Eight months after being traded from Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky helped his new team, the Los Angeles Kings, complete an opening-round seven-game upset of his old team, the defending Stanley Cup champion Oilers.
In one year, No. 99 took the 14th-ranked team overall and helped catapult them to seventh en route to his unprecedented ninth Hart Trophy as the National Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player.
Yet while they bowed out in four straight to the Calgary Flames in the next round, optimism ran high for the Kings heading into the summer of 1989 – that included Gretzky personally who would enter the 1989-90 season within striking distance of Gordie Howe’s career points total of 1850. Gretzky trailed his boyhood idol by a mere 13 points.
It was a story that came about in an instance that not even the greatest Hollywood scriptwriter could have come up with.
After starting the season with their first four games on home ice, the Kings were off on a Western road trip first in Vancouver, then in the Great One’s old stomping grounds of Edmonton. For those thinking how fitting it would be for Gretzky to break the NHL’s all-time scoring record in his former team’s building, little did they know what was in store.
Starting the year off at 2-2-0, the Kings entered Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum with a Friday the 13th date with the Canucks. Gretzky had come into that night with 1846 points – but he racked up three assists including setting up Steve Kasper for the overtime winner. That set the stage for a Sunday evening tilt in Edmonton with Gretzky just one point shy of tying Howe’s record.
The Northlands Coliseum was packed. While it would have been a full house nonetheless to see their former pride-and-joy, it was especially exhilarating for fans in Edmonton to be on the brink of witnessing hockey history.
In goal for Los Angeles was little-known Mario Gosselin while in the Edmonton was Bill Ranford who had taken over the reins in goal from Grant Fuhr before helping the Oilers win a Stanley Cup (and a Conn Smythe for himself) later that year.
While he was held off the scoresheet for much of the game, Wayne Gretzky was able to get an assist, helping out on a Bernie Nicholls tally to tie Howe’s all-time mark. Nicholls, who had just come off a tremendous 70-goal campaign the previous season, scored twice on this night – but as productive as he was, someone else stole the show.
The Oilers led 5-4 late and, in what has always seemed like typical Gretzky fashion, the Great One waited until the final minute of regulation to make history.
After they won the faceoff to the left of Ranford, the Kings passed it around and Gretzky, for whatever reason, was left unmanned behind the net before stalking in front to Ranford’s right.
Dave Taylor, Steve Duchesne and Luc Robitaille were all moving it around desperately keeping the puck in the offensive zone giving their team a chance to send the game into overtime. Suddenly, Gretzky still waiting all by lonesome to Ranford’s right, sees the puck coming across the crease, reaches out the backhand and lifts it over the shoulder of the Edmonton netminder who slid too far to his right to have a chance to stop the puck. No. 99 ceaselessly jumped in the air ultimately into the arms of teammate (and future Hall-of-Famer) Larry Robinson before being joined by the aforementioned Taylor, Duchesne and Robitaille while, all the while, the Oilers faithful erupts as if Gretzky was still one of their own.
In the memorable words of Kings’ legendary broadcaster Bob Miller, “Wayne Gretzky the Great One has become the greatest of them all, the leading scorer in the history of the National Hockey League.”
What Gordie Howe set in 26 season, Wayne Gretzky tore apart in just 10. Despite leaving town, despite helping his new team eliminate theirs the previous spring, fans at the Northlands Coliseum rose to their feet to give Gretzky an ovation like no other. With 1851 career points, the Great One was on top of the hockey mountain.
For good measure, Gretzky scored in overtime to give his team the win but on this night, it was all about No. 1,851.
While I had just turned eight at the time, I remembered how much exposure the story received in the coming days. Dubbed ‘The Greatest One’, Gretzky’s record-breaker was at the height of the news world in North America during a period when the demolition of the Berlin Wall was only a few weeks away and just over a month after Pete Rose’s lifetime banishment from baseball and even after October 17 when an earthquake delayed the World Series by 10 days.
Conversely, with my age came ignorance as when I first heard the phrase, “Gretzky broke Howe’s record” made me immediately visualize Mr. Hockey gyrating to his favourite musician with his headphones on while Gretzky came in and smashed the record to pieces. After initially thinking how Gretzky could do such a thing, I then wondered why Gordie Howe wasn’t listening to music via a compact disc or, at the very least, a cassette tape.
Nevertheless, while I didn’t appreciate the points record at the time, I grew to marvel not only at the accomplishment but what Wayne Gretzky had brought to the game of hockey not only up to that point but afterwards as well.
While it is only available on VHS, there is a chance someone uploaded it to YouTube. It is called “Wayne Gretzky: Above and Beyond” which was released shortly after his record-breaking night as there is something special about how point number 1851 is showcased.
It could be the narration or the suspenseful overture that led up to the goal or maybe even Gretzky celebrating in slow motion while Ranford, Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri looking dejected but Wayne Gretzky’s record-breaking point still gives me goosebumps watching it – and to be perfectly honest, I never get tired of it. While his 802nd career tally was more of the highlight-reel variety, the points record-breaker felt more significant. Perhaps it was because at the time, the Los Angeles Kings were on the rise whereas when he broke the all-time goals record, Gretzky and the Kings were on the decline. In March 1994 when Gretzky scored No. 802, the Kings had lost to the visiting Canucks 6-3 en route to missing the playoffs for the first of five-straight years.
24 years ago, Wayne Gretzky became, in the words of Bob Miller, “the greatest of them all” and the fact that we still celebrate such a feat years later is not only a testament to the power of hockey but the power of arguably the great player to ever live.
October 15, 1989: the night the Great One became the Greatest One.