Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer, might miss the Kings' 1992-93 season because of a back injury that is more serious than previously thought.
Tuesday, the team announced that Gretzky, 31, has a herniated thoracic disk and, according to an NHL source familiar with the case, he has less than a 50% chance of returning this season. The best-case scenario would have him returning in late January or early February, said another source close to the situation.
Dr. Robert Watkins of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic, who recently performed surgery on Darryl Strawberry's back, refused to speculate on when Gretzky might come back. He said that while Gretzky's injury could be career-threatening, there was a potential for full recovery and that surgery is not being considered now.
"I think it is possible he would play this season," said Jerome Schofferman, a back specialist with the Spine Care Medical Group of Daly City, Calif. "I wouldn't say it is probable, but possible."
In any event, this kind of back injury is extremely rare.
"The instance of a thoracic disk herniation is estimated to be about one-in-a-million," Watkins said.
"From everybody's experience in the country, we see this lesion in lots of different types of people. But when you talk about a star professional athlete in the United States, I don't know anyone that's ever had a herniated thoracic disk like this."
Gretzky revealed that he has been bothered by soreness in his chest since March. He has no idea how it occurred.
Initially, he thought he had sore ribs, a symptom of this injury. The pain lessened during the summer and didn't return until last Tuesday. That day, he felt a twinge, and a day later it worsened and Gretzky checked into Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, suffering from significant pain.
His close friend, Mark Messier of the New York Rangers, knew that Gretzky had problems last spring.
"Last year, he was complaining of sore ribs and I saw him in March and I talked to him throughout the playoffs," said Messier after an exhibition game in Toronto on Tuesday night. "And they had to put a hot pack on him because they thought he had bruised ribs.
"It becomes more than a hockey issue right now. It becomes what he's got to look forward to the rest of his life. I guess the doctors are saying that getting hit the wrong way (if he were playing now) could cause paralysis. I think it becomes more than a hockey issue when those kind of stakes are in place. . . . I was speaking to him today and he knows he has to sit down for two months, rehab and then take it from there. But talking to him, today he was very optimistic."
Gretzky \o7 was\f7 optimistic at the Forum news conference, considering the situation. He pointed out that he's "light years" ahead of where he was last week, as rest and medication have helped to lessen the pain.
With Gretzky in the hospital for nearly a week, rumors started flying. An East Coast radio station reported that the Kings were going to announce on Tuesday that Gretzky was retiring from hockey. The news spread throughout the United States and Canada, and the Kings' offices were flooded with phone calls.
Gretzky says he's not thinking in terms of retirement. Clearly, he doesn't want to make this his exit, still wanting to bring a Stanley Cup to Los Angeles.
"First of all, it's my life," he said. "Right now, I don't have anything else on my plate or on my mind that excites me to that level. Everyone in life has something they love to do.
"I have to give it my best effort."
Gretzky's value to the franchise cannot be underestimated. When he was traded to the Kings in August, 1988, the Kings got a lift on the ice and at the gate.
But King owner Bruce McNall talked about Gretzky the person, not Gretzky the hockey player.
"I'm more concerned about his pain and his health than his return to hockey," McNall said. " . . . I don't think it will be the end and I hope it isn't. From a franchise point of view, you can't replace Wayne Gretzky, but it isn't a one-man sport. We hope to remain very competitive."
The game after Gretzky--whether it's a matter of weeks or months--has arrived in Los Angeles ahead of schedule.