has held the NHL single-season record for goals for more than a quarter-century, and it doesn't look like anyone will catch his mark of 92 in the foreseeable future.
But in talking to Gretzky a couple of decades after he set the mark in 1981-82, he still had one regret.
"It was a thrill to get 92 goals, but in some ways, I thought I let myself down by not getting 100," Gretzky said two decades later when asked if he was disappointed that he hadn't hit the century mark. "Maybe I should have pushed myself more."
In the 26 years since Gretzky made hockey history with the Edmonton Oilers, 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 goals this past season were the most by anyone in more that a decade.
But as former Edmonton teammate Kevin Lowe remembered years later, the thing about Gretzky was that he was never satisfied.
"If he scored one goal, he wanted two," said Lowe, now the general manager of the Oilers. "If he scored two, he wanted three. He always wanted more. 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."
Nowhere was that more evident than on Dec. 30, 1981, when Gretzky scored five times to reach the 50-goal mark in the Oilers' 39th game. No one has come close to equaling that feat.
Gretzky knew right away that the 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," he said of his first goal that night. "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 (goalie 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 dunked it into the empty net for No. 50. The Northlands Coliseum erupted as his teammates mobbed him.
"[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."
Former teammate Dave Hunter still marvels at that performance -- and the 92-goal season.
"I was there. That was extraordinary," he said. "Five goals against the Flyers in Edmonton -- it was unbelievable. With Wayne, you never knew what you'd see. I just liked sitting on the bench watching him."
Another former teammate, goaltender Andy Moog, was also in Edmonton for the game, but not at the arena.
"That was bittersweet for me that night. I was at home in Edmonton, packing my apartment. I had just been told I was heading to the minors. I watched it on TV -- watching through my tears as Gretz got 50 goals. It was incredible to watch," he told NHL.com.
Gretzky's goal-scoring outburst in 1981-82 was another sign of his genius.
He entered his third NHL season with two Hart trophies as MVP and one Art Ross Trophy as the League scoring leader, having led the Oilers to their first Playoff berth in 1980-81. Though he'd scored 51 and 55 goals in his first two seasons, the consensus among the rest of the NHL was that defenders were better off making Gretzky shoot, because his passing skills were so deadly.
Gretzky realized that defenses were playing off him, so he started firing away.
"I think Gretz became the ultimate opportunist -- if you gave him something, he'd take it, whether it was an opportunity to pass the puck or shoot the puck," said Moog, now director of professional development for the Dallas Stars. "He was seeking out and trying to find opportunities to create offense, and whatever you gave him, he was prepared to take."
After taking 269 and 261 shots in his first two seasons, Gretzky led the NHL with 369 in 81-82. 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. On Halloween, in the Oilers' 13th game, Gretzky scored four times in an 11-4 rout of Quebec—the first of 10 hat tricks he recorded that season. "It started a snowball effect," says Gretzky, who despite 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. 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."
The goal-scoring burst left goaltenders in a bind.
"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 says of his pursuit of Richard and Bossy's 50-in-50 mark.
|Phil Esposito's record of 76 goals in a season fell toe Gretzky in just 62 games, shortly after the Great One scored 50 goals in 39 contests.
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, including the 92 goals.
Not bad for a skinny 21-year-old who could have passed for a stick boy. But in Gretzky's case, appearances were deceiving.
"That was my whole career," joked Hunter of Gretzky's 92-goal season. "I played with a lot of great players -- Glenn Anderson, Messier, Paul Coffey -- but to see that record of 92 goals was extraordinary. Wayne was dedicated, focused and he played every night.
"It's hard to fathom, hard to believe a guy could come in and get that many goals in one year, break every record. We were young guys and we idolized guys like Phil Esposito. Gretz had a lot of respect for the eras before him. That's why he was so special. He was very humble, even when he scored 92 goals. That's why I have so much respect for Wayne."
Gretzky left the NHL in 1999 with the League record for goals, assists and points -- and 58 other marks. A couple have been broken since then, but there has yet to be anyone who's matched his combination of skill and smarts as an offensive force.
Is Gretzky's mark unbreakable? Moog feels it will be difficult -- but maybe not impossible.
"Weren't we talking a few years ago about whether anyone was going to score 50 again, and we're surpassed that," Moog said. "I think there's a general consensus within the NHL community that offense is vital and we have to find ways to create more offensive opportunities and have more goals scored. Under those circumstances, I think there's the possibility that someone might get the chances to score 92. Whether they do or not is another question."
Gretzky, who once said Sidney Crosby could top his scoring marks, thinks Ovechkin might be able to do it. The Washington star had 163 goals in his first three NHL seasons, a mark exceeded only by Gretzky (198) and Mike Bossy (177).
"I think he could score 90 in a season," Gretzky told the Edmonton Journal in March. "Ovechkin has the release and hands that Bossy had. He's got the quickness that (Jari) Kurri had, and he's got the toughness that (Mark) Messier had. He's the whole package, He just loves to score."
So did Gretzky. And no one has ever done it better.