AT THE RYE PLAYLAND, BRUSHING UP AGAINST PERFECTION

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Have you seen those great hockey commercials with Gretzky and Messier as "the odd couple?" Deadpan humor from a couple of amateur actors who happen to be total pros on the ice.

They're playing the annual National Hockey League all-star game this Saturday evening in San Jose and, following that, Fox TV will start a regular weekly schedule of NHL games. This seems to be integral to a master plan on the part of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to bring hockey into the new millennium. Bettman used to work for David Stern of the NBA and you know the kind of smooth, money-making proposition that's become.

But this isn't about NHL marketing strategies. This is about being a little boy again and going up to a faded old Victorian ice rink in a shuttered amusement park on the shores of Long Island Sound in Rye, N.Y., and getting to watch a Rangers' practice and afterwards to sit on a wooden bench and talk to the greatest hockey player who ever lived.

I was doing a Parade magazine piece on Wayne Gretzky to run yesterday, the Sunday before the all-star game. The Great Gretzky would be starting at center yet again in the month he would turn 36, a lean, elegant figure whose genius seems in part based on his ability to see the ice more clearly than anyone else out there and to possess the hand-eye coordination to thread needle accurate passes to his wings so that they can score. He scores plenty himself. But so did Esposito. It is in his passing that the man brushes against perfection.

We drove up to Rye Playland on a cold, rainy December morning. The Rangers had lost the night before and the next night would be playing in Buffalo (and winning).

We let ourselves into the chilly old barn of a rink to find practice in full swing. Maybe 25 men were out there skating in a chaotic kaleidoscope of speed and color. But there was a discernible pattern or plan, and after a minute or two you could see how it worked, three men on an offensive line weaving their way toward a goal, past and through and around two defensemen, to attack the goaltender Mike Richter. At the other end, the same exercise, repeated endlessly, and culminating with a shot at Glenn Healy's net. No numbers were worn. Defensemen wore baggy white jerseys; each offensive line wore its own color, red for Messier's line, green for Gretzky's and so on.

What was startling, except for the scrape of skates and the click of stick against puck or the bang of a puck into, or a man against, the boards, was there was almost no sound. Three coaches were on the ice in blue jumpsuits and carrying sticks but they never spoke, sounded no whistles. What I found really astonishing, there was no trash talk. None!

Gretzky was sporting what looked like a starter beard but, without a helmet, he was pretty easy to pick out. About half the players wore helmets but, helmets or not, there was a lot of contact. No leveling bodychecks but rather trying to ride one another off the puck and away from the goal. Richter between assaults drank from a water bottle atop his cage and spit it out on the ice. Most of the guys seemed to have teeth.

Or, at least, good dentures.

Then, again without a sound or a sign that I could pick up, the coaches shoved the nets closer together at center ice until they were only about 20 yards apart and a mad sprint began, round and round the two cages as if they were racing pylons, all the players, even the two goalies in their huge pads, doing lap after lap, carrying their sticks. Then, again without an order, everyone gathered in a circle and with one player leading, did silent stretching exercises; all very Zen. Then they lined up across the front of a goal and took shots. Like big kids, they tried to steal the puck from each other, even from Gretzky. Later on, when he'd showered, we sat and talked. When he was a kid, I asked, when did he first realize he was going to be great? I never thought that way, Gretzky said.

He began playing organized hockey when he was 6. "But there were no 6-year-old leagues. So I played in a 10-year-old league." It was then, Wayne Gretzky told me, he began to realize he was "fortunate," and that he might grow up to be something.

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