GREENBELT -- Wayne Gretzky didn't look like a superstar last night, as he stood in his white socks in a hotel lobby, dressed in a large, white T-shirt and baggy, green shorts that reached his knees.
But Gretzky's star is shining brightly at the moment. Fifteen years into his NHL career, he is leading the league point race going into the Los Angeles Kings' game tonight against the Washington Capitals.
"Everyone has pride," said Gretzky from behind a reddish-blond goatee and mustache. "You have to have pride. It's what makes you work harder. I enjoy being at the top. I don't think that's any different now than it was 10 years ago. I know I have my work cut out for me, but it's exciting and it's fun."
And yet this is a surprising position for The Great One. A year ago, he suffered through the worst season of his career. He missed 39 games with a herniated thoracic disk. He finished the regular season with 65 points in 45 games, the first time in his career that he produced fewer than 100.
And when reporters asked him questions, they asked about when he would retire, not when he would win his next -- his 10th -- league scoring title.
He has scored 770 goals. That's 31 shy of Gordie Howe on the all-time scoring list. He already has more assists (1,578) and more points (2,348) than anyone else in history.
Last season, however, he was called "The Average One." Sports Illustrated wrote that he was playing like someone "was standing on his cape." But then came a 40-point playoffs and a trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
No one is standing on his cape now. With five goals and 15 assists in eight games, he is off to a fast start. The man who will challenge him for the Art Ross Trophy that goes to the scoring champ, Mario Lemieux, has yet to play a game. But it likely will take 160 or 170 points to beat Lemieux to the trophy.
"I know no one thinks I can do it," Gretzky said. "But if this team keeps playing with the same effort it is showing now [the Kings are 5-1-2], I'll capitalize and the points will come. I believe I can win it, as long I stay focused and healthy."
At 32, with a new, three-year contract worth $25.5 million, Gretzky is making no concession to age on the ice.
Washington center Mike Ridley has lined up against him in the past, and Capitals coach Terry Murray said Ridley is likely to pull the assignment again tonight. And when Ridley talks about the frustrations of defensing Gretzky, he is talking about the same frustrations in every meeting.
"I can't do it alone," Ridley said. "It will take a five-man unit. Basically, he spends a lot of time behind our net, setting up the guys in front. It gets you uptight when he's back there, because you can't really get at him to defense him, it's hard to chase him and you have to keep reminding yourself to watch the other guys.
"And right now, he's playing at the top of his game. I have to laugh a little, the way everyone is talking about his resurgence. When you have talent like that, it doesn't get up and walk away overnight."
And if you have Gretzky's pride, you make sure it doesn't go away in the off-season either. It is his one concession to age off the ice.
"If you're over 30, you better work out and be ready," he said. "When I was 21 or 24, I never worked out in the off-season. I was single, and I'd set off to see the world, coast to coast. Now, I don't go away. I stay in L.A. and spend my time preparing for the next season."
When he got to training camp this fall, he said he felt strong and ready. His back "is as good as any back in the NHL," and he is ready for whatever comes.
"I was watching the Michael Jordan retirement press conference on television," Gretzky said. "I heard him talking about how when he was starting to prepare to come back this season, he'd get distracted and couldn't push himself to get ready.
"It was so different for me this summer. I found when I started working out, it would lead me to more workouts. I couldn't wait for the next one. I couldn't wait to get back and start playing. I wanted so much to be part of this run we're on to get back to the Cup finals."
Opponent: Los Angeles Kings
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
Radio: WMAL (630 AM)
Tickets: 2,600 available
Outlook: After getting their first win Saturday, 4-3, against Buffalo, the Caps have had the week off. The Kings are 5-1-2 and unbeaten in their past seven games. They lead the NHL in goals scored with 42, and Wayne Gretzky leads the league in points with 20 (five goals, 15 assists). The Kings report no injuries. Washington continues without G Olie Kolzig (kneecap) and G Rick Tabaracci (knee ligaments). Tabaracci, who is testing his knee and conditioning with the AHL's Portland Pirates, made 28 saves Wednesday in a 3-2 win.