Twenty years ago in the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky returned to play a hockey game. This wasn't his first return to the arena where he'd won four Stanley Cups.
"The Trade" had sent the greatest player in hockey, in the prime of his career, from a dynasty-winning team in Edmonton to also-ran division rival Los Angeles.
He'd played against Edmonton in the regular season the year before. More importantly he'd led his L.A. Kings past Edmonton in a tough seven-game series during the 1988-89 playoffs. He had effectively dethroned the Oilers and derailed the dynasty.
There were upset fans in Edmonton. Owner Peter Pocklington was the lighting rod for most of their hate. Wayne however was also on the receiving end of abuse from Oilers fans who had watched him beat their team and end their domination.
This night however Gretzky was back for posterity. This young man was one point away from surpassing the all-time career point record in the NHL.
Gordie Howe held the record that was once thought unbreakable. Mr. Hockey set his record in 1960 passing Maurice "Rocket" Richard. If Richard was hockey's Babe Ruth; first to score 50 goals in a season and 500 hundred in a career, then Gordie was hockey's Hank Aaron. He was talented, steady and professional through his whole long career. He accumulated most of his points during 25 years in the brutal six-team NHL. He also managed one 80-game season at age 51 with the Hartford Whalers in 1979-80. He retired with 1,850 points. This was almost twice the 965 points the Rocket finished with.
Gordie was a great player who played forever. He scored, stickhandled and played the game harder then any man alive. He thought about the game all the time. No one was ever going to catch him because he was one of a kind.
Yet here was Gretzky, only 28 years old. This was his 11th season in the NHL and he was poised to break the greatest of all the hockey records. Gretzky won the Hart trophy as the most valuable player in the league his first year in. Then he won eight of them in a row. He lost the scoring trophy his first year to Marcel Dionne of the Kings because Dionne scored more goals. Gretzky won the next seven Art Ross trophies. He won the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs for two of the four championship Oiler teams. Gretzky had done all this and was ready now to pass the greatest player in NHL history. He'd break the unbreakable record, all before he turned 30.
This Edmonton crowd was keen to have Gretzky break the record here, at "home" in Edmonton. They'd seen he was the greatest of all time. They wanted to be there to see it proven statistically.
The Oiler team was less enthusiastic about having "the Great One" embarrass them again. The first-round playoff loss to a team that they wouldn't have noticed before Gretzky joined them still burned.
Coach John Muckler played his best checker Esa Tikkanen against Gretzky all night. Esa battered and bruised his old teammate as only he could, all while maintaining his constant incomprehensible chatter. What passed in Edmonton for a shut-down pair, Kevin Lowe and Steve Smith, played as much as possible against Wayne. In the end they couldn't stop him.
Wayne came in to that game with 1,849 points. He got his first assist early to tie the record. The fans cheered. The Oilers concentrated on Gretzky while playing a tough game. They kept surrendering one goal leads until late in the third period. They were leading 4-3 in the dying minutes and the local fans were chanting for Gretzky. He came on to the ice and stayed there for the last three minutes of the game. A failed Kevin Lowe clearing attempt made it to Steve Duchesne who whacked the puck toward the net. The puck bounced off Dave Taylor and found it's way to Wayne who'd slid in front of the net. He backhanded the puck over Bill Ranford to tie the game with less then a minute left.
The fans exploded with a three-minute standing ovation for Gretzky and all he'd done. This was followed by a more well-orchestrated 15-minute tribute by the Kings, the NHL and the Oilers. Pocklington didn't dare show his face on the ice, though it's said he congratulated Gretzky afterward in private. The Kings and Oilers players celebrated with Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time. That night, the playoff loss and the move to L.A. was forgiven. Gretzky enjoyed his triumph in Edmonton.
When things finally calmed down the game was resumed and went to overtime. Gretzky scored the winner in OT to finish with 1,852 points. Who could have thought it would end any differently?
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