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THE GREAT ONE RETIRES / Huge Loss and a Celebration / Teammates

Darren Langdon surrounded his locker stall with three Wayne Gretzky

sticks, an autographed No. 99 jersey and a few pucks. "This is only

today's work," he said. "I got things signed by everybody. They call me

a weasel." The booty will end up on the wall at his bar, "Langer's," in

Deer Lake, Newfoundland, which is about as far from the New York

limelight as you can get.

They know Gretzky in Deer Lake, a town with one movie theater that

has closed. If there is one satellite dish, it will be tuned into

Madison Square Garden today, when The Great One says his final farewell

to hockey. In Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles, arena scoreboards

are carrying the pregame ceremonies.

"I'm nervous," Gretzky said. "It's going to be a wonderful day. I was

telling the young guys that it's something for them to remember. This is

what it's like to get to the Stanley Cup Finals. This kind of mass media

is wonderful. This is how exciting it can be. For guys like Manny

[Malhotra] and [Dan] Cloutier and [Marc] Savard, this is something that

will benefit them and the New York Rangers down the road."

Only Gretzky would think of how his big day affects everyone else.

He repeatedly has said how much he will miss his teammates, that he most

cherishes those 10 private minutes in the locker room before a game,

when 20 men dressed in red, white and blue are the only people in the

universe.

Yesterday, after his last practice at Rye Playland, Gretzky's

teammates banged the ice with their sticks and circled around him. Then

Gretzky gathered all the Rangers - players, trainers, equipment men,

the public relations representative and staff masseur - for a team

photo. Gretzky knelt in the middle, smiling. Langdon, the team enforcer,

and defenseman Rumun Ndur jostled to be near him.

"This is the happiest he's been all year," Kevin Stevens said. "It's

a lot of heat off him."

Signs of adoration littered the locker room. In Gretzky's stall lay a

bouquet of carnations and two homemade collages from fans. Just after a

media briefing, 11-year-old Jennifer Russo of Rye and 10-year-old Amy

Ferraro of Purchase, members of the Rye Synchronized Skating Team,

muscled their way through towering photographers to hand Gretzky a

half-dozen white roses. "I've met other stars . . . ," said Jennifer,

"but he's the biggest one," finished Amy.

Don't, however, expect his No. 99 jersey to be raised to the rafters

this afternoon: Gretzky told the Rangers he would not have his number

retired before Mark Messier's No. 11. Messier is expected to attend

today's ceremony.

Gretzky's accomplishments in New York cannot rival those of his

previous incarnations in Edmonton and Los Angeles, but they will remain

indelible parts of post-Stanley Cup Rangers history. He recalled April

23, 1997, as the most memorable day, when he scored a second-period

natural hat trick in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to

beat the Florida Panthers.

On Oct. 26, 1997, Gretzky's 1,851st assist passed Gordie Howe's

all-time points total. And a five-assist effort against the Nashville

Predators on Feb. 15 of this year earned Gretzky 1,000 more points than

Howe. Gretzky's 1,072nd goal, the most in professional hockey (NHL and

WHA), happened to be the winner against the Islanders on March 29.

"I would love to score [today]," he said, "but if I get a hat trick

I'm not going to change my mind."

Adding to the record books these past three seasons was nice, but

more than anything, Gretzky fell in love with becoming a New Yorker. He

drops off his children, Ty, Trevor and Paulina, at school in Manhattan

when he's not traveling.

"Just being a Ranger and playing in this city, walking around . . .

," he said. "People love hockey here. It's a great place to play."

Security in and around the Garden will be beefed up slightly today,

but there will be no police in riot gear. It's just not Gretzky's style.

"This is a joyful crowd," said Garden security chief Dennis Ryan.

"It's more a bunch of people wanting to touch the guy."

The way he has touched them.

The Great One's Greatest Hits

Game 7 Hat Trick vs. Toronto Maple Leafs -- (May 29, 1993) Gretzky said

Maple Leaf Gardens is his favorite place to play on the road, much to

the chagrin of Leafs fans. In the last game of the conference finals,

Gretzky scored his NHL-record eighth hat trick to beat Toronto, 4-3, and

lead the Kings to their first (and so far, only) Stanley Cup final

series. Gretzky had scored the overtime winner in Game 6 to force Game 7

in Toronto.

New York Sports