TORONTO - In the days preceding Wayne Gretzky's last game here at the storied Maple Leaf Gardens, anticipation built like a gathering storm. But in the end tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs stole Gretzky's thunder, jumping to a 4-0 lead in the first period and beating the Rangers, 7-4.
In spoiling Gretzky's final appearance at the arena where he attended games as a child, the Leafs beat the Rangers for the first time in 11 games and chased Mike Richter from goal with 13 minutes left to play.
The local news media had heralded Gretzky's return; newspapers ran lengthy stories detailing his visits to the Gardens, from his first, when he was 6 years old and sat in the farthest reaches of the arena with his grandmother, to his most recent, when he scored the tying goal with 26 seconds left in a 6-6 tie.
The Leafs, however, were not intimidated. Toronto jumped to a 1-0 lead when former Islander Derek King scored at 1 minute 57 seconds on the game's first shot, and the Leafs fired three more goals past a harried Richter before the Rangers scored.
When New York did get on the board, it was Gretzky who worked his magic behind the net, setting up Adam Graves for his 13th goal of the season.
Key to Toronto's first-period explosion was the former Devils prospect Alyn McCauley, who finished the night with 4 points. In the opening flurry he scored once, when his shot went off Ulf Samuelsson's stick on the power play, and assisted on two goals by King. Tie Domi made the Leafs' lead 4-0 at 14:10.
That was the game, though the Leafs got insurance markers from Steve Thomas, Mike Johnson and Darby Hendrickson. Hendrickson's goal, at 7:59 of the third period, made the score 7-1 and drove Richter from the game. Richter, who faced 26 shots, was replaced by Dan Cloutier.
The Rangers made the score more respectable with late goals from Petr Nedved, who collected his fifth, Niklas Sundstrom and Mike Knuble. The last goal, in the final minute, came on another assist from Gretzky.
The former Ranger Glenn Healy collected his second victory in goal for Toronto while making 22 saves. The Leafs outshot New York, 31-26.
Maple Leaf Gardens will close in February with Gretzky as the hands-down leader in points by a visiting player, with 77 in 30 games. He is tied with the former Chicago star Steve Larmer with 30 goals.
Gretzky said that despite the poor showing by the Rangers in his final game here, he will miss the Gardens.
"I'm going to miss playing here," he said. "I've got to tell you, the fans have been great to me."
The Gardens, opened in 1931, will be replaced by the $265 million Air Canada Centre.
The send-off from the Toronto fans was cordial. Gretzky was applauded during pre-game introductions, when he took the game's ceremonial opening face-off and when he skated off at game's end.
It was a radically different reaction than the one he encountered in his years with the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings, when he was a familiar target of the boo birds. He has often said his best game ever came here: his hat-trick performance to lead the Kings past the Leafs, 5-4, in Game 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference finals.
"I was probably more surprised as a kid when I saw Bobby Orr getting booed here," Gretzky said.
Gretzky, who grew up in nearby Brantford, Ontario, brought his wife and children to the game.
"I wanted my family and kids to be here, to see what it is like to play hockey in Canada in this special place," he said. "They've never seen that."
After winning five games in a row to open the month, the Rangers have now lost four of their last five. They come home to play Carolina on Wednesday night before going on the road again for four games, beginning next Saturday.
The Leafs had not defeated the Rangers in almost six years, since a 3-1 victory here on Jan. 30, 1993. They improved their record to 18-11-2 and reclaimed first place in the Northeast Division from Buffalo, which lost to Carolina.
The Rangers, meanwhile, fell to 11-13-7.
Toronto Coach Pat Quinn, while satisfied with the victory, was unhappy with the late New York goals.
"We took a 7-1 game and turned it into a 7-4 game," Quinn said. "Our goalie deserved better than that."
PRAGUE - Rosie Stancer has gained 14 pounds in six months, and, at 5 feet 4 inches and 105 pounds, is trying to gain more. "I am concentrating on my survival weight," she said, "I'm either eating or exercising."
Stancer, a 37-year-old Briton, has been on a high-protein diet and a physical training program since last fall, when she was chosen to take part in the first all-women's expedition to the North Pole.
Stancer and the 19 other women on the 600-mile expedition are all British, ranging in age from 21 to 51, with no Arctic experience and varying degrees of commitment to exercise. Their trip is the ultimate adventure holiday from daily lives as business executives, teachers, doctors, housewives, police officers and students.
They are seeking to prove - and those on the first team of the McVitie's Penguin Polar Relay have already begun the proof - that anyone can make the trek to the Pole, challenging the cold (try minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit) and treacherous thin ice as the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean dissolves in the seasonal melt.
The women's expedition from Ward Hunt Island (latitude: 83.10 degrees north) in the Northwest Territories of Canada to the geographical North Pole, at 90 degrees north, is in a relay format. Five teams of four women plan to spend about two weeks each on the moving sea ice, hauling equipment and supplies northward. The schedule calls for each group to take a small plane to Resolute, Northwest Territories, for acclimatization and briefings, then proceed to the starting point of its leg. After its leg, each team will be airlifted out.
The distance that each group covers will vary according to weather and difficulty of terrain. For instance, the first leg in the toughest conditions began on March 13 from Ward Hunt Island and negotiated only 67 nautical miles (about 58 miles) in 15 days when it ended on March 27; the last group hopes to cover a significantly greater distance in its 19 days on ice and reach the North Pole on May 27.
Each of the women has raised L1,500 (about $2,500) and passed a barrage of physical and psychological trials for the privilege of going on the expedition. The name sponsor, McVities, a confectionary company, has anted up 7,000 cookies and 150 pounds of chocolate for the women, in addition to its corporate underwriting. What gives the expedition it historical cachet is that the members are all women. No woman has ever made it to the North Pole without a man before.
Stancer heard about the intriguing endeavor while she was soaking in her bathtub in London "with a mild hangover" one morning in January 1996. On the radio, she heard that a hundred women would spend the coming weekend in southwest England competing for positions on the expedition. She contracted the Polar Travel Company, the organizer, and was soon on her way to a grueling endurance test on the moor.
After an exhausting, teeth-chattering two days of 5 A.M. wake-up calls, swims across a frigid lake, forced runs through the marsh in the dead of night, and the like, Stancer advanced to the next stage: another weekend with 100 would-be Arctic travelers. The four days gave organizers enough information to determine which 20 of the 200 candidates were best suited for the expedition.
"I spent the weekends wet and cold; it was frightening," recalled Stancer, who quit her job in public relations in London and moved to the Czech Republic late last year when her husband, William, a marketing consultant, was transferred here.
Stancer said her mother was dismayed when she discovered that her daughter had made the team, and that friends and relatives - including Stancer's great aunt, who just happens to be the Queen Mother - have expressed similar concerns. "They think I'm mad," Stancer said.
The North Pole has been one of humanity's most challenging destinations for a long time. In 1909, Robert Peary claimed his was the first team to reach there, on foot, using dog sleds; since then, others have disputed that he was the first. Several others have sought to become the first to get there by balloon, by airplane, by sea and over land (and ice), alone and in consort. One man rode a motorbike there supported by a snowmobile team; a woman, Ann Bancroft, reached there as part of Will Steger's American attempt by seven men and 49 dogs in 1986, unsupported by airdropped supplies.
The 1997 all-women's expedition is the brainchild of Caroline Hamilton, a 33-year-old film financier from London with a yen for "extreme places." Hamilton first contacted the Polar Travel Company in 1995 because she "always wanted to walk to the North Pole."
Hamilton, who will lead the last group to the Pole starting May 9, has been dreaming of the trek since childhood. "I'm drawn to extreme places," she said. "The concept of surviving in a harsh environment appeals to me."
The concept of exercising has no appeal, however, "I hate it," she said flatly, "But I have to train in order to reach my goal."
All the women have trained at least six months for the journey. The four who completed the first leg of the relay had to pull their 140-pound "sledges" up, and push them down, jagged ridges of ice up to 20 feet high. The seminars in Resolute about how to perform a water rescue or confront a polar bear came in handy when two members of the team had terrifying falls through the ice.
Sarah Jones, a 29-year-old school teacher, who will go on the fourth leg with Stancer from April 24 to May 4, has prepared for her trek by dragging tractor tires borrowed from the man who owns the farm next to her home in Kent in southeast England. In addition, Jones rides her bike through the rolling countryside to and from work, and goes to the gym during lunch breaks. She also eats six meals a day.
"It's hard to make time for work and training," Jones said, "just as it's hard to find time to prepare and eat all those meals. I have to plan my time much more efficiently now."
For her, the expedition is all about overcoming limitations. "I used to work with AIDS patients," she said, "That made me realize how precious life is, and it convinced me that you must seize an opportunity when it comes along because you never know when your time is up."
"I want to live life to the fullest rather than just exist," Stancer said, "This is a chance to make history in a modest way."