‘Hart Off The Ice’
By Sean Hartnett
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Today, Wayne Gretzky turns 51. It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since ‘The Great One’ played his first season as a member of the New York Rangers.
In New York, Gretzky fell short of his ultimate goal of winning a fifth career Stanley Cup but left an indelible impact on the city.
Expectations were high as Wayne teamed-up with his old Oilers teammate Mark Messier as the hockey media believed that the duo could replicate Edmonton’s glory years under the backdrop of Manhattan.
Gretzky himself was in a confident mood when he arrived in ‘The Big Apple.’ He told Sports Illustrated in 1996, “My wife, Janet, asked me if I’d retire after this year if we won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers. I told her, ‘Nope, I’ll try to win another one.’”
There were plenty of reasons for Rangers fans to be upbeat going into the 1996-97 season. The Rangers had lifted the Cup three years earlier and finished 3rd place overall in the Eastern Conference with a record of 41-27-14 a season before Gretzky’s arrival.
General Manager Neil Smith had kept hold of the Rangers’ core from the ’94 Cup-winning team in Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves. Scoring sensation Luc Robitaille came over from the Pittsburgh Penguins a year before Gretzky as did a veteran of many Devils-Rangers playoff wars in Bruce Driver who signed-on with the Rangers as a free agent.
What was supposed to be the beginning of a glorious era for the Blueshirts quickly turned sour. Robitaille struggled in his second season in New York as his numbers fell to then career lows. The deal that Smith struck with the Penguins became terribly one-sided in Pittsburgh’s favor.
Smith parted with one of the best offensive-defensemen in the league in Sergei Zubov and an up-and-coming scorer in Petr Nedved to acquire Robitaille. Meanwhile, Alexei Kovalev missed 37 regular season games and the entire 1997 playoffs as his anterior ligament was being rebuilt.
This would be Gretzky’s only appearance in the playoffs as a Ranger but boy, did he put on a show. The Rangers weren’t expected to go deep into the playoffs but ‘The Great One’ carried the Blueshirts into the Eastern Conference Finals. Wayne famously scored a sensational hat trick against the Florida Panthers in Game 4 of round one.
It was possibly his greatest moment as a Ranger as he put on a show in trademark Gretzky fashion. Setting up behind the net in ‘his office,’ Gretzky maneuvered and deked past Panthers as if he was still in his prime. Number 99 and the Blueshirts skated past the Devils with ease in the Eastern Conference Semifinals but ran into a tough, physical Flyers’ team. Philadelphia batted-away the Rangers, eliminated them after 5 games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Still, Gretzky dazzled on his final playoff stage. He scored 10 points in 10 games despite taking painkilling injections into his right arm because his arm was too damaged to shoot without pain.
Gretzky spoke to the New York Times after the Rangers’ playoff exit. “We got beat fair and square. Yeah, they were bigger. Yeah, they were stronger. Yeah, we’re disappointed. It hurts. It’s been a long, hard year,” he stated.
His comments would be foretelling. The long, difficult year turned into a disastrous off-season for the Rangers that paved the way for two consecutive seasons of playoff-less misery. Messier left New York via free agency to reunite himself with former 1994 Stanley Cup-winning head coach Mike Keenan in Vancouver.
It would turn out that Messier’s move to the Canucks ended up hurting all parties involved.
Canucks fans were angered by Messier ‘stealing’ Trevor Linden’s captaincy, demanding deceased Canuck Wayne Maki’s number 11 and his overall under-production in Vancouver. It was a marriage made in hell for Messier who missed the playoffs in each of his three seasons as a Canuck.
Meanwhile in New York, Gretzky was left without another top-tier scorer to share the offensive load. The addition of Pat LaFontaine helped shoulder some of the production lost through Messier’s departure but not enough players were contributing. Gretzky, LaFontaine, Kovalev and Leetch couldn’t do it all on their own.
1997-98 was a miserable season for the Rangers who finished 25-39-18 and 11th overall in the Eastern Conference. LaFontaine retired after one season with the Rangers and the Blueshirts began to push toward rebuilding through youth as the 1998-99 season got underway.
Highly-rated youngsters Marc Savard and Manny Malhotra were thrown into the spotlight before they were fully-developed. Though each would both go on to have noteworthy careers, they weren’t ready to contribute immediately.
Smith attempted to undo part of the disastrous Robitaille trade by swapping Kovalev back from the Penguins in exchange for Nedved. It wasn’t enough as it became clear the Rangers would once again miss the playoffs as the focus shifted to what would be Gretzky’s final season in the NHL.
‘99 would be the final season for number 99 and the entire hockey world paid tribute. Gretzky’s final game in each city became a rock-star-like farewell ‘North America Tour.’
On April 16th, 1999 Wayne’s final game came against the Penguins at Madison Square Garden. Both Canadian rocker Ryan Adams and beloved Rangers’ anthemist John Amirante modified the Canadian and American national anthems to include their own tributes to ‘The Great One.’
If any city could be big enough for the event, it was New York. Only Manhattan could truly give Gretzky the worldwide sending-off he deserved.
Gretzky registered an assist on the final goal of the game scored by Leetch. His final point was number 2,857 in the closing 1,487th game of his 20-year NHL career. Madison Square Garden saluted Gretzky as the first, second and third star of the game, an honor only previously given to Maurice Richard when the Canadiens’ legend scored 5 goals in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1944.
The entire Garden Crowd and fellow icon of his generation Mario Lemieux gave Gretzky a long standing ovation before he left the ice. Once he returned to the Rangers’ locker room, he sat in his full uniform, not able to take it off.
Wayne wore the sweat-soaked jersey to his press conference as he told reporters, “Subconsciously, I don’t want to take it off. I’m not going to pull it on ever again. It’s hard. It’s hard to take it off right now. I have to be honest with you. I don’t want to take it off.”
Gretzky reflected on his final game in his interview on Hockey Night In Canada. “My last game in New York was my greatest day in hockey…Everything you enjoy about the sport of hockey as a kid, driving to practice with mom and dad, driving to the game with mom and dad, looking in the stands and seeing your mom and dad and your friends, that all came together in that last game in New York,” he described to Scott Morrison.
Gretzky’s time in New York will be remembered as a time when one shining light shined brightly during a time of darkness for the Rangers. It was up to Gretzky to captivate The Garden without ‘The Messiah’ and that’s exactly what he did.
Wayne wasn’t able to bring a Stanley Cup to Manhattan but he lit up Madison Square Garden and left Rangers fans with warm memories of seeing the greatest hockey player who ever lived on stage at ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena.’
Thanks for the memories, 99.
Rangers fans, how will you remember Gretzky’s time in New York? Share your memories below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.