ST. LOUIS, FEB. 8 -- It is too bad the Prince of Wales Conference does not have the right of last change in the 39th National Hockey League All-Star Game Tuesday night.

Pittsburgh center Mario Lemieux would like to skate head to head against Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky and the Wales coach, Mike Keenan of Philadelphia, indicated he would like to oblige.

However, the Campbell Conference is the home team, with the privilege of the last substitution, and Gretzky and Coach Glen Sather seemed less enthused about such a super matchup.

Keenan has not finalized his lines for the contest (ESPN, WMAL-630 at 8 p.m.) and, with six centers in the Wales lineup, indicated Lemieux might be moved to right wing.

As for Lemieux skating against Gretzky, Keenan said, "It would be fun for the fans and a challenge for both players. They're both very proud athletes and no doubt they would perform at a very high level."

Asked if he would like to go head to head with Gretzky, Lemieux replied, "Yeah, you can learn from Wayne Gretzky. He's a great hockey player and he can do so many things. Any time you're going against him, you can learn from him. It's a pleasure to be on the ice with Wayne Gretzky."

As for what he had learned from Gretzky in the past, Lemieux said, "The intensity he puts in his work. He comes to play every game and every shift on the ice he tries to do the impossible.

"I didn't have the intensity of Gretz earlier in my career. But everybody, including me, learned from playing with him in the Canada Cup. He's a great leader, the greatest player in hockey."

Gretzky indicated that he did not want the game to become a showdown between him and Lemieux.

"The all-star game is more of a fun game than competition," Gretzky said. "It's the kind of game he and I like -- skating, passing, not a lot of bumping and grinding. Just a fun thing.

"It's a spectacle, a showcase for the game and the players. It's a game where we can get rid of this image that hockey is a goon game, which is ridiculous."

Gretzky said he could understand Lemieux might be anxious to make an impression with a big effort.

"These games are great and the older you get, the more you enjoy them, because it may be your last opportunity to play with these guys," Gretzky said. "When I was 20, I came here with fire in my eyes, because I wanted to show that I could play with {Guy} Lafleur and {Mike} Bossy. I'm sure he {Lemieux} has fire in his eyes now."

Gretzky has been the dominant player in the NHL since the Oilers joined the league in 1979. He has been voted the most valuable player eight years in a row and has won seven straight scoring titles, after being edged by Marcel Dionne on the basis of goals scored in 1980, when they tied with 137 points.

Gretzky has run up record figures of 92 goals, 163 assists and 215 points. This season, however, a knee injury forced him out of 13 games and, as a result, he is trailing Lemieux by 16 points, 114-98.

"I think the race is good for hockey, but I'd rather be 40 ahead," Gretzky said. "I don't need the challenge. The last 25 games, if I play great and he wins, I'll be happy for him. But if I play poorly, I'll be upset."

Lemieux said he always checked Edmonton's box scores to see how Gretzky had fared and said, "Of course, I want to win. But the most important thing is to make the playoffs and to do that, I have to play both ends of the rink. It's been a long time for us and we need to get to the playoffs this year."

Gretzky said, "He's trying to get into the playoffs and we're trying to finish first. Most players who play this game realize you can't do it by yourself. With the Oilers, we've always wanted to win as a team and we've always considered individual trophies to be team trophies."

Despite his endorsement of the all-star game, Gretzky said, "The league needs to give everybody a break for four or five days. It rejuvenates you for the second half of the season. The guys who come here are the guys who play a lot and need the rest. Remember, a lot of us have been on the ice since Aug. 1."

One man in that category is right wing Mike Gartner, Washington's lone representative who is making his fourth all-star appearance.

"The all-star game just takes a couple of days and I think it's great," Gartner said. "It never gets stale and it's a lot of fun.

"It was different last year, when nobody was allowed to practice for five days and we had a real vacation. I had a great vacation myself, but I'd still rather have played in Rendez-Vous."

Since the Prince of Wales and Campbell conferences were formed in 1974, the Wales team has won nine of 11 all-star games, including the last three.