Wayne Gretzky was the first player on the ice yesterday for the Los Angeles Kings' practice at Capital Centre. He also was the first player off. In each case, he was demonstrating his dedication to the sport he has dominated for 11 years.

Gretzky obviously was enjoying himself as he skated and shot the puck by himself. Later, joined by a goaltender, he tried a new tack on a breakaway -- one of his few weak spots -- by stopping quickly, spinning and somehow flipping the puck between his legs past a mesmerized Daniel Berthiaume.

"I enjoy the game more now than I ever did -- the playing itself and the camaraderies," Gretzky said. "I feel refreshed in L.A. That trade may have extended my career a few years. We get treated so well there, we want to win for management and for the fans. The one thing left in my career to accomplish is to bring a championship to L.A. If I could help do that, I'd be extremely proud."

When it was time for his teammates to clown around a bit at the conclusion of the formal practice session, Gretzky hurried to the dressing room for a shower and the start of his self-imposed homework assignment. As the most visible player in his sport, Gretzky long has felt a responsibility to sell it to an often skeptical public.

Jacket and tie replacing his working togs, Gretzky met with a contingent of area media representatives, continuing to answer questions while Scott Carmichael, the Kings' executive director for communications, nervously checked his watch and tried to move Gretzky toward his next task.

That was an anti-drug commercial that was being filmed at the Centre for use in the nation's schools. Then it was off to Greenbelt and a session signing copies of his autobiography, "Gretzky," written with Rick Reilly. This was the fourth of five such bookshop stops, with the last set for Saturday in Chicago.

Gretzky's life is full of potential distractions, yet he rarely says no and the extracurricular commitments never seem to affect his play. Gretzky goes out of his way to put hockey in the public eye, often more diligently than those who are paid to do so.

In his book, which he hopes will become a vehicle to help make changes in the leadership of the sport, Gretzky notes he once offered to fly from Toronto to Los Angeles on an off day to appear on the "Tonight Show" if the NHL would pay the cost. League officials declined, even when Gretzky offered to pay half.

"Every player on each team has a responsibility to the sport," Gretzky said. "Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux are hurt, but they've done their share, and now Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and guys like that are a big part of selling the game. We can't just play the game, pick up a paycheck and go our own way. There's more to it than that."

Gretzky is hockey's first 2,000-point man and he achieved that milestone last Friday in Winnipeg, almost two months short of his 30th birthday. Afterward, he said that 3,000 points was "out of the question" and he explained why yesterday, in a manner that sounded as if his recent back problem had raised a portent of future injury.

"In order to reach 3,000, I'd have to average 150-plus over a seven-year period," Gretzky said. "That's awfully difficult. Injuries become a factor and I've been lucky, having only two semi-serious injuries in 13 years. Right now, I'm on a good pace {26 points in 13 games}, but I'm not exactly sure how long I'll play.

"At 29 or 30, I'm not like I was at 22 or 23. When you're young, you can skate every day for hours and playing three games in four nights doesn't bother you. But as you get older, it becomes more difficult. Now I need more off-ice conditioning during the offseason and in season."

Whenever Gretzky can deflect the conversation from himself, he does so. On this visit, which will conclude with tonight's 8:05 p.m. game against the Capitals, he wanted everyone to know he and the Kings were doing well because of the superb play of his two linemates, transplanted Rangers Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom. The line has combined for 24 goals.

Comparing them to his former Edmonton linemates, Gretzky said: "Granato is tenacious, feisty, jumps into holes and plays like Esa Tikkanen. Sandstrom has a tremendous shot and a lot of hockey sense, like Jari Kurri."

Kurri is playing in Italy, one of the reasons for Edmonton's awful start, and Gretzky was asked about rumors that he might join the Kings next year.

"You'd have to go way back to find a better all-around player than Jari, and I'd be lying to say we didn't want him in L.A., but that's up to him," Gretzky said. "He took a physical pounding over here for 10 or 11 years. Now he's playing 35 games and making $1.5 million. You couldn't blame him for wanting to hang onto that."