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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Getting Even with Gretzky - Almost

Stan Fischler writes about the fallout from Wayne Gretzky's shot at the Devils in his weekly NewJerseyDevils.com column

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / NewJerseyDevils.com

Wayne Gretzky started it.

The Devils decided to finish it.

When The Great One called g.m.-coach Billy McMillan's team a "Mickey Mouse" outfit early in the the1984-85 season, the slur inspired outrage throughout New Jersey's puck organization.

No individual was more upset than Devils owner Dr. John MacMullen who issued a protest on behalf of his hockey club. Sure enough, it prompted a reality-check response all the way from Edmonton.

Gretzky was more than penitent; he was sorry about his soliloquy and apologized for his comments. 

Too late.

As author Tim Sullivan underlined in his book, Battle On The Hudson, "The point was made, the Devils now had the label of being something of a joke in North American sports. That image proved to be a tough one to shake."

The "shake" began with a shake-up. After losing sixteen out of seventeen games, MacMillan was fired as general manager and coach on November 22, 1983. 

Max McNab, who already had been a club executive, took over the managerial role. Meanwhile, Tom McVie, who had been coaching the Maine Mariners, replaced MacMillan behind the bench. 

The other shake-up involved two Marshalls. Bert Marshall was moved out and Marshall Johnston took over as director of player personnel.

By far, the most salutary effect was the buoyancy brought about by McVie whose sense of humor was unrivaled around the Garden State sports scene. This was apparent at his first media scrum:

McVie: "I guess I'm supposed to ride in on a white horse and deliver. But you can't expect me to come in here and do it alone, even though Paladin (Holy Warrior) did. Those Western towns were smaller!"

Then a pause: "Not to worry; I've been fired more than Clint Eastwood's Magnum."

Laughs aside, McVie actually got the Devils out of their funk. Soon after he began orchestrating his band of skaters they completed a seven-game run with a 3-3-1 record. Not too bad under the circumstances.

Even though a seven-game losing streak followed, the Devils enthusiastically recovered and posted three triumphs in five contests. It now was January 1984 and many New Jersey fans already had made a mark on their new calendars.

January 15.

Some called it "Gretzky Is Going To Get It Day." 

The Great One was coming to East Rutherford for the first time since he had unleashed his Mickey Mouse insult. Devils revenge was the theme and everyone knew it would be the theme of the day.

Media types from all over the continent poured into Byrne Arena sensing that this match would also prove to be good hockey theater and they were right.

Oilers combative general manager-coach Glen (Slats) Sather knew it as well. When he came to the Edmonton bench for the pre-game skate he smiled seeing fans carrying signs that read, GRETZKY IS GOOFY.

Sather: "Before the game, Wayne was nervous because of the comments he had made. All things considered, the fans were good. They didn't overreact. I mean they could have had (TV Mouseketeer) Annette Funicello do the Anthem."

The Visiting skaters hardly were intimidated by neither the crowd nor the foe. When the Oilers took a 5-2 lead into the third period the home crowd feared another Mickey Mouse-type rout.

Ah, but the Devils would have none of that. As the capacity crowd of 19,023 waxed ecstatic, McVey's stickhandlers poured a pair of shots past goalie Andy Moog and now were one goal away from a revengeful tie.

But it was not to be. Despite a fifteen-shot final period the dauntless Devils went down with a 5-4 loss. 

Still, the home fans were impressed and so was the Edmonton media contingent. Edmonton Sun beat writer Dick Chubey called New Jersey's effort "a moral victory."

McVey was equally enthused. "We want to show NHL headquarters that we're trying to straighten things out. I like Waylon Jennings song that 'Sometimes it's Heaven. Sometimes it's Hell. And sometimes I don't even know.'"

Gretzky knew.

Classy as always, The Great One -- he had no goals and three assists in the confrontational game -- met the media mob head-on post-game and told it like it was.

"I felt my way through the game," he allowed. "I regret what I said. I didn't mean to insult anyone personally. But I'm twenty-three years-old and I made a mistake. 

"My father, who I learned a tremendous amount from, is 43 and he'll tell you he had made mistakes. It happened and it's something I have to live with. It's over and done with."

The press platoon eagerly awaited Wayne's opportunity to utter the secret words, "Mickey Mouse," but The Great One deked them and did not -- although it was close.

Gretzky admitted that he came to the game feeling good about his four-game scoring streak. "If I didn't have that streak going," he said, "I think there would have been a lot more talk of -- ah, ah..."

He was about to utter the words "Mickey Mouse" but deleted them from his chat just in time. Instead, he concluded with this cheery homily: "I learned one rule out of all this and that is not to criticize anyone in public."

The Devils were just as happy to put finis on this chapter. Before the Oilers game, they had ten wins and would add seven more before they concluded their season.

When all was said and done they again finished fifth in the Patrick Division with a 17-56-7 record; good for 41 points.

Ironically, the homestretch enveloped a drama all its own and to this day McVey's -- win if at all possible -- strategy still is debated among hockey scholars.

"After the Gretzky game," Tommy explained, "I wanted us to try and win as many hockey games as we could. It was the honorable thing to do."

No argument there -- except from the beat writers and columnists. They wanted New Jersey to finish last; behind Pittsburgh because there would have been a "reward" for losing. That prize was Mario Lemieux.

A physically big, extraordinarily talented Junior star, Mario was guaranteed to be the first pick in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. Finishing in the cellar would give New Jersey first pick at Lemieux and guarantee franchise success.

With the fervent support of owner Dr. John McMullen, McVie fulfilled his promise. On March 6, his Devils defeated Pittsburgh and on March 17th they took out the Bruins ensuring a fifth-place finish.

By contrast, Pittsburgh fans happily watched as the Penguins played as if caught in a riptide, drowning in the stretch. The Devils may not have obtained Lemieux but they exited 1983-84 remembered for having honor on their side.

As it happened they'd greet 1984-85 with a dynamic first-rounder, a new coach and, hopefully, a ladder climb in the Devils third season.

LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY THE DEVILS FACED A NEW SEASON WITHOUT MARIO LEMIEUX BUT WITH NEW OPTIMISM:

1. PROMISING DRAFT: Even without Lemieux, New Jersey had second pick in what was a rich Entry Draft that included Luc Robitaille, Al Iafrate and Ed Olczyk.

2. NEW FACE BEHIND THE BENCH: Ownership chose to start the third season with a new, highly-touted young coach.

3. RIPENING ACES: Early draftees such as Ken Daneyko, Pat Verbeek and John MacLain were honing their games to big-league sharpness.

4. HONOR MATTERS: The Devils organization was secure in the knowledge that its skaters never stopped trying to win in 1983-84. Honor was on New Jersey's side.

(NEXT WEEK: A NEW SEASON, A NEW COACH, A NEW ERA.)

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