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Same Script, New Team : Gretzky Makes Second Appearance at Forum Since Being Traded by Kings, Only Now He's a Ranger

March 06, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another season, another uniform, another homecoming for Wayne Gretzky.

A year after the emotional end of his 7 1/2-year King career, the NHL's all-time leading scorer will return to the Forum tonight with the New York Rangers for his second appearance since the Kings traded him to the St. Louis Blues.

That deal enhanced the Kings' long-term prospects but was short-lived for Gretzky, who became a free agent last summer and signed a two-year, $11-million deal with the Rangers, his fourth NHL team.

Before he made his Ranger debut, he played for Canada in the World Cup tournament, another team and another whirl in a dizzying journey that has taken him places he could never have predicted.

"My daughter asked me if I was ever going to play for the Americans," he said of his many recent changes in allegiance. "Who would have thought Shaq would switch teams?"

And who would have thought the Kings, who have won five of their last six games, would have a better record over the last few weeks than the Rangers, whose $38-million, star-laden payroll is the NHL's highest?

This nostalgia trip to face the Kings in the place he still calls home--Gretzky rents a lavish apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side but kept his house in the Thousand Oaks area and threw a barbecue for teammates there Wednesday--comes at a pivotal time for him and the Rangers.

Considered a strong Stanley Cup contender during the first half of the season, the Rangers have won only once in their last nine games and have dropped to sixth place in the Eastern Conference. In a shocking turn of events for a team that, besides Gretzky, has former 50-goal scorers Luc Robitaille, Mark Messier and Adam Graves and has the NHL's most prolific defenseman in Brian Leetch, the Rangers have averaged only 1.67 goals a game during their 1-6-2 swoon.

Gretzky, who in mid-November was on a pace to score 103 points and had assembled a 15-game point-scoring streak, went a career-high 21 games without a goal until he scored at Hartford on Feb. 21. Nor has he scored in his last three games. However, he has 24 assists in the last 24 games, enough to rank him fourth in scoring with 16 goals and 79 points in 65 games. That's still a 100-point pace.

"It's been a real interesting year," said Gretzky, who has played most of the season with former King teammate Robitaille on his left and Swedish rookie Niklas Sundstrom--supposedly a defensive forward--on his right.

"You're going to go through times where you have some tough stretches," he said.

"I've never seen anyone win the Stanley Cup in March. It's always teams that are strongest going into the playoffs and getting good goaltending that have the best chance."

Gretzky and the Rangers are far from their strongest now. Captain Mark Messier, the Rangers' emotional leader, has been hampered by a succession of illnesses and injuries, including back spasms that kept him out of two games last week. Left wing Adam Graves, who scored 52 goals three years ago, has 23 this season and probably won't exceed 30, and right wing Alexei Kovalev suffered a season-ending knee injury, taking much-needed speed out of the Rangers' lineup and allowing opponents to concentrate on checking Gretzky's line.

"I don't know that his goal scoring is his forte at this point of his career," said Neil Smith, the Rangers' general manager. "He does so many other things that are actually more important.

"I think his slump is emblematic of the team's confidence level. I think Wayne's suffered, believe it or not, hard as it may be, from a lack of confidence over this stretch, confidence in himself and his ability to score. Early in the year he was scoring at a real good clip. At one point he was on a 35-goal pace.

"The one thing we have to realize with Wayne and Mark [Messier] is, they've been playing since Aug. 1 and Wayne's never missed a game this season, World Cup or anything else. It would be tiring on a 21-year-old."

Let alone on a thin, pale 36-year-old center who's playing in a physical conference. The travel is easier in the East than it was when Gretzky played in Edmonton or Los Angeles, but the higher tempo and exertion may drain him as much as time-zone changes and extra trudges through customs once did.

"Sure, [Gretzky's goal-scoring slump] bothers him," Ranger Coach Colin Campbell said. "As great as Wayne has been in our game, it's frustrating for him that he hasn't scored. He thought our recent slump was directly related to his goal-scoring slump. He came here to make this team a winner first and foremost, not to make it adapt to his particular style.

"It's been a pleasure to be associated with Wayne and to coach him and see what he does in arenas around the league. It seems like we sell out everywhere we go and there's excitement. I just wish we could match that, hockey-wise."

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