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50 Forgotten Stories: Stopping Wayne Gretzky at 51

Recalling the game where the LA Kings halted one of the most unbreakable records in NHL history

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

Everyone remembers "The Miracle on Manchester."

But the underdog LA Kings managed to foil the powerful Edmonton Oilers on other occasions in the '80s.

Memorably, on January 28, 1984, the Kings halted Wayne Gretzky's consecutive point-scoring streak at 51 games.

This still-standing mark, one of Gretzky's 60 official NHL records, is also considered one of his most unbreakable.

Recently, LAKings.com caught up with Rogie Vachon, Jay Wells, and Markus Mattsson, and they recounted how, for one night, they stopped the Great One.

Quotes from Gretzky, Sam McManis, Don Wittman, and Howie Meeker are from the game or post-game.

For a January game in Edmonton, this was no normal contest.

Of course, there was Gretzky's streak. Hockey Night in Canada was televising it. The Oilers boasted a 38-8-5 record, while the Kings were in turmoil - they had just canned Don Perry and his 14-27-9 mark. The recently-retired Rogie Vachon had just been named interim head coach.

Watch: LA Kings Stop Gretzky's 51-Game Point Streak (Jan.28,1984)

Jay Wells, Kings defenseman: There wasn't a heckuva a lot of excitement with the LA Kings except when we played Edmonton. [Then] there was a lot of excitement. A lot of press.

Gretzky had rung up a league-leading 153 points during his streak, a staggering 68 points ahead of his closest competitor. And of course, he tormented his Smythe Division rivals with frequency, notching 12 points in the first five LA-Edmonton clashes of 1983-84.

Not surprisingly, how to contain Gretzky could be an all-consuming topic of conversation for the opposition.

Wells: We had so many talks over my career about Wayne Gretzky.

I remember going into the playoffs one year with Wayne … and we had a breakdown video. We talked … I bet you, for half an hour, on just Wayne alone and his tendencies and what to look for. It was like there was nobody else on [the Oilers]. All we had to do was focus on Wayne and we would've won, right?

After the game, we all looked at each other and said, "Well, we watched him do it." Because he ended up with six points that night. (laughs) He did exactly what the video said. It was a great breakdown.

[Another time], we had a philosophy that we were going to follow him around. Whenever Gretzky came on, Phil [Sykes] came on. He shadowed Wayne. Then somebody else shadowed Phil Sykes. So then somebody else shadowed that person. Ended up being about four or six people going around in like a little snake all over the ice.

After the first or second period, it got to be a joke. We had so many people chasing Wayne, he was like the engine of a train.

Los Angeles had played the night before in Calgary, coming out with a 2-2 tie in Vachon's debut behind the bench. But despite his coaching inexperience, the rookie had a plan for the Great One.

Rogie Vachon, Kings head coach: There wasn't a lot of strategy in those days against Wayne and that team. You tried to minimize mistakes. That night, I decided to [use Mark] Hardy and Wells every time Wayne was on the ice. I figured we'd put our best two defensemen together. We'd have a better chance.

Wells: This is the first game we've tried this.

Vachon: Most of the time, [Hardy and Wells] weren't playing together.

Wells: [Mark and I] complemented each other. He could move the puck better than I could. But then again, I was more physical, maybe more defensive-minded than he was.

Vachon: We tried to contain [Gretzky]. We never thought at the start, even putting our top two defensemen against him, that was going to stop him. We didn't think so. I didn't think so anyway.

Wells: We had sort of a plan that every time he'd come over, whether he'd come down my side or the other side, that one of us would challenge him and try to get the puck out of his hands as quickly as possible, then watch him closely. And the other guy's job was to direct backcheckers and pick up the loose men coming late.

During the first period, Gretzky, rushing down the right wing, drew goalie Markus Mattsson away from the crease and found an unmarked Charlie Huddy in the slot. Huddy missed a wide-open net from about 20 feet out.

Little did the Oilers know, but this ended up being Gretzky's best opportunity to continue his streak.

Don Wittman, Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play announcer: For Huddy … he fired it wide! He will never have a better opportunity. (from broadcast)

Markus Mattsson, Kings goaltender: Maybe I challenged Gretzky too much. (laughs)

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers center: I jokingly told Charlie after the period that that one might be my last chance. I was kidding, but I guess that really did it. (McManis, Sam. "Kings Do It Again - Gretzky Streak Over." Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1984.)

Vachon: Oh man, that was not the only one. These guys, they hit the post, they missed empty nets.

In the second period, the Kings raced out to a 3-0 lead. Bernie Nicholls scored a pair, while Anders Håkansson added another.

Howie Meeker, Hockey Night in Canada color commentator: They're giving the Edmonton Oilers a lesson in sound defensive hockey and how to do some forechecking. Take the man, not the puck in the other end. Move it out from the corner, get some shots on the net, and score some goals. (after second period)

The Wells-Hardy pairing played capably, but Gretzky was as dangerous as ever. This, despite coping with a bruised shoulder.

Ironically, it was Dave Taylor who had injured Gretzky, knocking the Great One's shoulder into the boards the week before.

Wittman: And Gretzky … appears to be favoring that shoulder again. (during second period)

Gretzky: I thought about not playing.

Vachon: Wayne that night, he could've had 10 points. (laughs)

Gretzky: But I didn't want the streak to end with me in the stands. It's sore.

Mattsson: I didn't see that. He was playing the same.

Vachon: He looked pretty healthy to me.

Wells: We had a plan and we worked hard at it. He still got his opportunities.

Down 4-1, Gretzky played most of the game's last five minutes in an attempt to keep his streak alive. With about three minutes left, Edmonton's Tom Gorence scored. Gretzky, who was involved on the goal, thought he had earned an assist. But he was actually the third player to touch the puck before Gorence.

Then, with Andy Moog pulled and just two seconds left, Gretzky found himself alone with the puck, in front of Mattsson.

Gretzky: I couldn't jam it past him.

Mattsson: Good. I'm still in the books.

Gretzky skated off, Northlands Coliseum saluting him. But Mattsson deserved an ovation as well, stopping 26 of 28 shots, many dangerous. The Finn played only 38 games over two seasons with the Kings, and this was perhaps his finest performance in Forum blue and gold.

Vachon: My little goalie played fantastic that night.

Wells: Our goalie stood on his head that game.

Mattsson: He never had really good chances and a lot of credit goes to the defensemen. ("Kings halt Gretzky's scoring streak at 51 games." Associated Press, January 29, 1984.)

Vachon: He probably wound up playing the best game in his life. He was very sharp, made a lot of big saves.

Mattsson: I don't know if Rogie's getting old. (laughs) I wasn't that good.

Wells: He was more of a theatrical goaltender. Sort of like a highlight save, every save he made.

Mattsson: That was the only time I was [a national story] in my career.

This might have been the high point of another down season for LA. Vachon was replaced after the game by Roger Neilson, but the Kings still missed the playoffs. Edmonton went on to win their first Stanley Cup.

With his streak snapped, Gretzky took six games off to heal his shoulder. He still managed to finish the season with 205 points.

Sam McManis, Los Angeles Times: Fighting off the distractions of Friday's firing of [Head] Coach Don Perry and General Manager George Maguire, the Kings rallied around interim Coach Rogie Vachon and produced their best game of the season.

Wells: Everything aligned perfectly that one game.

Gretzky: They did a great job tonight. They deserved to win. They deserved to stop the streak.

Wells: The lesser team can win on a given night if everybody buys into that one system and plays their heart out.

Vachon: Really, in those days, [the Kings] were not there to stop a [scoring] streak. You know what I mean? It just happened that we did.

Wells: That game, we played together as a unit. It was probably one of the finer games of our season.

Vachon: We were very lucky. We just wanted to win the game. It just happened we stopped him.

For the Oilers, it was just another regular season tilt. For Gretzky, it was just one of many records. But for the Kings, it was just a little more special.

Vachon: After the game, I asked the trainer to go into Edmonton's room and have Wayne sign an autographed stick for my [11-year-old] son Nicholas. After all this, and he did.

Mattsson: I have the tape. But I haven't watched it.

Wells: When Mark [Hardy] and I get together, we talk about it. We shut him down and whatever … and how nobody really knows who the defensemen were because they never ever mention it.

Vachon: My son still has the stick. That was pretty classy of him.

Special thanks to Jamie Tran and hockey historian Joe Pelletier for their help with this article.

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Sheng Peng is a freelance hockey writer based out of Los Angeles, California. He covers the LA Kings and Ontario Reign for HockeyBuzz. His work has also appeared on VICE Sports, The Hockey News, and SB Nation's Jewels from the Crown

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