The Great One Goes to Edmonton, and the NHL Changed Forever

Sal Maiorana

All right, so changing the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner may have been going overboard just a bit.

“ ... for the land of Wayne Gretzky” bellowed the Madison Square Garden tenor on the final day of the 1998-99 NHL regular season, the last time we would ever see Wayne Gretzky play the game that he re-defined.

But as silly as that improvised line may have sounded, there was an underlying truth hidden there. During the 20 years Gretzky played in the NHL, America may not have been his land, but the league certainly was.

You can talk all you want about Michael Jordan or Tom Brady and maybe even Babe Ruth; no one dominated their sport - stood above everyone else and simply toyed with his peers - the way Gretzky did, a fact Sport magazine recognized when it said, “Admit it America, Wayne Gretzky is the best player in any sport.”

Jordan is not the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Brady is not the NFL’s all-time leading passer, and Ruth is not baseball’s all-time home run king. Gretzky is hockey’s all-time everything.

Gretzky surpassed Gordie Howe’s career point-scoring record of 1,850 early in the 1989 season, and in the next decade, he raised the bar another 1,007 points. It took Gretzky 987 fewer games to break Howe’s record than it took Howe to set it. That’s not a typo - 987 fewer games.

His marks of 894 goals, 1,963 assists and 2,857 points will never be broken. We said that about Lou Gehrig’s Ironman streak and look what happened, but Gretzky’s records are untouchable, mostly because there will never be another player with that much skill who will endure for so long, but also because the game has changed exponentially, particularly the size and skill of the goaltenders.

“He’s made the record book obsolete,” former Minnesota North Stars general manager Lou Nanne once said. “From now on, Gretzky’s only point of reference is himself.”

Gretzky owns more records than a 1970s disc jockey. Among them: 50 hat tricks, nine 50-goal seasons, 12 40-goal seasons, 92 goals in 1981-82, 163 assists in 1985-86, 215 points in 1985-86, 122 goals, 160 assists and 382 points in the postseason, a 51-game point-scoring streak in 1983-84, 50 goals in just 39 games in 1981-82, nine MVP awards and 10 scoring titles.

Oh, he also won four Stanley Cups which is not a record, but supremely impressive nonetheless.

“I know everything has been written about him,” Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke once said of Gretzky. “I think none of it is adequate.”

Added former St. Louis Blues goalie Mike Liut: “Wayne Gretzky doesn’t play fair.”

It was that way since Gretzky first laced on a pair of skates when he was two years old. He used to skate circles around the backyard ice rink his father Walter built him, and by the time he was 10, he was skating circles around kids who were three and four years older than he, scoring 378 goals in one 82-game pee-wee season.

“The idea that Wayne is the player he is because of how hard he works is garbage,” said Glen Sather, Gretzky’s coach during his days in Edmonton and now the Oilers general manager. “What he does on the ice isn’t taught, it comes straight down from the Lord.”

Gretzky was the ultimate child prodigy, and when he was 13 years old, he already needed an agent. He was just 17 and barely shaving when he signed his first professional contract with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA in 1978.

Eight games into his career, on this day 40 years ago, Nov. 2, 1978, he was sold by cash-strapped Racers owner Nelson Skalbania to Edmonton, and Oilers owner Peter Pocklington quickly signed Gretzky to a landmark contract that extended through the 1999 season.

Ironically, that’s exactly how long Gretzky would ultimately play, though he would leave Edmonton following the 1987-88 season to join the Los Angeles Kings, and he later played for St. Louis and the New York Rangers.

“What amazes me most is that he never stops amazing me,” his former Edmonton and New York teammate, Mark Messier, once said.

If ever there was an illustration of Gretzky’s remarkable skill, it came during his record-breaking season of 1981-82 when he scored 92 goals, but it was not his goal-scoring prowess that we are talking about.

Dave Lumley - a career grinder who scored 98 goals in 437 NHL games spanning nine seasons - was placed on Gretzky’s line for a few weeks early in 1981-82.

Lumley had been scratched for 13 straight games and got back onto the ice only because two of the Oilers right wingers went down with injuries. In his first game next to Gretzky, Lumley scored a goal, so Sather stuck with him. Lumley scored at least one goal in the following 11 games as well, and fell one game short of tying Charlie Simmer’s all-time record of 13 games in a row with a goal, thanks mostly to Gretzky setting him up so perfectly.

“I can’t help but wonder what the other players in the NHL are thinking,” Lumley said. “They’ve watched me play and I know they’re all thinking, ‘How in hell can Dave Lumley score goals in (12) straight games?’ Playing with Wayne you are guaranteed at least two great scoring chances every game.”

That’s the mark of greatness, when you can make the players around you better. Mario Lemieux did it. Today, Sydney Crosby, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid do it.

“I’ve looked for a weakness in his game, but I can’t find one,” said former Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr, who many believe was the most transformative player in hockey history. “They say he can’t play defense, but you don’t have to when you have the puck all the time. There are great players in the game, but no one can compare.”

On a scale of 1-to-10, Orr was asked to rate Gretzky and he said, “He’s about a 60.”

Sixty is about how many records Gretzky owned when he retired from the NHL, and Gretzky’s legacy will live not only in the pages of the NHL record book, but in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to see him play.

“He’s the greatest thing ever to happen to the game of hockey - bar none,” said Bobby Hull. “He came along at the right time, when hockey needed a shot in the arm, and he sure gave it a shot.”