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Hockey's Jari Kurri stands out even in Gretzky's long shadow

Playing on a hockey line with Wayne Gretzky is like being vice-president of the United States. You can be awfully talented and get very little recognition. Jari Kurri and George Bush have a lot in common.

Kurri is the sleek forward from Finland who plays on Gretzky's right. He finished the regular National Hockey League season with 135 points, second only to Gretzky's 208. He scored 71 goals, a record for right wings, trailing only Gretzky's 73, and probably would have surpassed the Great One except for a late injury.

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Kurri has been an ongoing threat in the playoffs as Edmonton, the defending Stanley Cup champion, has won seven straight games and swept its first two series. The Oilers now meet the Chicago Black Hawks in the Campbell Conference finals beginning Saturday, with the winner of that one moving on to the cup finals against the Wales Conference champion later this month.

Meanwhile, they have been enjoying an extended rest.

``It's a long season, and we can use it,'' says Kurri. ``Last year the same thing happened and it helped us.''

Kurri, aged 24, 6 ft. and 190 pounds, is the son of a Helsinki businessman. He has improved dramatically in each of his five NHL seasons. Gretzky, for one, is not surprised.

``He's a better goal scorer than I am,'' says the magnificent center. ``He has one of the hardest shots in the league and he's accurate with it.''

In fact, Kurri was the most accurate shooter in the league among the leading scorers, connecting on 27 percent of his attempts. Gretzky and Mike Bossy scored on 20 percent of their shots.

Kurri gets his hard, on-target shots away quickly. Says Pittsburgh General Manager Eddie Johnston, ``I'd like to see a shootout between Kurri and Bossy. It wouldn't take long. I think Kurri has the fastest release of any player in the NHL.''

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The popular assumption, of course, is that anybody playing alongside Gretzky, the best passer in history, can score goals with his eyes closed and his stick broken. Not necessarily. Gretzky is so skillful he can be hard to skate with -- witness the Oilers long quest to find a left-winger who can keep up with him.

``Anybody you put with Wayne has a tendency to be in awe of him,'' says John Muckler, the Edmondton assistant coach in charge of the firewagon offense. ``Kurri never was. Right from the start he handled everything Wayne sent his way. He goes with the flow and heads for the net. He knows Wayne will make it happen.''

Says Oiler President-General Manager-Coach, Glen Sather, who drafted Kurri when other teams feared he wouldn't come to North America, ``He gets an awful lot of open ice because of Wayne. But the key is that he knows what to do with it. He's a highly intelligent, accomplished hockey player.''

``I know what Wayne's going to do,'' says Kurri. ``When I first began to play with him, there were times I wouldn't have my stick on the ice and he'd surprise me with a terrific pass. I wouldn't be ready. You have to be alert all the time. It's easier for me to play with him because he uses the European style I'd learned as a youngster. He likes to play give-and-go hockey. I just try and get to the open spots.''

This season Kurri got to enough open spots to become the first European to score 60 goals in an NHL season, and only the third man overall to score 70, Phil Esposito and Gretzky being the other two.

``He isn't simply a scorer, though,'' stresses Gretzky. ``He's a tremendously accurate passer. He always puts the puck right on your stick. Always.''

Kurri, this season, accomplished the rare feat of recording at least 50 goals and 50 assists. Only Gretzky (who else?) and Rocket Richard preceded him here.

Kurri's failure to gain mass attention isn't aided by his drowsy appearance and reluctance to commercialize himself off the ice. Not yet comfortable with the English language, he declines most invitations to make public appearance.

``I don't want to go around being mouthy,'' he says.

His profile is low even in Edmonton, where hockey has become more popular than the oil business.

``Back home in Finland, too,'' he said.

Asked if he was a big hero in Helsinki, where a major newspaper carries NHL features written by his journalist girl friend, Kurri responded; ``Not really. She's always writing about Gretzky.''

George Bush knows the feeling.

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