Graceful, fluid, smooth. The words instantly come to mind while watching him glide effortlessly across the ice, his skates appearing to barely scratch the surface.

It wouldn't take a hockey enthusiast to pick Wayne Gretzky out of a crowd of helmeted players, even if he didn't wear the eye-catching No. 99. It's like watching O.J. Simpson slip through the line or Julius Erving soar to the basket.

He often seems alone on the ice, as if in his own world, one he clearly enjoys and dominates. He lurks around the edge of the action and when he sees a loose puck, he pounces on it and quickly makes something happen.

Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers has the potential to become the best-known, most imitated and recognizable hockey player since Bobby Orr. Bobby Hull was the last NHL player to appear on the cover of a national news magazine when Time featured him in 1968. Shortly, Gretzky's curly blond locks will be on the cover of Newsweek.

"Quickness and anticipation," says his coach, Glen Sather, when discussing what enables Gretzky to accumulate points at such an incredible pace. With his five goals Wednesday night against Philadelphia, Gretzky became the first player to score 50 goals in less than 50 games. In fact, it took him just 39.

In reflection, Gretzky, who will skate against the Capitals Jan. 13 at Capital Centre, said: "I think I can double everything." He has 108 points with the 80-game season less than half over.

"A couple of seasons ago, I really enjoyed going for individual things, but it wasn't all that much fun because we were losing," Gretzky said. "Now that we're winning, it's really become fun again."

Although he always tries to mention team goals when asked about individual records, Gretzky admits he has his sights on one more record, probably the most elusive in hockey.

"If ever there's a record almost impossible to beat, it's Phil Esposito's single-season high of 76 goals," he said. "Look at all the guys who have come close, like Mike Bossy last year. He was going at an incredible clip and still finished several goals back (68)."

But, adds Gretzky, "It's winning that makes this game enjoyable."

Winning has become a way of life in Edmonton this season. After finishing 29-35 last season, the Oilers now have the league's best record (25-9-6) and have scored about 50 more goals than any other team.

"There's been a big transition in the league in the last couple of years," Gretzky said when asked about the Oilers' offense. "Everyone is more offensive-minded. I think a lot of scoring records are going to be broken."

There has been an unprecedented scoring boom in the NHL in the last two years and coaches are quick to credit this young player from Brantford, Ontario, for much of it.

"Wayne has made a great impression on junior players everywhere," said Sather, who also serves as the Oilers' general manager. "Scoring goals is the quickest way to get recognition and so everyone seems to be shooting more."

This season the average goals per game by the 21 teams is eight, an all-time high. Although they never had done it before this season, the Oilers now have scored 10 or more goals on four occasions.

"We have a bunch of young players who just keep skating and skating," said Gretzky. "After a while we just wear the defenses down."

Gretzky, of course, is the primary reason defenses are so vulnerable to the Oilers' constant pressure. He has remarkable instincts and anticipation as a play unfolds, or even when the puck is bouncing free.

"Wayne is great," said the Capitals' Ryan Walter, who often draws the assignment of checking the game's best passer. "He's just an average skater, but he has great hockey sense. He's like O.J. Simpson. He seems to know where everybody else is all the time."

Max McNab, former general manager of the Capitals, said, "Gretzky sees the total picture on the ice as well as anyone since Bobby Orr. He has complete vision, which explains why his passing is so uncanny."

Brett Callighen, a winger who has been with the Oilers since 1976, marvels at the command his young teammate has for the game.

"He's 20, going on 30," Callighen said after a recent game. "He seems so sure of himself and seems to be able to sense what's going to happen before it does."

Anticipation. An almost preconceived sense of the immediate future. Many believe it is an instinctive gift, but Gretzky denies he has been bestowed with any special talent.

"I've practiced so long, so many times that nothing can happen that I haven't seen before," he says, matter of factly. "It's not so much anticipation as experience. A lot of people think what I do is instinct, but it isn't. Nobody would ever say a doctor had learned his profession by instinct. Well, I've spent almost as much time studying hockey as a med student puts into studying medicine."

Gretzky's childhood already is folklore in Canada, the story of his father teaching his 3-year-old son the game in a frozen back yard. By the time he was 6, Wayne was playing in a league for 10-year-olds. He was a standout at every level and at 17, signed a four-year contract worth $875,000 with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association.

Financial troubles forced owner Nelson Skalbania to sell Gretzky's contract to Peter Pocklington, owner of the Oilers, for $850,000. Pocklington renegotiated the contract, tying up the young star for nine years, plus two six-year options, with a starting salary reported at $300,000 a year.

Gretzky was an instant, although relatively unknown, success. Because of the nature of the game, because the NHL lacks a U.S. network television contract, because hockey doesn't enjoy the popularity of some other sports in this country, Gretzky's feats have been overlooked by many. If a baseball or football player achieved comparable accomplishments in his first two years, he already would have been measured for a Hall of Fame bust.

In his first year, Gretzky scored 104 points and was named the WHA rookie of the year. The following season, the Oilers joined the NHL and, although some critics said he was too skinny, he took on the tougher competition with the ease of a 10-year veteran.

After leading the league in assists with 86 and scoring 51 goals to tie Marcel Dionne with 137 points, Gretzky was awarded the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. He won the honor again last season after leading the league in assists (109) and points (164).

He became the first player ever to average two points (2.05) a game and the first to score more than 300 points in his first two years in the NHL. Now, a month before his 21st birthday (Jan. 26), he can talk nonchalantly about scoring 200 points in a season, a heretofore preposterous suggestion.

"I think it's realistic," Gretzky said. "I don't think it's impossible. Somebody will get 200 one of these days because the league is so much more offensive-minded. The fans like to see goals and I think the coaches are opening things up a lot more."

Already the most identifiable athlete in Canada, Gretzky accepts his status well. He is relaxed, polite and easygoing when meeting strangers. He has that quality of giving the impression he wants you to like him.

"Folk hero? Oh, no, not me," he said, flashing an easy grin when asked about his overwhelming popularity. "You're talking about great entertainers, Hall of Fame athletes. I can't see that in myself.

"When we were in San Diego for a few days, I played golf with Johnny Bench and that was one of the biggest thrills of my life. When I meet people like that, sports stars I have been watching for years, well," he said, pausing, "I just never think of myself on a level with people like that."