.
It was never that good again.
Gretzky, with an injured back and a seriously ill father, got off to the worst start of his career.
After opening night, Kurri had a miserable start, too.
The question arose whether the three were too similar in style to work well together. The Kings started playing musical wings with the first line, moving players in and out.
But still the team slumped, falling into fifth place in the Smythe Division.
With the Kings in a 1-7-2 slump, Coach Tom Webster tried something very different: Marty McSorley at left wing, alongside Gretzky and Kurri.
The player perceived by some as nothing more than a goon? Who had never scored as many as 40 points in his eight previous years in the NHL?
"Don't forget," assistant coach Cap Raeder said, "he's got some skills."
McSorley spent a good deal of time as a wing when he was an Edmonton Oiler, before coming to the Kings as part of the Gretzky trade. McSorley also played forward when he first came to the Kings, before going back to the blue line to fill a hole there.
Said Coach Tom Webster, who returns tonight from a 12-game suspension: "We didn't have enough size or bang or toughness up front. We had kind of been waiting for me to get back to try it, but we couldn't wait any longer.
"(McSorley) will go in front of the net. He will bang bodies. He will create open ice and open pucks for those guys. I didn't want to see Wayne and Jari banged around any more."
In the first two games the 6-foot-1, 225-pound McSorley played on the first line, the numbers were impressive. Kurri had three goals, Gretzky two goals and a total of seven points.
"(McSorley) looked pretty comfortable out there," Gretzky said. "He creates holes and has people looking over their shoulder."
McSorley looks over his shoulder in wonder at his new linemates. "To be honest with you," he said, "to be moved up to play with a Wayne Gretzky or a Jari Kurri is flattering. To have a big, strong grinder on the wing can be part of the chemistry. But I'm not kidding anybody. I know the skill level is different. If I'm not thinking and I'm not skating and I'm not helping, I'm not living up to my new responsibility."
Part of McSorley's new responsibilities include staying on the ice rather than in the penalty box. He already has 120 penalty minutes in 30 games and took an untimely penalty Sunday against the Calgary Flames that cost the Kings a crucial goal in a game they went on to lose.
But McSorley also has shown that he can produce points, getting a career-high 39 last season in 61 games, including six in one game. The season before, he had a personal-best 15 goals.
"He'll score some goals," Gretzky said. "He's a better hockey player than people think."