Is there any doubt who's the No. 1 center in hockey with Wayne Gretzky revamping his scoring records almost every season? Well, yes, depending on how you define your criteria.
Edmonton's Gretzky is the greatest offensive force in the history of the game. But the New York Islanders' Bryan Trottier may be the finest two-way center of all time, and he's reasserting himself in the Stanley Cup finals.
Due in no small part to Trottier's boundless efforts at both ends of the ice, the Islanders lead the best-of-seven series 3-0 going into tonight's fourth and perhaps last game here at the Nassau Coliseum.
Gretzky, hounded at every turn by Trottier and the hard-checking Islanders, has yet to score a goal. When he occasionally manages good shots, Islander goalie Billy Smith catches, deflects, or smothers them.
Meanwhile, Trottier is making well-timed passes, dominating the face-offs (especially in his own zone), and checking with a zest that is leaving the Oilers limp against the boards - and all despite the slowing effort of a twisted knee.
He typifies his team's conservative philosophy as dramatically as Gretzky typifies Edmonton's freewheeling approach.
A play in the first period of the brilliantly skated third game demonstrated Trottier's all-around value to the defending champions. With the game still scoreless, Gretzky stick-handled with the puck behind the New York goal, and then made his patented move out in front for a quick shot.
Goaltender Smith was down and out of the play, but Trottier hurled himself across the crease and blocked Gretzky's shot at the open net. A few seconds later, Trottier was to be found in the forefront of a rush into the Oiler end, and nearly scored.
The Islanders, instead of giving up the critical first goal, were inspired to score first themselves. They won 5-1.
''One thing we're trying to do against Gretzky is keep him from coming out front,'' says Trottier. ''I think we're as surprised as everyone else that he hasn't scored a goal, though. I wish I had some of his tools. He skates around guys I regard as really fast.''
The cherubic and chunky Trottier is the last man who would be drawn into a comparison with other players, but believes he is a product of his youth hockey background, as Gretzky probably is of his.
''I could never afford a totally offensive game,'' he says. ''When I'd come home from a junior game, my father would ask me why I didn't check a guy. I'd say I scored two goals. Then he'd ask how many body checks I had.''
Trottier does not look particularly big or strong in uniform, but at 5 ft. 11 in. and nearly 200 compact and muscular pounds, he delivers a devastating body check. In the playoffs he has seemed to play an even more physical game than usual.
Says a former National Hockey League coach, ''His checks are really felt. Unlike most players, he hits right through people.''
Trottier is a welcome example of a man who plays a contact sport the way it is intended to be played: hard and physically, but without resorting to the unseemly use of the stick. Essentially he uses his shoulders and hips, which prove quite enough.
Offensively, his ability to concoct crisp, accurate passes is the biggest reason linemate and best friend Mike Bossy has scored well over 40 goals in the six years the two have been together.
Trottier is always looking for the open winger, never at the puck he is carrying, and delivers the pass to a teammate through exceptional feel in his hands.
When he takes it upon himself to shoot, which isn't often, he can be deadly. Once he took five shots in a game - and scored on all five.
Trottier does all this with an impassive expression on his face. ''He looks calm because he's so well disciplined,'' says Bossy. ''He doesn't say much because he's confident in his ability and doesn't feel he should have to tell people about it. He knows how good he is - and so do we.''
Until Gretzky joined the NHL, there was little doubt that Trottier was the best center in the game. Since then, the two have costarred in the best debate since the experts took sides between Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard in the 1950 s.
Islander Coach Al Arbour is on record as claiming he wouldn't trade Trottier for Gretzky. The way the playoffs have gone so far in the Islanders' bid for their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, it's getting easier to understand Arbour's position.