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LOVE OF THE GAME SETS THE GREAT ONE APART

TAMPA, Fla. -- Are we all done telling Wayne Gretzky what to do with his life now?

A man two days removed from his 38th birthday Sunday put on a dominating performance and walked away from the National Hockey League All-Star Game with yet another most valuable player award.

Dominik Hasek, the man Gretzky designated as the best player in the game the past two seasons, didn't win it. Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya, both tabbed as the next Great Ones, didn't win it. Jaromir Jagr, 10 years Gretzky's junior and last season's scoring champion, didn't win it. Nor did Teemu Selanne, John LeClair, Mike Modano, Mats Sundin, Alexei Yashin or Peter Forsberg, all of whom are contending for the scoring title this season and have been tabbed as possible heirs to the Gretzky throne.

Gretzky won it and he did it going away.

"I have to say this means a lot to me," he said as he accepted his third MVP and first in a decade. "I came here thinking this could be my last All-Star Game and I wanted it to be special. Of course, I remember thinking that last year in Vancouver, so I guess I'll just take each day as it comes."

Gretzky first won this award in 1983 when the game was played on Long Island. He won it again in 1989 and now again in 1999. Twenty years an NHL player. A pro hockey player for 21 years. This was his 18th consecutive All-Star game and one of his best. Not bad for a guy who has played when No. 9 was worn by Gordie Howe and 20 years later when it's being carried by Kariya.

"What he did out there was magic," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff after he watched his World squad fall, 8-6, largely because of Gretzky's efforts. "Even when they didn't finish off his passes, they were still great passes. You know a skill player like that gets a little bit of an advantage in an All-Star Game, but I've seen him make those kinds of passes in the regular season and in the playoffs. That one he made to (Mark) Recchi, I swear he could do that blindfolded."

Over a stick, through some legs, right onto the tape of Recchi's stick. The Montreal forward needed only to let the puck hit the blade before it was behind Hasek.

"I had it in my head that it was Wayne Gretzky and that he was going to shoot," said Hasek. "I don't know why, I should have known. Once he made the pass, though, I knew it was in the net."

Hasek wasn't disappointed with his play. The first period of an All-Star encounter is always a wide-open affair, and Hasek conceded Gretzky's passing opened up the game for the North American squad.

Even the chances that didn't go in had the crowd oohing and ahhing in amazement. In a brief flurry near game's end, Gretzky set up two players who simply missed the net. Another shot went into the goalie. And Gretzky himself shot just wide off a small opening that goalie Arturs Irbe didn't even know he gave him.

By the time postgame came around, even Gretzky was willing to go with the moment.

"You know in my career I played 20 years, 21 years as a pro, and I have gone through winning awards, cars and I think that -- I don't know the exact number I've been fortunate enough to win -- but I've never kept one car. And I'm going to keep this one (awarded to the MVP). It's like a memento to me. I want to keep it; I want to have it.

"When you play in this league, you have to have talent. To stay around for a long time you have to love the game and you have to not only play hard, but practice hard. Guys like Raymond (Bourque) and (Larry) Murphy and myself, we really love to play. We come and we practice hard and we enjoy the game. And these kind of things are lots of fun. We don't look at this as an obligation; we don't look at this as something we have to do; we look at this as a privilege. We love to get out there.

"To me this is what I do. It is what I am and I love it."

It is what I am and I love it!

How many athletes can play, let alone dominate, their sport for 20 years and still say they love it? Love getting up every morning and going to the rink. Love climbing onto a bus or a plane and going somewhere in the dead of winter with a team that might not even make the playoffs?

How many athletes can walk into a building knowing every night they have to not just put on a show, but put on THE show and then talk about it afterward?

Can you imagine Albert Belle being a lifelong spokesman for the joys of playing baseball? Michael Jordan was special, but who else is a man among men in the NBA today? Do you get a warm, fuzzy feeling watching Dan Marino as a spokesman for the greater joys of playing NFL football?

Gretzky still does that.

Before the game, Gretzky participated in a ceremonial faceoff with hockey legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard. In the few moments they had together at center ice, Gretzky told Richard that one of the greatest parts of the game is its history. He said the game had the Stanley Cup and the Original Six and stars who created the game long before he burst upon it. He thanked Richard for the part he played.

"I told him sometimes there are guys that don't get as much recognition as they deserve for getting the game to the level that it is today. And I was telling him I wanted to make sure I shook his hand and that the National Hockey League was lucky to have him in the game, and that it was a great honor for any player who gets an opportunity to win his (Richard's) trophy (as a scoring champion).

"And I said he was a wonderful representative of the game."

Do we really want this guy out? Do we really want him to play by our rules?

I don't. I hope Wayne Gretzky plays forever. I know it can't happen, but I hope he at least plays the game, talks the game, walks the game, eats, sleeps and speaks the game for as long as he wants to.

Because when the day comes that he finally walks away, we won't have the greatest player the game has ever known anymore.

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