"I don't want it to go on a long time," Gretzky said yesterday in a conference call from Los Angeles. "I don't want (the press) dragging from city to city and asking, 'Will this ever end?'
"I'd like to end it soon and let everyone get on with their lives."
Gretzky has been through other countdowns - when he set the single-season goal record (92 in 1982), when he broke the career points mark (topping Howe's 1,850 in 1989) - but this is more of a strain.
That's because for the first time, Gretzky is playing for a team that might not make the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Kings are 22-34-10 and trail San Jose and expansion Anaheim in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Gretzky fears the hoopla surrounding the goal-scoring record is a distraction the Kings don't need as they try to get themselves back on track. The Kings, who host Chicago tonight, trail ninth-place Anaheim by one point and eighth-place San Jose by six with 18 games left.
This season has been a bitter disappointment for the Kings, who last year
went to the Stanley Cup finals and lost in five games to Montreal. Other than Gretzky, who leads the league with 111 points, the Kings have fallen way off this season. The team is 1-7-4 in its last 12 games.
In yesterday's conference call, which drew questions from journalists as far away as Dublin, Ireland, Gretzky blamed the Kings' problems on ''inconsistency . . . shift to shift, game to game. We're shooting ourselves in the foot."
Asked how it would feel to miss the playoffs, Gretzky replied: "It would be devastating. One of the records I'm proudest of is never having missed. To be in the finals one year and out of the playoffs the next year would really hurt."
This has been a difficult season for the 33-year-old Gretzky, on and off the ice. The Kings' swift fall from contender status is only part of it.
The Beverly Hills home that he shares with his actress wife Janet Jones and their three children was rocked for an estimated $500,000 worth of damage in the November earthquake. There were no injuries.
Last week, Gretzky was deeply saddened by the death of John Candy, a close friend and business partner. Candy, 43, died suddenly of a heart attack on a movie set in Mexico. The hefty comedian was partners with Gretzky and Kings owner Bruce McNall in the Toronto Argonauts football team.
"I saw John at one of our games just 10 days ago," Gretzky said yesterday. "He was saying how hot it was in Mexico and how he didn't want to go back. He wanted to stay here and see more hockey games.
"What you saw on the movie screen, that was really John. He was a big, fun-loving guy and a wonderful husband and father to his two children. He was in our locker room all the time. We'll really miss him."
Even Gretzky's pursuit of the goal-scoring record has been tainted by controversy. Howe has declined to be in attendance as Gretzky goes for his milestone. The Hall of Famer also is declining interviews on the subject.
This is a change from past years when Howe, normally a very gracious man, made it a point to be on hand whenever Gretzky broke one of his major records. There was mutual respect - Gretzky calls Howe his idol - and warmth.
This time, however, Howe is keeping his distance. He is reportedly annoyed that the 174 goals he scored in the World Hockey Association are not officially recognized by the NHL. Howe feels 975 goals, not 801, is the true professional record.
"Don't confuse the people," Howe told The Hockey News in January. ''Eight-oh-one is an NHL record. The career (record) has a little way to go."
Gretzky had 46 goals in the WHA, giving him a pro total of 844.
The National Football League credits players for the statistics they compiled in the American Football League, and Howe's WHA team (Hartford) and Gretzky's (Edmonton) both were part of the WHA-NHL merger in 1979. So why not count the goals?
Asked about it yesterday, Gretzky said: "The last thing I want to do is get into (a controversy) with Gordie. He has done so much for the game. If that's how he feels, so be it."
When Gretzky finally scores goal No. 802, it will mark his 61st NHL scoring record. No athlete in any team sport approaches the Great One's level of dominance. If Gretzky goes on to win the league scoring title this season, it will mark the 11th time he has accomplished that feat.
Yet - and here is where his discomfort comes in - Gretzky does not like to be placed on a pedestal. He would much rather be one of the guys. His happiest moments are team moments, such as winning four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s.
At the moment, all the attention is being focused on him while his team spirals down, down, down. It is like two burdens rolled into one.
How much longer will Gretzky play? Earlier this season, he signed a three- year deal for $25.5 million, making him the highest-paid hockey player of all time. He expects to fulfill that contract and at least play through the 1995-96 season.
Beyond that, Gretzky isn't sure.
Last year, he talked about following basketball icon Michael Jordan into retirement. A back injury that sidelined him for 39 games and the emotional strain of his father's health problems (he was felled by an aneurysm) had drained Gretzky. He finished the regular season with 16 goals and 65 points, both career lows.
There were whispers that Gretzky had lost his edge, that he was tired and brittle, a shadow of his former self.
However, the Great One rebounded in the playoffs and led all scorers with 40 points as he carried the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in their history. He played the entire postseason with a cracked rib. He had it frozen so he could suit up each night. It was a remarkable performance.
Given Gretzky's accomplishments, it was surprising to hear him say yesterday that the single greatest driving force in his career was fear. That is, fear of failure.
"From the time I was 6 years old, trying out for my first peewee team, I was scared to death," Gretzky said. "I was afraid I wouldn't make it, that I wouldn't be good enough. I've had some kind of (similar) fear ever since.
"It made me a better player. It made me respect the game, my teammates and my opponents. I never dreamed I'd have this kind of career. I'm surprised to be in this (recordsetting) position. I think of myself more as a playmaker than a goal-scorer.
"Whenever people talk about me, they talk about my passing," Gretzky said, laughing. "I don't think I've ever heard anyone say, 'Watch out for his slap shot, it's really quick.' "