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20 years ago, Gretzky topped 'em all

by Shawn P. Roarke
Wayne Gretzky broke a slew of records during a singular Hall of Fame career that literally rewrote the NHL's record book, but none were as bittersweet as the biggest record of them all -- the career points total.

Twenty years ago today -- Oct. 15, 1989 -- Gretzky, then with the Los Angeles Kings, scored a goal against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers, to give him 1,851 points -- a mind-boggling total considering Gretzky was in his just 11th NHL season.

But with a characteristic lightning-fast flick of the wrist that slipped a loose puck -- one that had bounced off the leg of linemate Dave Taylor and skittered across the slot -- past Edmonton goalie Bill Ranford, not only give him the coveted record, but also tied up the game.

"I don't know what made me go there," Gretzky told reporters afterward. "I'm usually the outlet guy."

It had been a mad scramble as the King tried to tie the game and Gretzky tried to set another record. Kings coach Tom Webster had pulled goalie Mario Gosselin in favor of the extra attacker. So, Gretzky forewent residence in "his office" -- behind the net, distributing the puck to linemates -- to join the milling mass of humanity in front of Ranford.

In a fitting nod to history, the Edmonton Coliseum erupted in cheers for the man that had led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups before being traded to the Kings a year earlier in a seismic deal that changed the very landscape of the NHL.

His Los Angeles teammates on the ice at the time -- forwards Bernie Nicholls, Taylor and Luc Robitaille, and defensemen Steve Duchesne and Larry Robinson -- mobbed him as Gretzky acknowledged his latest accomplishment in his understated way.

Unfortunately for the Great One, Gretzky had to surpass Gordie Howe to hold this record. The Detroit Red Wings legend, and Gretzky's childhood hero, had held the scoring crown for 29 years after passing Maurice Richard's mark of 946 points on Jan. 16, 1960..

So, there was a melancholy behind Gretzky's postgame smile as he discussed his latest accomplishment.

"I kissed that record goodbye a long time ago, when Wayne started getting 200 points a year. He's good and I know, because I played with him. If you want to tell me he's the greatest player of all time, I have no argument at all."
-- Gordie Howe on Wayne Gretzky

"I don't care how far past his record I go, he'll always be the greatest player who ever lived," Gretzky said after that game, a game in which he also scored the winning goal in overtime as the Kings took home a 5-4 victory. "And the classiest, too. See, one of the great things about (Howe) is that he doesn't get into comparing eras. You'll never get him to say that the competition now is watered down."
It took Howe 26 years to set his points' mark in the Original Six Era of the NHL. Some argue that with just six teams -- and at most 140 or so NHL jobs available -- the competition and talent level was much higher during Howe's prime than it was in the 21-team NHL in which Gretzky scored the majority of his points.

But Howe wasn't buying any that argument that night in Edmonton, where he was on hand to see his name removed from the points' record. He still doesn't buy it.  

"I kissed that record goodbye a long time ago, when Wayne started getting 200 points a year," Howe said then. "He's good and I know, because I played with him. If you want to tell me he's the greatest player of all time, I have no argument at all."

And Howe was intimately familiar with Gretzky's career. Not only did they play together on a WHA All-Star team in 1979, but their paths had crossed far earlier.

Gretzky met his hero, Howe, when he was 11 at a sports banquet in Gretzky's hometown of Branford, Ont.. Gretzky was expected to speak, but was struggling before the crowd. It was Howe that saved the day.

"When someone has done what this kid has done in the rink, he doesn't have to say anything," Howe said at the time.

What had Gretzky done? He only scored 378 goals in a 78-game season with the Brantford Steelers as a 10-year-old.

A few years later, Howe told Gretzky that the youngster had two eyes and one mouth and he should keep the two open and the one closed. Gretzky cited that advice several times throughout his pro hockey career when trying to explain his success.

Upon his retirement 10 years after breaking Howe's points' record, Gretzky held 40 regular-season records, 15 Stanley Cup Playoff records, and six All-Star Game records. He is the only NHL player to total more than 200 points in one season, doing it four times. In addition, he tallied more than 100 points in 15 NHL seasons.

Gretzky finished his career with 2,857 points, a mark that may never be broken.
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