Los Angeles King hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky suffered a herniated disk in the thoracic region of his back. The unusual injury was not immediately diagnosed during the 1991-1992 season. Prospects for the 1992-1993 season are analyzed.
Ever since he became a public figure at age 10, hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky’s life has seemed like one perpetual highlight film. He shoots, he scores. He breaks records, he wins games. He hoists the Stanley Cup, he marries a beautiful movie star in a ceremony that rivals a royal wedding.
Hollywood stuff. But last week, fans of Wayne’s world got a reality check. Having left the Los Angeles Kings’ training camp to be with his wife, Janet Jones, for the birth of their third child, Gretzky was felled by a terrible pain in his ribs and chest that, for a time, left him struggling to breathe. He was admitted to Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, where doctors found a herniated disc in the thoracic region of his spine. They said that Gretzky may yet recover completely with rest and rehabilitation–but they could not say when. And there was no guarantee that Gretzky would respond to treatment. Suddenly, fans had to grasp the unhappy possibility that the man who had elevated hockey to something approaching performance art may have put on his last show.
This was not supposed to happen to Number 99, on whom the sun always seemed to shine. Never mind that Gretzky, 31, last won a Stanley Cup in 1988, or that he scored a career-low 121 points last season. He remains, in the hockey world, the Great One, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer and the man many experts consider the greatest player the game has ever known. Last week, however, the Great One was just a guy lying gingerly on a sofa in Los Angeles, taking calls from friends and the odd reporter–hardly highlight-film material. And even while the voice on the other end of the telephone last week was undeniably familiar, it was strained at times, cracking with discomfort each time he painfully shifted position. But Gretzky was quick to say in an interview with Maclean’s that after six days in hospital he was feeling better, if not pain-free, and thankfully was no longer confined to bed. “The doctors are encouraging me to move around,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ll be playing any tennis.”
Gretzky’s injury is a mystery both to himself and to his medical team. He said that he could not think of one specific moment when it might have occurred. He began to feel the pain in his chest late last winter, but the demands of the late season and playoffs prohibited him from taking time to rest. Grant Fuhr, a longtime friend and now a Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender, said that his former Edmonton Oilers teammate had taken a constant beating over the years. “I know guys would work him around the net,” Fuhr said after a practice last week at the Leafs’ training camp in Collingwood, Ont. “But they had to. It was the only way to keep him off the board. Otherwise, he’d end up with 200 points a year.”
What puzzles doctors about the injury is its location. The more common disc injuries suffered by athletes such as Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Dave Stieb and Gretzky’s fellow hockey star Mario Lemieux were located in the lumbar, or lower, region of the back. Herniations of discs in the thoracic area–from below the neck to mid-back–are much less common. Dr. Robert Watkins, a spine consultant from the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles who is overseeing the rehabilitation process, said that, partly because there are not enough case studies of people with similar afflictions, he has no way of predicting when or if Gretzky will recover.
The problem was not even immediately diagnosed last season because the pain suggested other problems. “I had this pain in my chest and ribs all of March, April and May, and at the time we just thought that I’d hurt a rib,” said Gretzky, whose skating and shooting were restricted by the problem. “I had about four rib X-rays because I thought I may have broken a rib, or torn cartilage in my rib cage.” The pain subsided over the summer, but returned when Gretzky went to training camp in September. After visiting his wife in the maternity ward last week, he went to the sports clinic at Centinela, where Dr. Ronald Kvitne, the Kings’ team physician, ordered a magnetic resonance imaging test–producing a more sophisticated image than an X-ray–that revealed the herniated disc. “I just assumed that it was a small, minor thing and they were going to look at it and say: `Do this for a week or two and you’ll be back playing hockey,’ ” Gretzky recalled.
Far from coasting into his final years, Gretzky appeared to have rededicated himself to hockey. He rested for a few weeks after the Kings’ early departure from the playoffs last spring, trying to shake off the lingering pain in his chest, then embarked on the most strenuous conditioning program of his career. “In the off-season, I felt that I was still a pretty good athlete and still a long way from being `finished,’ ” said Gretzky. He rented ice time at a suburban Los Angeles arena and, with personal trainer Randy Huntington, did daily drills for seven weeks to improve his leg and upper-body strength. “I put on about 15 pounds and was probably in better shape than I have ever been in,” Gretzky says. “That’s what seems to be so strange about the injury: we put it through so much through late July and all of August, and it was fine. We did a lot of weight work, a lot of stretching and a lot of back exercises because of my [previous] back situation.”
Stir-crazy: Unused to being idle at this time of the year, Gretzky says that he is resigned to being patient and trusting his doctors’ advice. “I’ve got to keep a positive approach,” he says, “because if I start feeling antsy or thinking I can play hockey next week, I’ll go stir-crazy.” Characteristically, he has found a silver lining, saying that he is enjoying the unexpected time with his wife and newborn son, Trevor. The injury allowed him to be home last week when his daughter, three-year-old Paulina, went to preschool for the first time. And two-year-old Ty, who Gretzky says is “already a sportaholic,” has delighted his father by becoming a hockey nut just from watching games on television. “We can’t get him away from it,” said Gretzky, adding: “Quite honestly, it has been nice to spend this time at home.”
But the Kings and their owner, Bruce McNall, will sorely miss him (page 58). In 1988, McNall traded $18 million, three first-round draft choices and two players to the Oilers in return for Gretzky and two others, in the belief that the Brantford, Ont. native could turn hockey into a major attraction in Los Angeles. For the most part, the strategy has worked. Perennial also-rans who struggled to attract fans to the Great Western Forum, the Kings suddenly found that their tickets, local television rights and merchandise were hot commodities. McNall says that the team posted a profit in the first season with Gretzky after losing $6 million the year before. Last year, the Kings sold out every home game. Marketing analysts say that Gretzky provided the superstar quality needed to attract fans in a city that was immune to mere stars. Dan Schrier, executive vice-president at Ohlmeyer Communications, a Los Angeles television production company and a transplanted New Yorker, never attended hockey games when living on the east coast. But in Los Angeles, he said, “I would go because I was drawn by Gretzky.”
The Kings also improved on the ice, but have so far been unable to win a Stanley Cup, a feat that both McNall and Gretzky have acknowledged as their main aim in their bid to solidify the sport in the major West Coast market. The disc injury is just the latest reminder that Gretzky’s biological clock is ticking, and with it his hopes of winning a cup with the Kings. Over the last two years, the club has traded away young prospects and draft choices to acquire veterans for the short term. The team even attempted to recreate the once-magical chemistry that won four Stanley Cups for the Edmonton Oilers by reuniting Gretzky with his former Oiler teammates and friends Charlie Huddy, Paul Coffey and sniper Jari Kurri.
But the Kings have not advanced past the second of four playoff rounds in four straight years, and some fans have become critical of their star. A persistent criticism last season was that Gretzky had too much influence over the makeup of the team. The acquisition of Kurri, Gretzky’s longtime winger in Edmonton, cost the team popular defenceman Steve Duchesne. “I love Wayne and I am glad he was here, but offence was never the Kings’ problem,” said longtime Kings fan Richard Rosen. “They still have firepower, but they have never corrected the defence. More than anything, I think they miss Duchesne.” Gretzky, however, scoffs at the notion that he controls personnel decisions. If he did, he said, the team would never have traded away star centre Bernie Nicholls or his friend Mike Krushelnyski, now with Toronto.
More commonly, some hockey watchers question whether Gretzky, a professional since age 17, has simply become tired. “He came into the league at 18 and averaged at least 30 minutes a game,” said Leafs president Cliff Fletcher, who saw a lot of Gretzky while he was general manager of the Calgary Flames during the late 1980s. “Then there were all the playoff games he was in at Edmonton. He has played an awful lot of hockey.”
Others suggest that Gretzky may have succumbed to the many-splendored distractions of Los Angeles. The boy from Brantford found himself in the company of movie, television and sports celebrities, and making appearances on late-night talk shows. Then there were the endorsements for soft drinks, athletic shoes and rental cars.
But Gretzky and those who know him insist that, while his lifestyle may have changed, he still puts hockey on a special, separate pedestal. He turned down the Walt Disney Co. in 1989 when approached to make an instant “After this, I’m going to Disneyland” television commercial, which the company wanted to shoot the moment he finally eclipsed Gordie Howe’s long-standing career-points record. Gretzky said that he did not want to take anything away from an important milestone in his life. And other players said they see no sign that he is shirking his vaunted reputation for playing–and practising–hard. “He was getting so much ice time,” said Krushelnyski, denying suggestions that Gretzky was any less committed last season, “and he never dogged it.”
Shaken: But Gretzky’s 1991-1992 season was certainly his most trying, both on and off the ice. He suffered a lower back injury while playing in the pre-season Canada Cup tournament after being checked heavily into the boards by American defenceman Gary Suter. The injury knocked him out of the tournament and forced him to start the season suffering from lower-back pain. Then, when his father, Walter, nearly died from a brain aneurysm in October, he left the team for several games to be with his dad in a Hamilton, Ont., hospital. Gretzky is hesitant to comment on his father’s recovery, although he has acknowledged in the past that he was badly shaken by Walter’s illness.
But Gretzky has always been his own worst critic, musing more than once last year about quitting hockey. “I just feel that my contribution to the team last season was not up to the standard that I am accustomed to,” he told Maclean’s last week. “I don’t want to make any excuses. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen.” And Gretzky said that he shares the fans’ impatience. “One of the things I had to do when I got here was to help sell hockey, and I think we made some great strides in that area,” he said. “The next thing was to create an organization that expected to win. And I think we’ve made strides in that way too. The third thing to do was to win [the Stanley Cup], but we have yet to accomplish that. So we are two-thirds of the way there.”
Marquee: Kings officials tried last week to offset negative conjecture about how Gretzky’s absence might affect the team. “It isn’t a one-man sport, so we feel we can still be competitive this season,” said McNall. But brave words did little to counter the image that the NHL without Gretzky was like Prince Charles without Diana–still there, but not nearly as interesting. ESPN, the sports cable network that had just signed an $80-million five-year agreement to telecast NHL games in the United States, announced that it may replace its scheduled Nov. 10 Kings-Winnipeg Jets game with an Edmonton Oilers-St.Louis Blues game. “No sport can afford to lose its marquee players,” said the Leafs’ Fletcher. “Look at the National Basketball Association if Michael Jordan goes down, especially after losing Magic Johnson. Wayne is probably the most important player in the league as far as image and marketability in the United States go, and we can only pray and hope he can come back.”
The consuming discussion about what hockey would be without Gretzky obscured the more personal matter of what Gretzky would be without hockey. He said that while he is determined to concentrate on overcoming his injury and returning to play, the painful reminder of his professional mortality has caused him to look beyond his sporting life. “To say that I haven’t thought about retirement would be a lie,” he said. “What am I going to do? I don’t know.” But Gretzky quickly dismissed further thoughts of life without hockey. “If I lose my focus about being positive toward this treatment, my thought processes might turn negative about ever coming back,” he said. “So what I have to try to do is remain focused on the immediate future, which is the next three or four months, to try to do whatever I can.”
Spotlight: His determination to defy skeptics has been a lifelong trait. Gretzky has been in the spotlight since, while a 10-year-old playing in the Brantford Atom league, he scored 378 goals in 69 games. But he now recalls that year as both a dream and a nightmare, and as the first time he ever experienced true unhappiness. Subsequently, he was hounded for interviews, and he was booed and screamed at by parents of players on opposing teams, and even his own team. At 14, he had to move away from Brantford in order to play hockey in relative anonymity. “I don’t think that I was shortchanged,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want other kids to have to go through the pressures and the baloney that I had to go through.”
That said, he admits that hockey has given as good as it has got. “All in all,” he said, “I’ve been very fortunate and I think that I have been a lot of great places and met a lot of great people through hockey.” And in a time when he might slip into despondency, Gretzky appears to have landed on his feet as always–even if he happens to be flat on his back. “For me, the last few days have been really nice because a lot of my friends have been calling with words of encouragement,” he said. “The people around you are so important, and if they are positive and upbeat, then you’re going to be that way yourself.” Now, as fans get a preview of what it might feel like to do without Wayne Gretzky, they might do well to remember that hockey will go on because it is a great game. Gretzky just made it better.
Leave it to Wayne Gretzky, the most exceptional hockey player of his time, to be sidelined by what Los Angeles Kings’ team doctor Robert Watkins called a “one-in-a-million” injury. Some back specialists claim that they never see a single patient suffering from a herniated disc in the thoracic–or middle–region of the spine, where Gretzky’s injury occurred. Movement in that part of the back is limited, and the area is supported by the ribs and chest, making it less vulnerable than the neck and lower spine to injury. Specialists see so few cases that there is no agreement on even how or why such injuries occur. Said Toronto orthopedist Dr. Hamilton Hall, founder of the Canadian Back Institute: “It’s so rare that there’s really no pattern to it.”
Discs are basically the shock absorbers of the spine. Formed of a Plasticine-like material encased in tough fibres, the discs act as cushions between each of the 24 vertebrae. Dr. James Watkins, executive vice-president of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, explains that when a person with an uninjured spine bends forward, the gelatinous material in the centre is pushed against the retaining fibres. Should the fibres tear and the gelatin protrude–or “herniate”–the pressure may irritate spinal nerves. Depending on the seriousness of the disc injury, Watkins added, the resulting pain can range from slight discomfort to agony.
When the herniated disc is at an advanced stage, back specialists may opt to surgically remove the bulging portion of the disc, often allowing the two vertebrae to fuse together. But Hall says that 85 per cent of disc ruptures with nerve pressure get better on their own. A specialized exercise program can minimize discomfort and promote healing. But recovery may take up to six months or longer, and even then the incidence of the injury recurring remains high for about two years. If Gretzky’s condition responds to that treatment, after two years he will be no more at risk of a herniated disc than someone who has never had a spinal injury. But if not, then he may find that, sometimes, being one in a million has its down side.