Wayne Gretzky is excited. He is 34 years old, but he is playing with an entirely new line and for a team that comes into USAir Arena tonight with an unbeaten record.
"All that's left for me is to win another championship," he said. "The individual and personal goals are pretty much over and done with. So for me, the opportunity to lift one more Stanley Cup is all I have left."
And he'd like it to happen this year. He will turn 35 in January. Time is running out. He looks around him and finds himself "the old man" on his line. The league's all-time leader in goals, assists and points remembers when he was 18 and 19 years old and the advice he got from his 31- and 32-year-old linemates.
"It goes by fast," said Gretzky, who is in his 18th year in pro $$ hockey. "Before you know it, it's over and done with. . . . when those guys told me savor every one of my years, that they go by quickly, I can remember thinking, 'Oh, yeah, it's going to be a long time before I'm 31, and all of a sudden, bang, you're 31."
And suddenly, your right wing is 20-year-old rookie Vitali Yachmenev and your left wing is former Washington Capitals veteran Dimitri Khristich.
"It's always exciting with two new people, and this one is a little different because it's a young kid," Gretzky said. "There are going to be nights where he's outstanding because he's so talented. And there are going to be times when he is going to have a tougher time. For me it's a new challenge to help him through that. Dimitri and I have to explain to him that there are 80 games and there are going to be bad nights."
It's an interesting combination, this new Gretzky line. Each member is at a different stage in his career, and yet each one sees an opportunity for a fresh start.
"I'm enjoying what's happening for me," said Khristich. "I hear [Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld] said I had reached a point where I didn't want to play hockey anymore. Well, [in Washington], I would say I forgot how to play hockey. In L.A. it is a different style and I enjoy it more. . . . Gretz makes wonderful passes."
The line has combined for six goals and 12 assists in the team's first five games. Yachmenev's four goals are tied for best on the team with Rick Tocchet. Gretzky has one goal and a team-leading six assists, and his seven points are tied for second best on the team.
"Khristy is a natural hockey player who works very hard," said Gretzky. "He'll take many hits to make a play. And when you trade a first-round pick for a player, you've got to get some talent back, and we obviously did with Khristy.
"Sometimes, timing is everything," added Gretzky. "Sometimes you need a change, and the organization you've been with needs a change. In L.A., Khristy and I clicked and played well together from the beginning."
Because of that, and because he sees the Kings as younger yet stronger, Gretzky sees a team that reminds him a little bit of the Kings of three years ago. The team that came out of nowhere to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to Montreal.
"All you play for is the Stanley Cup," he said. "Three years ago, going to the Finals against Montreal and not winning was painful for everyone. But the great thing about our sport is that as fast as you can get there you can leave, and as quickly as you've left you can get back."
Gretzky said that while his four Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers were tremendous, nothing quite matched the feeling he had with the Kings against Montreal.
"I don't know if I ever enjoyed hockey more than I did the year we lost in the Finals to Montreal, because, you know, we just weren't supposed to be there. And we got there. It was a great feeling, one I'd never had before."
The Kings aren't supposed to be great this season, primarily because they went through so much last year.
The season was just 48 games long. Gretzky scored just 48 points, a human 11 goals and 37 assists. His L.A. Kings were a disaster area. Their now-former owner, Bruce McNall, faced zTC bank-fraud charges and the Kings were put on the selling block.
Only last week was the sale of the team completed.
During the off-season, Gretzky wanted to get in the best possible shape and be mentally and physically prepared to have the best year he is capable of having.
Gretzky, the ultimate team player, admits he wants another Cup for himself -- not for Los Angeles, not for his team, but, truthfully, just for himself.
"Hockey is pretty strong in Los Angeles," he said. "The Kings, the Ducks, the Sharks, hockey is solid. And, yes, I'd love L.A. fans to have a Cup because of the way they supported us the last eight years. . . . But I haven't won it in eight years. It's been so long ago, I don't really remember winning it. I don't really remember what it feels like. To win it one last time would be the icing on the cake for my career."
Site: USAir Arena, Landover
TV/Radio: HTS/WWLG (1360 AM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: The Capitals (4-2) had their three-game winning streak ended by the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night, 4-2. G Byron Dafoe (2-0-3, 2.85 GAA) is expected to start for the Kings (2-0-3), who tied the Philadelphia Flyers, 1-1, at home Wednesday. L.A.'s No. 1 goalie, Kelly Hrudey (sprained ankle), is on injured reserve and yet to play. D Philippe Boucher (wrist) is also out. The Caps will have either Jim Carey (4-1, 2.07 GAA) or Olie Kolzig (0-1, 1.24 GAA) in goal. The Caps are without LW Craig Berube (broken jaw) and LW Steve Konowalchuk (separated shoulder).