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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: The Great Gretzky Uproar

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

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

Apart from his enormous scoring talents, the one thing you could say about Wayne Gretzky, the man, was that The Great One was a good guy. 

Still is.

He played the game the way Lord Stanley of Preston wanted it played and he handled the fans, media and even foes with consummate class.

With one exception.

Significantly, that exception involved the New Jersey Devils in the club's second National Hockey League season, 1983-84.  

What the normally wonderful Wayne said about the Garden State Skaters in Edmonton on the night of November 19, 1983, forever will live in the "Infamy" section of New Jersey sports history.

But before we get to the nitty and gritty, you should know that this tale's prelude began with the Devils enthusiastic training camp in September 1983.

"We made strides last year," general manager-coach Billy MacMillan asserted, "and I'm hopeful we'll make even more this year."

 MacMillan's hopes eventually dissolved with the facts on ice -- defeats. A one-two punch started with a loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden followed by ditto two nights later at Byrne Arena in The Meadowlands.

Momentary joy followed a 6-3 triumph at Detroit, especially since Ron Low starred in goal for New Jersey. With Low in tandem with Glenn (Chico) Resch, coach MacMillan was secure in knowing that netminding was a savored asset.

But there were enough potential headaches to suggest that Mac should stock up on several gross of aspirin. Ten consecutive early season losses felt for the franchise like a brace of torpedoes slamming into The Good Ship Devil. 

Fortunately, an occasional victory would buoy the boys in Jersey livery. 

One was a stunning 43-save Resch performance against the Blackhawks for a 6-3 Jersey bounce. Six different Devils sealed that deal with goals.

That, however, was a mere sip for Garden State fans whose thirst for wins increased as the calendar turned into November. Sadly, five straight defeats deflated the club as it jetted to Edmonton for a game against Gretzky, Inc.

On this unforgettable November night, MacMillan chose Ron Low as his starting puck-stopper; a move that made consummate sense both artistically and emotionally.

After all who would know the Oilers shooters better than Low? He had played four seasons alongside Gretzky, Mark Messier and assorted other Edmonton aces before being traded to New Jersey in 1983. 

"We had pretty strong ties," said Oilers defenseman Kevin Lowe. "Ronnie had been part of our team when we were just beginning to jell. He was one guy you always could talk to no matter what uniform he was wearing."

More than that -- as an extremely keen competitor -- Low wanted nothing more than to embarrass his old buddies with a sterling night of rubber-stopping at Northlands Coliseum.

Ron's professional ego was on the line and knowing Low as he did, Gretzky was keenly aware of his pal's feelings once the deluge of pucks began raining through Ronnie's crease.

"The Oilers were fast and furious," wrote Tim Sullivan, author of Battle On The Hudson. "They showed no mercy."

Coach Glen Sather's assorted howitzers fired eight goals past Low through two periods of play. The rubber barrage was so overwhelming that -- as an act of pure mercy -- MacMillan gave Low a third period sabbatical.

Ronnie's replacement, Resch, got riddled with five more bazookas in the last half of the third period. Few final buzzers were greeted with more relief than for MacMillan's men who were battered on the wrong side of a 13-4 smack-down.

As for the Gretzky-Low off-ice friendship, that disappeared with Wayne's three red lights and five assists over sixty minutes of overwhelming play. But that was only Part One of the Wayne-Ronnie passion play. 

When the curtain came down on the game, the curtain went up in the home team's dressing room. A posse of print and electronic reporters descended on The Great One who by that time was considered the "face" of the NHL.

The opening question -- "What did you think of Low's bombardment?" -- elicited a comment that eventually would explode across the continent.

Gretzky: "It got to a point where it wasn't even funny. How long has it been for the Devils? It's time they got their act together. They're ruining the whole league."

Then, a pause, and Wayne continued his filibuster: "The Devils had better stop running a Mickey Mouse operation and put somebody on ice. It's not a question of not working. It's a question of talent. I feel sorry for Ronnie and New Jersey.

"The thirty-seven shots we took were all good shots. They struggled in Kansas City; the were awful in Colorado and now look what's happening."

From a public relations standpoint, the Devils got a momentary media respite. Because the game took place on a Saturday night -- late for the Met Area newspapers -- the journals only carried the score, which hardly told the story.

But a story is a story no matter how you shake it and soon enough Gretzky's hostile diatribe made the Monday headlines, nationwide.

GRETZKY TAKES SLAP AT DEVILS ORGANIZATION shouted USA Today. 

Or, The New York Post: GRETZKY: DEVILS ARE MICKEY MOUSE TEAM.

Fan outrage reverberated throughout the Garden State; much more than Wayne could have expected. What was difficult for Gretzky to explain was that he was more sympathizing with his buddy, Ron Low, than anything.

"You would have thought I was criticizing Miss Newark or something," Wayne went on. "I was feeling so bad about the way we'd killed them and I like some of their guys like Ronnie and Chico.

"I made the mistake off trying to divert the blame from those guys, but maybe it wasn't my place to lay blame or divert it."

Nice try, Great one, but in Devils eyes, you have become the GRATE one.

Gretzky had served grated horseradish and now it was the Devils turn to return the bitter herbs. 

And that they did but not before other exploding events would shake the franchise's foundation!

(NEXT WEEK: THE DEVILS COUNTERATTACK VS. GRETZKY)

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