Wayne Gretzky will not be at Capital Centre until January. Washington hockey fans can see a reasonable facsimile tonight, however, when Dale Hawerchuk leads the Winnipeg Jets into town for an 8 o'clock game with another vastly improved team, the Capitals.
Winnipeg already has more victories, 10, in its first 25 games than it did a year ago over the 80-game schedule, when it stumbled home 9-57-14. While new Coach Tom Watt deserves considerable credit, so does Hawerchuk.
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound center at age 18 has overcome the pressure inherent with No. 1 draft selection to score 14 goals and 15 assists. If that leaves him a few miles from Gretzky's league-leading figures of 31 goals and 38 assists, nobody else is within shouting distance of The Great One, either.
Hawerchuk, because of folks' insistence on comparing him with Gretzky, has been under just as much media scrutiny as the Capitals' 18-year-old Bobby Carpenter. He has handled it just as well, with occasional bristling about unfair and repetitive questions.
"I actually get sick of it (comparisons with Gretzky)," Hawerchuk told Reyn Davis of the Winnipeg Free Press. "Wayne's so great. He's proven himself time in and time out. He's a guy I look up to. He has given me advice. But people who are comparing us are making a mistake. We are two different types of hockey players."
Where Gretzky glides, Hawerchuk moves in starts and stops. Yvon Labre, the Capitals' assistant coach who scouted the Jets in Philadelphia Tuesday, described the following maneuver by Hawerchuk:
"He put on the brakes at the blueline and (Bobby) Clarke tried to put a hip on him. He jumped away and took off in another direction. (Ken) Linseman tried to get the puck away, but he pulled it back and made a perfect pass to the defenseman on the other side to get a good play going."
Despite Hawerchuk's abilities, Washington Coach Bryan Murray declined to prepare a special defensive welcome for him.
"We're aware of him," Murray said. "He's a fine passer and on occasions I'll want a specific guy against him. But if we play and work as hard as we have, we won't need to worry about the other team."
Chris Valentine, who has been outstanding in six games with Washington, had 65 goals and 77 assists for Sorel in the Quebec Junior League last season. He was topped by Hawerchuk, who recorded 81 goals and 102 assists for a Cornwall team that went on to win the Memorial Cup for the second year in a row.
"He's very quick and hard to hit," Valentine said. "He's very shifty and he's a good playmaker. You have to pick him up at the red line and be alert for breakaways."
Orest Kindrachuk, unable to overcome the aftereffects of back surgery, has agreed to a mutual termination of his contract with the Capitals. He was signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh last summer, with Washington giving up Paul Mulvey as compensation . . . Al Jensen once again will tend goal for the Capitals tonight, with Peter Sidorkiewicz, 18, called up from Oshawa of the Ontario Junior League to serve as his backup