Department stores in Western Canada feature an incongruous line of pajamas bearing the emblems of Notre Dame and the University of Texas. The number on the back of each pajama top is more understandable--99.
A recent survey of shoppers at an Edmonton mall revealed that many could not identify the city's mayor or other figures celebrated in the area as politicians, media personalities or mass murderers. Everyone, however, was aware of the man who has made the Edmonton Oilers' No. 99 famous throughout Canada--Wayne Gretzky.
Gretzky can accomplish just about anything, as he proved when his achievements overcame the antihockey bias of Sports Illustrated and earned him that magazine's coveted sportsman-of-the-year award.
The Sports Illustrated honor is indicative of the increased awareness of Gretzky in the United States, where recognition for hockey players understandably lags behind the attention in Canada.
"I'm popular here, because hockey is Canada's No. 1 sport," Gretzky said. "In the U.S., where there is so much else going on, it's been slower to catch on. But they know my name a little bit more now than last year."
Last week, Gretzky appeared in two of the NHL's current disaster areas, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. Although neither arena was sold out, the crowds of 14,868 in Pittsburgh and 15,894 in Buffalo were among the best of the year.
Gretzky has yet to appear at Capital Centre this season; his only visit is set for March 2. That should be a sellout, as was his second appearance a year ago, following that Jan. 13 snow-decimated turnout of 3,284. For a preview, Washington fans can see the Capitals attempt to clinch a first-ever playoff berth against Gretzky and Edmonton Wednesday (WDCA-TV-20 at 9:30 p.m.).
Following a season in which he rewrote the pages of the National Hockey League record book with 92 goals, 120 assists and 212 points, there was speculation that Gretzky had raised the scoring records so high even he would be unable to challenge them. There was wonder what he could possibly do for an encore.
Gretzky quickly provided the answer, as he scored at least one point in the first 30 games of this season to eclipse Guy Lafleur's consecutive-game scoring mark of 28. At present, Gretzky holds or shares 28 NHL individual records.
As the regular season moves toward its climax, with Edmonton once again a runaway winner in the Smythe Division, it appears that Gretzky will surpass only his assist record.
He scored in Edmonton's 4-1 loss tonight to the Calgary Flames and after 62 games has 51 goals and 98 assists for 149 points. That averages out to 2.40 points a game, a slight decline from last year's record figure of 2.65. The only other seasonal figure above two points a game in NHL history was Gretzky's 2.05 in 1980-81.
The decline in goal production is not a sign that Gretzky has peaked in that area. Rather, it is another stage in the continuing cycle of opposition attempts to stop him.
In his first two NHL seasons, Gretzky was not a phenomenal goal scorer, although nobody was knocking his totals of 51 and 55, respectively. But he preferred to operate behind the enemy net, artfully feeding teammates cutting down the slot.
Opponents finally learned to pinch Gretzky when he assumed that position, so last season he adapted by moving into the slot area and shooting more frequently. Since Gretzky can shoot as well as he can pass, aware of the net's location without looking at it, the result was devastating.
This season, predictably, opposition defenders converged on the slot. So Gretzky widened his field of operations, sometimes moving back to his old spot behind the net but also luring defenders into the corners, from where he can flip accurate passes to teammates in shooting position.
While Gretzky's goal total has declined, two of his frequent wingers, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson, already have surpassed their career NHL highs, with 34 and 39 goals, respectively.
Center Ken Linseman, facing secondary rivals while Gretzky attracts the top checkers, has 29 goals, a career mark. Edmonton, as a team, is averaging 5.29 goals a game, higher than last year's 5.21 and within striking distance of the NHL mark of 5.38 set by Montreal in 1919-20.
"I take what they give me," Gretzky said. "Any team that wants to send two men on me is going to leave somebody open, and if I can get the puck to him, with the shooters on this team it'll probably be a goal. How I play the game depends on how the other team is playing me."
Gretzky, 22, has been awarded the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player in each of his three seasons in the league. However, there are signs that some observers are tiring of his dominance.
Gretzky won the Lady Byng Trophy, combining a high standard of play with gentlemanly conduct, in his first NHL season. But the last two winners were Rick Kehoe and Rick Middleton, although Gretzky's playing standards have improved and he is no less a gentleman.
In the all-star voting, two writers chose Chicago's Denis Savard over Gretzky as the Campbell Conference center, although Gretzky's assist total exceeded Savard's total points.
"Savard is a good player," said Gretzky, when asked about it. "I just hope when they vote for another person, they feel he's a better hockey player, not because they have something against me."
Media resentment against Gretzky would have to be directed against his dominance, rather than any impression of being slighted, because Gretzky is unfailingly courteous and has to be protected by the club to keep him from wearing himself out promoting himself, the Oilers and the sport.