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Grand finales: Top farewell seasons by NHL players

by John Kreiser

The only certainty in an NHL player's life is that at some time, he won't be an NHL player anymore.

For some, the end is just a matter of the years catching up to him. For others, it's related to injuries. Still others may opt to play elsewhere -- or have the decision made for them. But while some players' skills may have eroded to the point that there's no question their time is done, others leave while they're still capable of being solid contributors, if not stars.

Here's a look at some of the best finales in NHL history:

Mike Bossy

Final season: 1986-87 (38 goals, 37 assists, 75 points in 63 games)

Legendary player Mike Bossy speaks to the crowd at Nassau Coliseum on March 2, 2008, when the Islanders honored the 'Core of the Four' -- the 17 men who played on all four Cup-winning teams of the early 1980s. (Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Bossy began what turned out to be his final NHL season having scored at least 50 goals in each of his first nine, helping the New York Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups and a fifth straight trip to the Final. At age 30 and coming off a 61-goal, 123-point season, he was on course to pass Gordie Howe as the greatest goal-scorer in NHL history.

But in '86-87, Bossy's back decided it no longer wanted to cooperate. He felt a twinge in the back at training camp, and the injury got worse during the season, forcing him to miss 17 games and hampering him in several others. He had a career-low 38 goals, then was able to play in just six of the Isles' 14 playoff games and scored only twice.

Bossy sat out the 1987-88 season in hopes his back would heal -- but it didn't, and on Oct. 24, 1988, he officially announced his retirement. No player in NHL history has scored more goals in his final season.

Jean Beliveau

Final season: 1970-71 (25 goals, 51 assists, 76 points in 70 games)

After leading the Montreal Canadiens to nine Stanley Cups, Beliveau had considered retirement after the 1969-70 season, his 19th in the NHL. But the Canadiens missed the playoffs after a final-weekend collapse, and at the behest of GM Sam Pollock he returned for his 20th season in hopes of going out on a high note.

As Beliveau noted with typical understatement in his autobiography, "It turned out well for all concerned."

Not only did Beliveau bounce back from a subpar '69-70 season by putting up 25 goals, 51 assists and a team-leading 76 points in 70 games, he got to skate with the Stanley Cup one more time after leading the Canadiens to their 10th championship during his two decades with the team. Though there was no question that Beliveau, who turned 40 three months after the Canadiens won the Cup, could have played effectively for several more seasons, he was able to leave on the highest of high notes.

Ray Bourque

Final season: 2000-01 (7 goals, 52 assists, 59 points in 80 games)

Like Beliveau (whom he grew up watching as a boy in Montreal), Bourque was still near the top of his game in his final season -- he turned 41 midway through 2000-01 on the way to earning a First-Team All-Star berth. The longtime Boston star, playing in his first full season with the Colorado Avalanche after a March 2000 trade, wound up second in the Norris Trophy balloting to Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom.

More important to Bourque was doing something he'd never done in two decades in the NHL -- win the Stanley Cup. He earned his ring when Colorado beat New Jersey in Game 7 of the Final after having played a League-record total of 1,826 games without winning a Cup. Such was his teammates' esteem for Bourque that captain Joe Sakic handed the Cup to him for the honor of being the first player to take a victory lap.

Having finally won a Cup, the last unfulfilled accomplishment of a career that landed him in the Hall of Fame, Bourque retired a few days later.

Wayne Gretzky

Final season: 1998-99 (9 goals, 53 assists, 62 points in 70 games)

'The Great One' Wayne Gretzky waves to the crowd at Madison Square Garden after his last game, which featured the 1,963rd and final assist of his amazing career. (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

As he approached his 20th NHL season, there was no question that Gretzky was no longer the record-setter he had been in his youth. Still, he had put up 97 and 90 points in his first two seasons with the New York Rangers, leading the League in assists both times.

But after making the conference finals in 1996-97, his first season with the team, the Rangers came up short in '97-98 and were going nowhere as they struggled through the 1998-99 season. With no likelihood of major improvement on the horizon and no desire to relocate his family to another city, Gretzky stunned the hockey world on April 16, 1999, by announcing that he would retire. He played his final game two days later, earning his final point -- appropriately, an assist -- in the Rangers' 2-1 overtime loss to Pittsburgh.

Though he didn’t go out on the kind of high note that Beliveau and Bourque did, Gretzky did get to leave on his own terms, as the greatest scorer in NHL history.

Hakan Loob

Final season: 1988-89 (27 goals, 58 assists, 85 points in 79 games)

The Flames took a flier on Loob, a speedy forward from Sweden, drafting him in the sixth round in 1980 with hopes that he might come to North America someday. It took three years, but in 1983-84, they convinced the 23-year-old to make the move.

Loob came to the NHL with the tag of being the "Swedish Wayne Gretzky" after scoring 42 goals and putting up 76 points in 36 games with Farjestad of the Swedish League in 1982-83. He wasn't Gretzky, but he was pretty good, scoring at least 30 goals in each of his first three seasons with the Flames, then bouncing back after a poor season in 1986-87 by becoming the first Swedish-born player to reach the 50-goal mark on the way to a 106-point season in '87-88.

The 28-year-old tapered off somewhat the following season, but still had 27 goals and a career-high 58 assists for 85 points during the regular season -- then added eight goals and 17 points in the playoffs to help the Flames win their first Stanley Cup.

But during the playoffs, he made it known that he wouldn't be back the following fall -- in fact, he turned down a big contract offer from the Flames to delay his return to Sweden. He played seven more seasons with Farjestad and helped Sweden win the gold medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Loob's 58 assists and 85 points are the most by any player in his final NHL season.

Kenny Wharram

Final season: 1968-69 (30 goals, 39 assists, 69 points in 76 games)

Wharram was part of Chicago's famed "Scooter Line" in the 1960s, playing on the right side with Stan Mikita in the middle, with Ab McDonald, and later Doug Mohns, on the left. He was a member of the Hawks' 1961 Stanley Cup champs, but didn't blossom as a scorer until three years later, when he fired home 39 goals.

Wharram, one of the NHL's fastest skaters, was coming off a 30-goal season in 1968-69, and the Hawks were among the NHL's best teams when he came to training camp that fall. But on Sept. 16, 1969, Wharram began having chest pains. He was diagnosed with myocarditis, a virus that attacks the muscles of the heart with symptoms similar to a coronary attack.

Though the disease wasn't fatal, the stress of playing hockey made a return out of the question. After sitting out the 1969-70 season, he officially retired in September 1970 after 766 NHL games in which he scored 252 goals and 533 points.

Yvon Lambert

Final season: 1981-82 (25 goals, 39 assists, 64 points in 77 games)

Yvon Lambert, who notched 206 goals and 273 assists in his career, celebrates the Canadiens' 1978 Cup victory in Boston, one of his four championships. (Photo: Steve Babineau /Getty Images)

Lambert was a valuable role player on the powerhouse Montreal teams of the 1970s, helping the Canadiens to four straight Stanley Cups and earning a place in franchise lore by scoring the overtime winner against Boston in the 1979 Semifinals.

Scotty Bowman, who had been his coach in Montreal, left for Buffalo after the Habs won the 1979 Cup and took Lambert in the 1981 Waiver Draft prior to the start of the season. He pumped home 25 goals and finished with 64 points for his new team -- but at training camp the following fall, the 32-year-old was given the choice of retiring or being sent to the Sabres' AHL farm team in Rochester.

He opted to go to the AHL and scored 26 goals while helping the Americans win the Calder Cup, adding that to one he won with Nova Scotia before joining the Canadiens. After scoring 27 goals and 70 points with Rochester the following season, leading the Americans to the AHL Finals, he called it a career with 206 goals and 479 points -- plus those four Stanley Cups and two AHL titles.

Gordie Howe

Final season: 1979-80 (15 goals, 26 assists, 41 points in 80 games)

Of all the amazing things Mr. Hockey accomplished in his career, playing in all 80 games for the Hartford Whalers at the age of 51 may be the most incredible.

Howe and Beliveau both retired in 1971 -- Howe at the age of 43, making him three years older than Beliveau. But after two seasons in the Detroit Red Wings' front office, he returned to the ice with the WHA's Houston Aeros to skate with his sons Mark and Marty. They spent four seasons in Houston and two more with the New England Whalers.

When the WHA merged with the NHL in the summer of 1979, Howe returned to NHL with the renamed Hartford Whalers for one final season, during which he took a regular shift for all 80 games, scored 15 goals and helped the Whalers to the playoffs before finally calling it a career a few weeks after his 52nd birthday.

Many of the scoring marks Howe set have been passed since his retirement. His status as the oldest player to skate in the NHL and the only one to do so in five decades should be secure for generations.

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