The greatness comes in subtle strokes. It takes its form in a pass, difficult to discern with the unaided eye, that sets up the easiest of goals; in a 360-degree dance with a puck that stalls for time; in a powder-puff side step that sends an opponent crashing to the ice.

Sometimes, the side step doesn't work, and even Wayne Gretzky falls. But when he does, he never thuds. He only slides.

In a game during a recent swing east with his Edmonton Oilers teammates, Gretzky was standing behind the opposing net, which might be his favorite place on earth, watching a hockey game unfold before his eyes. Three times in the next 20 seconds, the puck came to his stick.

It always does.

Like a blackjack dealer, he flicked it away, each time to the stick of a different teammate in front of the net with point-blank range on the goalie.

In spite of their good fortune, his teammates couldn't score and Edmonton lost for only the 11th time this season. But the reason why they call Gretzky great had been uncovered, at least partially.

"You use the net as an obstacle," he would say later. "It's just a place for me to hide. If I stand in front of the net, I'm going to get knocked down.

"I've got to keep moving."

Wayne Gretzky, 24, is not big (6 feet and 170 pounds). He is not particularly strong. He is not the world's fastest skater.

But he is, without a doubt, its best hockey player. Perhaps ever.

Why?

"I know my limitations," he said. And skates around them.

One way to explain Gretzky, who averages almost a goal a game and dominates his sport as no other team-sport athlete ever has, is to compare what he does in his sport to what others do in theirs.

How does a hockey player, then just 21, score 92 goals in an 80-game season when the previous record was 76? How does he keep it up, scoring 71 the following season, then 87? How does he win the National Hockey League's MVP award every year he is in the league, now five in a row and counting?

"Oh, I don't know," he says, smiling.

He knows.

For Gretzky, the puck is a yo-yo, always coming back to him. He lets it bounce off his skates, never breaking stride. It slips off his stick -- which he holds in only one hand more than most players do, an extension of his arm -- and comes right back.

If "dribbling" were a hockey term, this would be the definition.

"I'm a big believer that no one can skate as fast as the puck, so I let the puck do all the work," he said. Bobby Orr, the only player who would give Gretzky much competition as mythical player of the century, once said the same thing.

Some notice Gretzky's moves and think of football -- the finesse side.

"He's like a great wide receiver," said New York Rangers defenseman Barry Beck. "He always finds the open spot."

Ted Green, an Edmonton assistant coach who played the game so hard that he now wears a steel plate under his scalp, says Gretzky is so good because he moves very well laterally, "like most football stars."

There's a reason. Gretzky says the ice is home. He has lived on it since he was 2, growing up in Brantford, Ontario, an hour's drive from Niagara Falls.

When he is in a hurry in a game, he really doesn't skate. He runs. "His first three or four strides are very quick, although he's not that fast overall," Beck said.

Those first few steps are the backbone of the offensive philosophy of the Oilers, defending Stanley Cup champions. Gretzky is the legman on the hockey equivalent of the fast break, always leaning, many times flat-out going, when a teammate touches the puck on defense. This is a team of many goals and few inhibitions; 8-7 games, preferably victories, are fine with the Oilers.

Gretzky doesn't get the easy breakaway every time down the ice, but he does get more time to swirl around his offensive zone, camp behind the net like the opposing goalie's shadow, and wreak havoc on nervous defenders.

"Every time we play him, I'll see another move or two that I've never seen anyone do before," said Beck, a hulking defender Gretzky says he avoids at all costs.

"The next day, I'll try to do it in practice. It never looks as good."

Ditto with Gretzky's passing game. He is Magic Johnson on ice. Forward Mike Krushelnyski, who scored a previous career-high 25 goals with Boston last season and already has 36 this season as an Oiler, calls it "passing to where you think you would be."

Krushelnyski, who usually is on the ice with Gretzky, said he would stop and watch Gretzky if he could.

"I can't believe some of the things he does," he said.

Some still talk about the time Gretzky, perched behind the goalie, as usual, passed the puck over the net to a teammate, who scored.

Gretzky, who has 63 goals and 113 assists in Edmonton's 65 games this season, is expected to be better than anyone else. In his team's recent two-game swing to New York and Philadelphia, he scored two goals and had four assists in two one-goal losses.

That's six points, a good week for most players. For Gretzky, a mediocre weekend.

"Mentally, I made a couple mistakes that cost us two goals," he said in New York, grumpier than normal. "I can't be happy, because we didn't win.

"When you're a kid, you play for fun. When you're a man, you get nothing for finishing second. Second is last."

In both games, losing by one in the final minutes, Gretzky came onto the ice one final time. Near-capacity crowds were standing, screaming. Edmonton pulled its goalie for an extra-man advantage.

An extra man and Gretzky. It's almost unfair.

"I thought we were going to score," he said. "I always do."

Against the Flyers, it seemed almost ordained. In the final 24 seconds, the Oilers had three faceoffs immediately to the left of the Philadelphia goal. Gretzky, a center, didn't take them. There are stronger men than he on this team. He is a shooter, so he stood behind the center, waiting.

Each faceoff grew grittier than the last, but Gretzky never got a clean smack at any one. The game dissolved into bedlam for the Flyers; a slow, hard trudge on skates to the dressing room for Gretzky.

Later, Gretzky, hardly glum, acknowledged the scene was more valuable than the result.

"I'm sure the fans got their money's worth," he said. "There are 80 games. It would be boring if you won them all, wouldn't it?"

Because of his size, Gretzky can't and won't play the game of the '70s, the one that spawned the joke: "I went to the fights last night and a hockey game broke out."

Gretzky, in his sixth season in the NHL, was blessed with the good fortune of arriving in the league just as many of the thugs were leaving. Finesse, skating and scoring generally are regarded as much more important than they were a decade ago, and Gretzky, a deking, slithering skater, is one of the chief beneficiaries.

"Everyone was just about chopping each other's head off 10 years ago," said Gus Badali, Gretzky's agent. "The style of hockey now fits Wayne to a tee."

Gretzky has a token little scar by his mouth on an otherwise creamy white face that looks like it belongs to a junior law partner. He never was one to dive in front of a puck.

"My job is to get out of the way," he said.

He controls the offensive game with his passing and shooting, but Gretzky is no Orr, rushing the length of the ice, taking over a game. His influence is harder to notice.

For one, you can't see him because he wears a helmet, now an NHL rule. Orr's face never was obscured.

Sometimes, he won't start a game in order to avoid an opponent's "checking" line. And, in some crucial situations, he will play in the offensive end, then, as play shifts the other direction, quickly come out for a stronger defensive player.

"There are some things Wayne can learn on the defensive side," Green said as he watched Gretzky warm up in Philadelphia. "Defensive techniques, things like that. There always is something you can improve upon."

He laughed.

"In Wayne's case, one day we'll find it."

Gretzky turned professional for the old World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Racers when he was 17, never finishing his last two years of high school in Canada. He certainly is one of the few high school dropouts who earns $2 million a year: $1 million in salary, another $1 million in endorsements.

For a hockey player, someone who probably never will be seen on network television in the United States, that's big bucks.

But for so dominant an athlete in today's pro sports market, that's minimum wage.

Gretzky shrugs and says he leads "two lives."

"In one, in Canada, I am known. People do recognize me. Then I can go a lot of places where no one really cares. Like anywhere south of Chicago."

Once, someone recognized him in Arizona. "Are you Bjorn Borg?" he was asked.

In a U.S. marketing survey of the general public done last year, out of 100 selected athletes, Gretzky ranked way below average in name recognition. Only 37 percent of those surveyed knew him; Sugar Ray Leonard scored 82 percent recognition; Tracy Austin, 66 percent; Scott Hamilton, 62 percent.

Glen Sather, the Oilers' coach, sauntered through Times Square the night before the Rangers game under the watchful eyes of Gretzky, peering out from a billboard advertising a Canon camera. It's one of his few U.S.-related promotions.

"If he was living here," Sather said, "the more he would be exposed, the more interviews he would do. It would be much better for the game. I really don't know what he would end up being in this country because there's really no limit to his capabilities. He's very talented, popular and sensible. He's a great kind of guy to endorse products."

Gretzky lives in Edmonton, hundreds of miles north of the Montana border, in a 17th-story penthouse with a fictitious name on the mailbox. He said he has no more time for advertisements and doesn't want to move to New York. His contract with the Oilers runs to 1999. (If he wore No. 7 instead of No. 99, it probably would be 2007.)

Once, a network executive, mulling over the idea of hockey's return to national TV (NBC gave up on the NHL after a brief run in the early '70s), asked Badali if there were a chance Gretzky would be traded to a team in the States. Badali said no, Edmonton's owner would be lynched. End of discussion.

So Gretzky is the Greatest North American Hero, requiring the extra adjective. He is a 99 more famous than Barbara Feldon, but remains as big a mystery as his sport is to many in this country.

Sather, a former tough with the Boston Bruins, calls it Gretzky's "mystique."

But celebrities know him, and he is beginning to know them. Gretzky was scared to return Billy Joel's call regarding a charity tennis tournament Gretzky runs. That wouldn't be a problem now. As he walked out of the Spectrum in Philadelphia, he tugged at the belt on his designer raincoat and turned to a Washington writer.

"Do you know Joe?"

"Joe?"

"Joe. Joe Theismann . . . He's a good friend of mine. He's helped me with off-the-field stuff a lot. I've known him since I was 10 and he was playing in Canada. Tell him I said hi."

Recently, a Boston sports film producer was talking to an Oilers official over the phone. The producer, who works with Boston College as well as the Bruins, was surprised when the man on the other end told him to hold on a moment.

Then he heard another voice.

"Tell Doug Flutie I love him."

It was Gretzky.

Gretzky is as unpretentious as his sport, and much more courteous. When he was 7 years old, playing hockey in Ontario, Gretzky's father told him, "Have fun, but don't embarrass yourself. People will be watching."

Maybe this explains why, on Christmas Day, he always joins the neighborhood kids in a road hockey game played in front of his girlfriend's mother's house in Edmonton.

"He puts a tremendous importance on fulfilling the role kids would like to see him become," said Michael Barnett, a former hockey player who started handling Gretzky's endorsements and ended up forming a whole company around him.

Barnett says he has one of the easiest jobs in the world -- selling Wayne Gretzky.

"I firmly believe Idi Amin could do this job," he said.

As Gretzky signed autographs on his way to the team van after the loss in Philadelphia, incredibly at ease with having to do what most of his peers despise, he passed a 17-year-old high school senior named Donna McFadden.

Gretzky bent close to her, signed his name in her notebook, and moved on. She squealed in delight.

Once she calmed down, she sounded less like a teeny-bopper and more like Gretzky's publicist.

"He is everything that's good about hockey," she said. "He scores goals. He doesn't fight. And he is so nice.

"How could he be any better?"