For the last few weeks (and even the last few months), any time the name Wayne Gretzky has been mentioned it coincided with that of Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin.
“Will ‘The Great 8’ be able to catch ‘The Great One’?”
“Can Ovi accomplish such a remarkable feat?”
The number is quite lofty: 894.
Eight hundred and ninety-four times Wayne Gretzky buried the puck into the opposition net. Eight hundred and ninety-four times he electrified the hometown crowd and the visiting ones, too. Eight hundred and ninety-four times he scored a goal — and that was just in the NHL’s regular season.
It seems like forever ago we last saw that lanky kid from Brantford, Ont., skate up the ice in his flimsy Jofa helmet with the jersey tucked into his pants on one side and bury the puck; 21 years ago Sunday to be exact.
The 1998-99 season was not a kind one for the New York Rangers. After a magical run to the Eastern Conference finals in 1997 that was, in fact, powered by Gretzky, the team slipped and, after a 25-win season, was again far outside the playoff picture.
But regardless of the year’s disappointing outcome, having Gretzky wear Ranger blue made every game special.
“I always thought that if you put Wayne Gretzky on the Rangers it would be like having the Babe Ruth on the Yankees, which of course was reality, but there was that legendary thing of Babe Ruth on the Yankees, maybe the best player in baseball being on the most iconic team in the biggest city and that’s how I felt it was going to be with Gretzky,” former Rangers general manager Neil Smith told Sporting News. “It would be an amazing thing for New York to have the greatest player ever play in their uniform and that’s how I always felt the whole time he was playing, the whole three years. Every time I looked down and saw hat he was in that uniform I sort of looked twice, to go like, ‘oh my god he really is in the Rangers jersey and it’s Wayne Gretzky.’
“Hopefully the Ranger fans understood while he was with us, his status within the history of the game, and enjoyed every minute that he played for the Rangers and that they’re really seeing history when they were watching him.”
So a meaningless Monday night game in March at Madison Square Garden against the arch-rival New York Islanders instantly became a historic and groundbreaking one.
From puck drop, it was a back-and-forth contest with Adam Graves giving the Rangers a 1-0 lead before Mariusz Czerkawski evened things up just over five minutes later.
Then, late in the third period, a moment for the record books.
Rangers captain Brian Leetch got the puck on net from above the blue line that Isles netminder Wade Flaherty steered to the boards. Trevor Linden, the other New York captain, grabbed the puck but under pressure from John MacLean coughed it up to Gretzky. “The Great One” got an initial shot off before knocking in the loose puck in the crease and adding his name to another milestone.
The Garden crowd jumped to its feet in celebration and cheered for his ninth goal of the season. As is the norm in Manhattan, with the crowd singing “The Goal Song” and with his teammates swarming, a graphic went up on the screen: Wayne Gretzky has just passed Gordie Howe with his 1,072nd professional goal (WHA & NHL), including playoffs.
“Obviously at the time you didn’t know it was going to be his last goal,” noted Mike Richter, who was the Rangers goalie that night, to Sporting News. “That’s crazy. Somebody once said that ‘great players write great scripts’, and Wayne always did, I mean, like no one else, right?
“When you’re as good as he is there’s so many records to fall, there’s gonna be so many cool moments like that. It’s pretty impressive … He’s obviously gifted on so many levels but he takes the puck to the front of the net there — and most of his goals are dazzling things you know — but he was also just smart enough to hang out where the pucks was going to go, as everybody knows about him.
“That would be almost a garbage goal, finds the rebound in front of the net and chips it in like Phil Esposito used to do. He was scoring every way possible, I guess if you’re gonna have those types of records you’re gonna have to because that’s just such an incredible number of goals to be scored.”
It would be weeks before anyone knew that Gretzky was officially hanging his skates up after the Rangers’ last game of the season. In fact, the media and fans didn’t find out until two days beforehand as he didn’t want the fanfare.
And while he only scored nine goals that last season — of course the No. 9 was involved — each one was magical. That last one, under the bright lights of Broadway on one of the NHL’s biggest stages for an Original Six team.
“It’s just great for the franchise, for the history of the team,” said Smith. “He played his last three years in New York. … It’s great to see in the record book that was achieved with New York and with the Rangers.”
“MSG has so many great bits of history … there’s hidden trivia all over the place,” added Richter. “It’s old, it’s just got great history in all sports but Wayne just keeps making those records. And of course, this was against the Islanders so what better? The guy who has had his own rivalries across his whole life walks right in and becomes an important part of the rivalry that we have had for decades.”
Twenty-one years ago Wayne Gretzky did something he did his entire life with poise and ease: NHL goal No. 894, career goal No. 1,072 and game-winning NHL goal No. 91.
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