Wednesday, February 22, 2012

TVOS and Fan-tastic Sports: Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Wayne Gretzky's 77th Goal

Every Wednesday, I share my thoughts from inside the NHL Alumni Association and from around today’s NHL at Peter Ing and Bryce Salvador’s Fan-tastic Sports XHockey blog. This week’s article - Wayne Gretzky and the 30th Anniversary of his record breaking 77th goal on February 24, 1982.

Celebrating a Great Moment in Hockey History:
The 30th Anniversary of #99's 77th Goal

Whether watching a game at home or live at the arena, nothing brings hockey fans out of their seats faster than a goal. With stars like Steve Stamkos, Corey Perry and Phil Kessel finding the back of the net on a regular basis in today’s NHL, we wait and hope that one or all of them will reach the 50-goal milestone in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer. While a 50-goal season has become common in recent decades with stars like Bossy, Selanne, Lemieux, Bure and Ovechkin lighting the lamp on a regular basis, in the early days of the NHL it was a magical milestone - a seemingly unreachable number.

Wayne Gretzky statue outside of
Rexall Place in Edmonton
(Photo - Wikipedia)
Well, if you are the type of hockey fan that jumps out of your seat when your favourite player scores a goal, can you imagine doing it 77 times in one season? How about 92 times in one season? February 24th, 1982 is a special day in hockey history, as that is the day that Wayne Gretzky soared past Phil Esposito’s single-season record of 76 goals.

Esposito set the single-season record during the 1970-71 season as a member of the Boston Bruins, breaking the previous mark of 58, which was set by Bobby Hull during the 1968-69 season. Esposito’s 76 goals and 152 points earned him the second of his five Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s top point scorer. The only players to reach the 50-goal plateau before Hull and Esposito surpassed that magical number were Maurice Richard (1944-45), Bernie Geoffrion (1960-61) and Hull himself (1965-66). Esposito’s 76 goals would remain the number to beat for decades, right? It could have been, if not for a young man from Brantford, Ontario.

To say that Wayne Gretzky exploded onto the NHL scene would be an understatement! In his rookie season, he scored 51 goals and added 86 assists to finish the year with 137 points. How did The Great One handle the “sophomore slump” in his second season? Well, he scored 55 goals and finished the year with an astounding 164 points. What hockey fans may not have realized at the time though, was that Gretzky was just getting warmed up...

On December 30th, 1981, in his 39th game of the season, Gretzky was five goals away from reaching the 50-goal mark for the third year in a row. He would score all five that night against Philadelphia to set one of his many NHL records (50 goals in 39 games). As he was on his way to finishing the 1981-82 season with 92 goals, 212 points and a plus/minus rating of +81, the stage was set for a record breaking evening on the night of February 24th.

With Esposito in attendance at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium to watch Gretzky’s Oilers take on the Buffalo Sabres, the pressure to break the record weighed heavily on the young hockey phenom. Buffalo goaltender Don Edwards held Gretzky off the score sheet for most of the night, but a turnover with just over six minutes remaining in the game opened the goal scoring floodgates - the Great One skated in on Edwards and scored his 77th of the season to break the record. He would add two more goals on that night, his 78th and 79th, as the Oilers went on to a 6-3 victory.

As I worked on this week’s XHockey article, I discovered an interesting news story in the CBC archives about Gretzky’s popularity on the night he broke the single-season goal scoring record. The young journalist ended her report by asking this question, “How long can this Gretzky fever last?”

There have been many “Greats” in the game of hockey, but there is only one Great One.

Wayne Gretzky would retire in 1999 with 40 regular season NHL records, 15 playoff records and 6 All-Star records (some are shared records). He took to the ice for 1,487 regular season games with the Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers, scoring 894 goals and adding 1,963 assists for 2,857 career points. In 208 playoff games, he added 382 points to his overall total.

A four-time Stanley Cup champion with the Oilers, Gretzky won every major NHL Award multiple times. He won the Hart Trophy as league MVP nine times, the Art Ross Trophy (scoring champion) ten times, the Lester B. Pearson (now the Ted Lindsay Award - MVP as voted on by the players) five times - and the list goes on and on. If he had spent a season playing as a defenseman for some reason, it is not hard to imagine he would have a Norris Trophy on his shelf as well!

So, how long will Gretzky fever last? Well, it has been thirty years and it is still going strong. On February 24th, 1982, one of the NHL’s unbreakable records was broken.

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