ST. LOUIS -- As the NHL playoffs begin, it's easy to think time has stood still for Wayne Gretzky. He glides effortlessly over the ice, makes steals, picks up loose pucks and starts plays from behind his net -- the place he calls his office.
But this is not Edmonton, where Gretzky began his ascent. And it is not Los Angeles, where he was a King in every sense.
This is St. Louis, and Gretzky, 35, -- yearning for one more Stanley Cup ring -- is part of a tumultuous team that will need more than his prowess alone to win the playoffs, which the Blues start at Toronto tonight.
St. Louis has traded fan favorites Brendan Shanahan and Curtis Joseph, and the front office is at loggerheads with longtime star Brett Hull.
The Blues enter the playoffs on a 1-7-4 slide that cost them home-ice advantage in the opening round.
It's not the dream team that Gretzky and Hull envisioned. Put that pair in a blender, mix well with the rest of the Blues and you've got liquid gold, right?
More like fool's gold.
"Wayne has gotten virtually no support from his teammates since he's been here," said Mike Keenan, the team's coach and general manager. "It's embarrassing, and I feel badly, because this is not what he came here for."
Gretzky arrived late in February, in a deal that sent forwards Craig Johnson, Roman Vopat and Patrice Tardif, plus two draft picks, to Los Angeles. Since then, St. Louis has gone 6-10-5.
Gretzky missed three games with a sore back before returning for the team's last game in Chicago. In 18 Blues games, he has eight goals and 13 assists.
"We're not in rhythm," said Hull. "It's not just Wayne and me, it's the whole team trying to find the rhythm. . . I said from the beginning I didn't think it would be this difficult. But we have a hard time clicking as a line because we really don't have a line. One game, we had eight different guys.
"But that's how it has been this season. We have no tradition since Mike [Keenan] has been here. Nothing stays the same. Everything is in constant motion. . . . We don't know what's coming. If Wayne wanted to go to a solid organization that was going in the direction of the Cup, well, you never know. . . strange things have happened in the playoffs."
Gretzky, back in the playoffs for the first time in three years, isn't sure what's ahead. After the Blues' 2-2 tie in Chicago, he sent mixed messages.
"I'm really happy to be back in the playoffs, and I've really enjoyed my time in St. Louis," he said. "In the playoffs, everyone starts at zero."
But the Blues had 46 shots in a 3-2 loss at Colorado last week and managed two goals on 50 shots Sunday, two occurrences that caused Gretzky some worry.
"I've never been on a team that hasn't scored when it's had chances," said Gretzky, sounding mystified. "We kept getting the opportunities we wanted. We were just snake bitten."
But even before those last two games and before his back trouble, Gretzky seemed worried.
His smile was tight, hidden behind the growth of a blond goatee, and his answers short.
"We've got to understand each other to a man that we've got to win," Gretzky said. "It's not a funeral, but everyone is very disappointed."
The game in St. Louis is one of high-stakes poker. Blues president Jack Quinn has assembled an all-star cast in his quest for this season's Stanley Cup.
By bringing Gretzky to town, he has tried again to show the Blues will do what it takes to win. And he hopes to reinforce the message this week by completing a long-term contract to keep Gretzky a Blue. Gretzky reportedly is asking for about $7 million a year for the next three seasons.
The fans, who have been in an uproar all season over Keenan's moves, have responded.
It appears, that even if the Blues don't go all the way, the arrival of Gretzky has paid off off the ice.
Bruce Affleck, the team's vice president of sales, said the Blues had 23,000 tickets left for the last nine home games before Gretzky was traded. Thirty-six hours after the deal was announced, the new 20,000-seat Keil Center was sold out for the rest of the season.
"His coming has been much bigger than I thought," said Affleck, who played in the NHL for 10 years. "I knew it was a big deal. I just didn't think it would change the demand the way it did. Fans were questioning Mike Keenan's moves, ticket prices are high. To see this, I just didn't expect it."
Sitting in his Keil Center office, Quinn waxes poetic about Gretzky.
Ah, The Great Gretzky," he said, as if reciting an ode. "There is the Great Salt Lake and a Great Wall of China. And there's only one Great Gretzky. And he's a Blue."
That has been enough to give the team a boost -- but only at the gate. What hasn't happened -- and what Gretzky came to St. Louis for -- is for The Great One and the Blues to come together for a storybook finish. But time is running out.
Pub Date: 4/16/96