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Stanley Cup FINALS : Unexpected Greatness : When Wayne Gretzky Suffered a Rare Back Injury, Many Thought His Career Was Over. But He's Back in the Finals and Seemingly as Good as New

June 05, 1993|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, sure, everyone is smiling now. Visitors to the King locker room need a pair of sunglasses and a coat of industrial strength sun block to protect themselves from the glare of toothy grins. Of course, you'd smile, too, if you were in the Stanley Cup finals and Wayne Gretzky was skating as if he were having some sort of Edmonton Oiler-Hart Trophy flashback.

But six months ago, as Gretzky endured the longest scoring drought of his 14-season NHL career, the mood was markedly darker. Gretzky had just returned from a 39-game layoff, made necessary by a rare and potentially crippling herniated disk located between his shoulder blades.

The more he struggled, the more rumors were born. They began as discreet whispers, tinged with just enough truth that people actually began to believe them. Before long, they had taken on a life of their own.

"Gretzky is skating scared."

"Gretzky has lost a step."

"Gretzky is finished."

To hear the talk was to hear Gretzky, 32, being downgraded from the Great One, to the Good One, to the Long Gone One.

Yes, well, so much for those theories. Gretzky's back is back and so is his game. If you need proof, simply ask the Toronto columnist who recently wrote that Gretzky was playing like someone with a Steinway strapped to his shoulders.

Gretzky, piano and all, promptly scored three goals and added an assist in Game 7 as the Kings eliminated the Maple Leafs and advanced to the championship series against the Montreal Canadiens.

No surprise there--Gretzky usually does most of the Kings' heavy lifting.

And once the Stanley Cup finals started, Gretzky was at it again, scoring a goal (two, if you count the one into his own net) and collecting three assists in a Game 1 victory.

"Since his back has healed and he's in shape physically, he's just so possessed right now," King Coach Barry Melrose said. "He believes in what we're doing. He believes in himself again. He's the best player in the world again right now. He means so much to this team, so much more than he ever meant to Edmonton."

More than Edmonton? The Oilers, ladies and gentlemen, won four Stanley Cups with Gretzky.

But the new and improved Gretzky (if that's possible) said he has never felt better or lighter on the ice. Each shift, each assist, each goal, each victory is savored like few others.

"It's different right now," Gretzky said earlier in the playoffs, "because everybody thought I'd died. Nobody expected me to be playing. Nobody expected me to play this well."

There were doubters. One of them might have been Gretzky himself, who saw his hockey life flash in front of his eyes last July, when doctors told him he might be a forecheck away from forced retirement.

Actually, Gretzky knew something was terribly wrong with his body as early as the previous season. The date to remember: April 28, 1992--the day Edmonton knocked the Kings out of the playoffs and sent Gretzky wincing in pain to the visitors' locker room.

Mike Barnett, Gretzky's longtime agent and friend, was there for the game, and afterward he was summoned to a private room near the team dressing area. It was there that he found Gretzky, who was in street clothes, but whose face was pale and bathed in a cold sweat. A King physician stood nearby.

"I tried to hide my shock," Barnett said. "I mean, this wasn't normal. It was clear by the strain on his face that he was in obvious pain."

It was a rib injury, or so Gretzky kept telling himself.

A few days later, Barnett and Gretzky met for breakfast. Halfway through the meal, the pain returned, this time forcing Gretzky to stretch out in the restaurant booth in a desperate effort to ease the hurt.

Still thinking that the injury wasn't serious, Gretzky traveled to Hawaii for a family vacation. The rest and relaxation would do him good and allow his rib cage to heal--at least, that was the plan.

Gretzky went to Hawaii, but he didn't rest. Shortly after his arrival, the condition flared up, forcing him to spend time in a local clinic and later, in a hospital. When he returned home, the discomfort in his rib area slowly subsided. In fact, Gretzky later was able to begin a rigorous off-season conditioning program.

By the time training camp arrived, Gretzky was in the best shape of his career. "He went into camp feeling like lightning," said his wife, Janet Jones. "He was feeling great. We'd just had the third child and then. . . ."

And then Gretzky woke up one day, only to discover that his rib cage hurt worse than ever. Experts were called in. Tests were conducted. A diagnosis was finally made: Gretzky had suffered a herniated thoracic disk, which had prompted the pain in his rib cage.

This was no ordinary injury. Most herniated disks occur in the lower back, where the spinal cord is wider and more agreeable to recovery. Pittsburgh Penguin star Mario Lemieux once had a lower back herniation and successfully returned to the ice.

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