In reflecting on the greatest night in the greatest season by hockey's greatest scorer, Wayne Gretzky still remembers the goals that got away, rather than the ones he scored.
"I had eight or nine good chances. Their goalie made some terrific saves," The Great One said about Dec. 30, 1981.
Goalie or not, Gretzky had a night to remember, scoring five times to shatter one of the NHL's most hallowed standards -- 50 goals in 50 games, a mark set by Maurice "The Rocket" Richard in 1944-45 and not equaled until 1980-81, when the New York Islanders' Mike Bossy did it. The five-goal night gave Gretzky 50 in 39 games en route to a record-setting 92-goal season.
Neither mark has been seriously threatened since.
Gretzky entered his third NHL season with two Hart Trophies as the League's MVP and two Art Ross Trophies as the scoring leader, having led the Edmonton Oilers to their first playoff berth the previous spring. Though he'd scored 51 and 55 goals in his first two NHL seasons, the consensus among opponents was that defenders were better off making Gretzky shoot because his passing skills were so deadly.
Gretzky realized that defenses were playing off him, and he made the decision to change his style.
"I don't think anyone had to tell him to shoot more," remembered Kevin Lowe, then Gretzky's teammate with Edmonton and now the Oilers' president. "I think that teams may have started to pay more attention to covering his wings and left him alone. And one thing about Wayne: He always made the right play."
Gretzky came out firing -- after taking 269 and 261 shots in his first two seasons, he led the NHL with 369 in 1981-82. Still, it took No. 99 three games to get No. 1, the tie-breaking goal in a 7-4 victory over the Kings. But once he found the range, he never lost it. In the Oilers' 13th game on Halloween, Gretzky connected for four goals in an 11-4 rout of Quebec -- the first of 10 hat tricks he recorded that season.
"It started a snowball effect," said Gretzky, who was still setting up goals at a record pace.
The snowball kept rolling: He had two goals in the next game against Toronto and never dipped below a goal-a-game pace again.
"Around the 25th game (actually Game 24 against Los Angeles on Nov. 25), I had another four-goal game," he remembered. "That gave me 28 and it's when I knew I could get 50 in 50 games -- that was the benchmark set by Rocket Richard and Mike Bossy."
"What separated Wayne from everyone else was his passion for the game. All stars have a love for the game. What separates players like Wayne is the passion -- he's like Michael Jordan. They take it to the next level." --Kevin Lowe
The word was out: Lay off Gretzky and he'll kill you. Of course, stopping him was no easy task.
"He started to recognize the fear that goaltenders had of him," Lowe said. "Not the same kind of fear that Bobby Hull generated -- this was more like, 'What's he going to do with the puck?' And Wayne didn't waste shots. He had a deceivingly hard shot, a good backhand, and could shoot a change-up."
Gretzky reached the 40-goal mark in Game 36 against Calgary, got No. 41 in the next game against Vancouver, and connected for a second four-goal game against Los Angeles on Dec. 27, giving him 45 in 38 games.
"I thought to myself, 'You can't choke now,'" he said.
Not only did Gretzky not choke, he obliterated one of hockey's most famous marks by scoring five times against Philadelphia on Dec. 30 to give him 50 goals in 39 games -- an achievement that has stood untouched for nearly three decades.
Gretzky said years later that he knew right away this game would be special.
"Charlie Huddy took a shot from the left point that bounced off the boards and right to me at the corner of the net, and I put it in," Gretzky said of his first goal. "I thought to myself, 'How fortunate.' I got the 47th, the 48th, and the 49th, but it was ironic -- I had eight or nine point-blank chances and [Flyers goaltender] Pete Peeters made some great saves."
Peeters wasn't around for the historic tally. With the Flyers trailing 6-5, he was on the bench when Glenn Anderson got control of the puck in the final minute and skimmed it up the middle. Gretzky grabbed the puck, raced down ice, and put it into the empty net for No. 50. The Northlands Coliseum erupted as his teammates mobbed him.
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"[Flyers forward] Bill Barber said that if I were going in alone on an empty net for the 50th goal, he'd throw his stick [giving him an automatic goal]," Gretzky remembered. "That would have made a great trivia question -- how I scored my 50th goal without putting the puck into the net."
Ironically, one night after torturing one of the NHL's best defenses, Gretzky was blanked against one the worst -- he went scoreless in Edmonton's 3-1 loss to Vancouver. But it took Gretzky only 24 more games to shatter Phil Esposito's single-season mark of 76 goals. The record-setter came on Feb. 24 in Buffalo, when Gretzky fired a wrist shot past Don Edwards with 6:36 remaining for goal No. 77.
For good measure, he added Nos. 78 and 79 in the final two minutes -- and 13 more goals in the Oilers' final 16 games, meaning that not only had he beaten Esposito's record, he'd obliterated it. He did the same thing with Espo's mark of 152 points, finishing with 212.
Not bad for a skinny 21-year-old who could have passed for a stickboy. But in Gretzky's case, appearances were deceiving.
"What separated Wayne from everyone else was his passion for the game," Lowe said. "All stars have a love for the game. What separates players like Wayne is the passion -- he's like Michael Jordan. They take it to the next level."
The one regret Gretzky had about his record-setting season was that he felt he should have scored more.
"It was a thrill to get 92 goals, but in some ways, I thought I let myself down by not getting 100," he remembered. "Maybe I should have pushed myself more."
In the 29 years since Gretzky made hockey history, only two other players, Brett Hull (86 in 1990-91) and Mario Lemieux (85 in 1988-89) have come within hailing distance of Gretzky's mark. No one has broken 70 goals in a season since 1992-93, when Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne each had 76, and Alex Ovechkin's 65 in 2007-08 is the most of anyone in the 21st century.
It certainly looks like Gretzky's record is safe for a while.
WAYNE GRETZKY RW - CAREER STATS G-A-P: 894-1,963-2,857 GP: 1,487 | PIM: 577
Great scorers such as Pavel Bure, Jaromir Jagr and Joe Sakic have come and gone without mounting a serious challenge to Gretzky's gold standard. Today's top snipers like Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby have yet to do so, either -- Ovechkin's 65 goals in 2007-08 represent the only 60-goal season since the mid-1990s.
Given today's style of play and improved goaltending, the magnitude of Gretzky's accomplishment will only grow over time, as will the difficulty of breaking his mark.
"I don't think so," Huddy told NHL.com when asked if anyone would ever catch Gretzky's marks. "Those numbers are pretty scary. I mean, we've seen the best of some guys with Crosby and Ovechkin and Mario and guys like that -- and who is close? '
"Those were special years where he put up those kinds of numbers. I just can't see it. I guess you never say never, but I don't think it's going to happen."