Wayne Gretzky has been a star in the National Hockey League for long enough to look very much at ease when doing such things as appearing on the David Letterman show. And while it is next to impossible to forget about a player who has won the MVP trophy each of the six seasons he's played in the NHL, the last two times Lord Stanley's Cup was sent out to be engraved, it didn't come back reading "Wayne Gretzky and friends."
It said "Edmonton Oilers."
"You can't win two Stanley Cups and stay in first place with one hockey player," Edmonton Coach Glen Sather said yesterday. "Hockey is not a game of individuals, but a game of teams. Wayne is a focal point, but he's not the only guy. There are a lot of great players on this team. All you have to do is look at the numbers."
The Oilers, who will be at Capital Centre tonight at 7:30 to face the Washington Capitals, have four players among the top 10 scorers. Gretzky leads the league with 145 points (38 goals, 107 assists), but defenseman Paul Coffey is third with 87 (28, 59), right wing Jari Kurri is fifth with 81 (39, 42) and Glenn Anderson is ninth with 75 (39, 36).
And although fan voting is not always an accurate measure of talent, it was Coffey, not Gretzky, who received the most votes for the all-star game, in which nine Oilers participated.
Last season, Coffey, a 24-year-old from Weston, Ontario, who is in his sixth NHL season, won the Norris Trophy, given to the league's best defenseman. He also is the only defenseman besides Bobby Orr to score 40 goals in a season, and is on pace to score 50 this year.
"I think a lot of us play important roles . . . actually all 20 of us in our own way," Coffey said yesterday after the team arrived in Washington by train after the weather forced cancellation of its flight from New York.
Gretzky's great fame in the United States, not to mention Canada, doesn't bother anybody, according to Coffey.
"That's one of the reasons we're successful," Coffey said of Gretzky. "Any recognition Wayne gets, he deserves. And anytime I've seen him interview for newspapers or television, he's always quick to mention the rest of us."
Are the Oilers getting better? And how much better could they get?
"I don't know," Sather said. "It's not an objective thing. And there's no sense BS-ing -- either you're there when it's all finished or you're not.
"We're no different than any other team. There's 10 or 12 guys that form the nucleus, and the team goes the way they go. If the players maintain the proper life style, if they are dedicated . . . it's when you start becoming something you're not that you get to be like any other team. Athletes don't lose ability; they lose desire."
Sather, cautiously, said he thinks his players are smart enough to recognize a good situation when they see one.
"I think they realize what they've got," Sather said. "If they don't, they're pretty stupid. Not that many people get a chance to be the best in whatever they've chosen as a profession."
Coffey seems to be among those cognizant of the situation.
"Definitely," he said when asked if the Oilers can get better. "A lot of the top players haven't hit their peak. If you look back to when the New York Islanders were winning the Cup, their guys were 26, 27, 28. Our guys are 24, 25.
"We all know we have a chance to become one of the greatest, if not the greatest, team, in terms of Stanley Cups. We've won two, but from management on down, that doesn't seem like a lot to us. It would be a waste if we only won two. And from the players' standpoint -- and I think I can speak for everybody -- we can only get better if we want to work. And there's a lot of younger players trying to establish themselves. I mean we've won two two Stanley Cups, which is a great accomplishment, but we really haven't done anything with the talent we have."