Today marks the 20th anniversary of arguably the most important milestone in National Hockey League history. On March 23, 1994, Los Angeles Kings’ captain Wayne Gretzky scored on Kirk McLean of the Vancouver Canucks for his 802nd-career goal, moving him past the great Gordie Howe for first on the NHL’s all-time scoring list.
While the milestone tally wasn’t his first record (and certainly not his last), Gretzky’s No. 802 had officially solidified No. 99 as the game’s greatest player, assuming there was even an ounce of doubt prior.
As monumental (and as beautiful) as the goal was, I couldn’t see much of a bright side to the event. Gretzky became the all-time leading scorer in hockey history off a perfectly-timed cross-ice pass, set up by Marty McSorley who made a beautiful cross-ice pass while forcing the aforementioned Kirk McLean to fall out of position leading to The Great One tapping it in to a wide-open net to send The Forum faithful to their feed in a collective roar. But as great as No. 99’s historic goal was, no one could say the same about the team he played for.
Less than one year removed from the Stanley Cup Final, the Los Angeles Kings weren’t even going to the playoffs in 1993-94, the first time the Kings would miss since Gretzky’s arrival five-and-a-half years earlier.
As memorable a night as it was for Gretzky, the Kings lost 6-3 to the Canucks, winning only three of their final 11 games that season following said loss. Overall, Los Angeles finished the season 27-45-12, five points behind the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim who were in their first year of existence.
If you look at Gretzky’s 1851st-career point for example, it was a different, more promising situation. Beigh early in the 1989-90 season, the Kings had eliminated the defending Cup champions (Gretzky’s former team, the Edmonton Oilers) the previous spring and started the season at 3-2-0 entering, of all places, Edmonton on October 15. With Gretzky stting just one point shy and two of breaking Gordie Howe’s all-time points record of 1850, it seemed like the hockey gods had written the script themselves. After his assist tied the record, Gretzky broke the record in grandiose fashion, scoring the game-tying goal in the final minute, being wide open to netminder Bill Ranford’s right coming from, his favourite spot, behind the net. To cap off the night, The Great One scored again in overtime for good measure. The breaking of the points record still gives me goosebumps. What Gordie Howe accomplished in 26 years, Wayne Gretzky torn asunder in 10. Plus, what made the milestone even better was that the Los Angeles Kings were in their prime.
Over the years, however, Gretzky’s 802nd goal is easier to look back in a positive light. While the Kings lost that game, missed the playoffs that season and were in the midst of ownership turmoil during that time, the goal only further solidified Wayne Gretzky’s place in hockey history. It took Gordie Howe 1,767 games to reach 801 goals. Like the aforementioned points record, Gretzky ripped the goals record apart, scoring No. 802 in just 1,113 games, 654 fewer than Mr. Hockey.
The Great One would go on to score 92 more goals in his NHL career before retiring in 1999 breaking a few more records along the way including Howe’s professional goals record which included his WHA totals.
I remember eating at Wayne Gretzky’s Restaurant in Toronto shortly after the record-breaker with the entire staff dressed from head-to-toe in 802 memorabilia. It was here that I was reminded that while his team was embarking on a low-point in their history, Gretzky’s accomplishment didn’t lack any significance. After all, if No. 802 were about the Los Angeles Kings overall, people in Toronto certainly wouldn’t be celebrating the feat, especially when the team denied them their first Stanley Cup berth in 26 years just the previous spring. But I digress.
We can say what we will about the state of the Los Angeles Kings 20 years ago – I know I have – but today, we look back on an important moment in franchise history, a play started by Luc Robtaille, set up by Marty McSorley and finished off by, who else, Mr. Gretzky himself. While they struggled that season, for one moment – the 14:57 mark of the second period on March 23, 1994 – Wayne Gretzky made his team look just like the name they bore: the Kings.