Failure, scandal, grief

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 6:42 AM ET

He spent the last few days with a gravely ill brother in-law, hopped a plane and scrambled to Edmonton just in time to see his team get walloped 7-1.

If you could sum Wayne Gretzky's season up in one day, that was it.

For as long as we've known him, the Great One seemed to lead a charmed life and enjoy a spotless career.

Now, it's as though his invisible force field is broken and all the personal and professional hardships that couldn't touch him before have set on him all at once.

Where there used to be championships, glory and good fortune, there is failure, scandal and grief.

"It's been, obviously, not fun,'' Gretzky said of the last 24 hours.

"Unfortunately in life everyone sort of goes through these things and this one kind of came out of nowhere. He's a really young guy.

''We got knocked down on this one, we didn't see it coming. This was pretty tough.''

It's been one kick after another.

An Olympic team failure. A gambling scandal that involved his assistant coach, implicated his wife and ignited a North American media frenzy.

A team that won't make the playoffs.

And that's not even the worst of it.

Not even close. Gretzky lost his mother and his grandmother weeks apart and now another close relative fights for his life.

"I don't have a lot of words on this one,'' said Gretzky, speaking softly into a bank of cameras and notebooks.

"He's a really young guy, a wonderful person. He's got a big battle ahead of him, but we've got a lot of friends and family and great support around. He's got a great attitude right now.''

RIGHT THING TO DO

As much as his wife needed him, Gretzky knew his team needed him too.

"I wanted to be back with the guys and be here tonight,'' he said.

"I love coming back to Edmonton. It was the right thing to do, go home yesterday and come back today.

''I went back there (Sunday) and spent some time with him in the morning. We're back again on Wednesday night so I'll be home.''

Through it all, Gretzky's players say he's been the picture of grace, courage and dedication, never allowing his personal sorrows to impact his work.

"He's been unbelievable,'' said defenceman Derek Morris. "He's done a really good job of keeping our team focused. I don't know if there are too many players who could play well in the situation he's been in, let alone coach well.

"There's a lot more pressure in coaching and a lot more work than you have as a player.

''It shows you how professional he is and how much he loves the game.''

Netminder Curtis Joseph is equally impressed with Gretzky's strength and focus.

"It's been a tough year as far as family issues and the Olympics,'' he said.

"But certainly he's handled it with class and dignity. We're just trying to do our part by winning.''

PRETTY GOOD HOCKEY

They didn't yesterday, but he does have them playing some pretty good hockey down the stretch (7-3-0 in the 10 games before they ran into the Oiler buzz saw).

"It was a tough loss for us because as a team we've been playing pretty well,'' said Gretzky.

"It's actually been a good few weeks for our team, how we've come together. We just played a team that played extremely hard, really well, played desperate hockey. They deserved to win the hockey game. You're going to have nights like that.''

The season didn't turn out the way they'd hoped, but Mike Comrie, who grew up in Edmonton watching the glory years firsthand, says playing for 99 is everything he expected and more.

"It's been really special,'' he said.

"We had some issues that we've dealt with as a team, but to play for someone you grew up idolizing, for me, it's a great opportunity that I will always cherish in my career.

"You look at Wayne and what he's done for the game - anytime someone like that goes through personal problems you want to be there for him.

''As players all we can do is play as hard as we can for him.''


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