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100 Greatest NHL Players

100 Greatest Players

Mike Gartner: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Dazzling shooter, blazing skater had 17 30-goal seasons

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

"How do you stop Mike Gartner?" It was a question NHL opponents pondered in the 1980s and '90s, season after season. They didn't come up with many good solutions.

In the world's fastest sport, Gartner was the fastest player. Unlike many quick skaters, Gartner could handle the puck, pass it and get off blistering drives in full flight. His arsenal of shots -- all varieties and from all distances -- made him one of hockey's most dangerous forwards. He could score from everywhere and get there faster than anyone. Woe to the wing and defenseman assigned to check him - and double-woe to the goalies he faced.

 

Video: Mike Gartner had 17 seasons with 30-plus goals

 

"There's no other player from our era that I remember who could come full speed down the right wing and take a slap shot that was so hard, it was either going in or was going to kill the goalie," former teammate Craig Laughlin told Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post with perhaps only a teaspoon of exaggeration. 

"I was kind of afraid of Mike Gartner," former goaltender Glenn Healy said in Gil Martin's book "Ice Wars." "He could beat you from 50 feet out and he was deadly in closer." 

He beat Healy and nearly everyone else for 20 NHL seasons with the Washington Capitals, Minnesota North Stars, New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Phoenix Coyotes, finishing in 1998 with 708 goals, a total that placed him fifth all-time behind Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne and Phil Esposito. Gartner's 627 assists placed him fifth all-time among NHL right wings, and his 1,335 points ranked fourth by a right wing.

Gartner scored 50 goals in a season just once, although he came close several other times. But no one, not even Gretzky, could match his consistency; Gartner had 17 seasons with at least 30 goals. Fifteen of them came consecutively. He was also the first NHL player to have a 30-goal season for five teams.

 

MIKE GARTNER CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,432 | Goals: 708 | Assists: 627 | Points: 1,335

 

The only two times Gartner failed to reach 30 came in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, when he also missed time with a collapsed lung, and his final season, 1997-98, when he turned 38 and missed 20 games following knee surgery.

Most remarkable for this sharpshooter was that Gartner's eyesight was less than sharp. His right eye suffered from amblyopia, or "lazy eye," reducing its clarity. And in February 1983, a puck hit his "good" eye, the left one, temporarily damaging his optic nerve. That led to his becoming one of the first NHL players to permanently attach a visor to his helmet.

In addition to his offensive excellence, Gartner played a defensively responsible game. He drove the net hard, never shied away from physical play and proved resilient bouncing back from injuries. He dedicated countless hours perfecting those areas of his game he felt were deficient, notably his puck-handling.

A deeply religious man of high character, Gartner also functioned as an excellent leader and ambassador for his teams, one reason he was a desirable trade target.

"We got him, in part, because he's a good example for our younger players," North Stars coach Pierre Page said of Gartner, who was traded to Minnesota by Washington on March 7, 1989. "This guy has class over class over class."

Rangers captain Mark Messier said, "He's the ultimate team player. He's a hard worker who sets a strong example. I find it's inspiring to play with him." 

When the puck dropped, Gartner was all about speed. He won the fastest skater competition at the NHL All-Star Game three times, his record for the quickest lap around the ice -- 13.386 seconds, set when he was 36 in 1996 -- lasting for 20 years until Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings broke it.

"It's amazing what great shape he is in," Roger Neilson, his then-coach with the Rangers, told The New York Times in 1992, when Gartner turned 33. "He could play every shift if I wanted him to. He has great endurance."

"There are times I look at Mike Gartner and I just feel old," 22-year-old Rangers teammate Doug Weight said after a practice that season.

"I can make it 10 blocks with him when I'm on my bike, but then I have to turn around and go home," Gartner's 8-year-old son, Josh, said, referring to his father's training sessions after the forward's MVP performance at the 1993 NHL All-Star Game, when he had four goals and an assist.

"He can thank his parents for the genetics and he can thank himself for looking after himself," Mike Keenan, who succeeded Neilson as Rangers coach, told the Times in '93.

Gartner -- born Oct. 29, 1959, in Ottawa and raised in the Toronto area -- could also thank his father, Alf, once an amateur goalie, for insisting he augment his natural talents with power skating lessons for three summers before Mike turned 10.

"All the other kids were going to hockey schools and I was going to power skating school," he told Kevin Shea for the Hockey Hall of Fame website. "I didn't really like it too much because we didn't handle the pucks very often, but I developed really good technique in skating."

Still, Gartner doubted he could be a pro until his mid-teens, after he'd helped Barrie win Canada's national midget championship and got his first international hockey experience at age 15 on an exhibition tour to Moscow. He'd later represent Canada at the 1978 World Junior Championship and six more times as a professional.

An Ontario Hockey Association First Team All-Star selection for Niagara Falls in 1978-78 preceded Gartner's entry into pro hockey the following season. Ineligible for the NHL until he turned 20, Gartner signed with Cincinnati of the World Hockey Association, where 18-year-old Messier was a teammate. Gartner scored 27 goals and 52 points that season and finished second to Gretzky in WHA Rookie of the Year voting.

"It was a great experience for an 18-year-old kid to get a chance to play hockey and be away from home and start the dream," he told Shea. "The next year, the WHA merged with the NHL and at that time, I was drafted by Washington."

It is as a Capital -- starting in 1979-80 -- that Gartner may be best remembered, flying down the wing, dressed in star-spangled red, white and blue jerseys, No. 11 on his back, his thick dark mustache a permanent feature. He was Washington's first perennial star and, as Glenn Dreyfus wrote in the book "The Legends of Landover," "the opposite of Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. With Mike, Caps fans always knew what they were going to get: 35 goals or more. In nine full seasons in Washington (after being chosen No. 4 in the 1979 draft), Gartner's goal totals are staggering: 36, 48, 35, 38, 40, 50, 35, 41, 48."

His 50 goal-season in 1984-85 came when coach Bryan Murray teamed him with center Bobby Carpenter. "We'd played off and on together for the last three seasons," Gartner, then 25, told Sports Illustrated, "but this is the first year we've really clicked." Each reached the 50-goal mark, Carpenter getting 53, and the local media dubbed them "The Goal Dust Twins." 

Gartner became Washington's all-time leader in goals (397) and points (789, in 758 games), and the defensive-minded Capitals developed into a strong group. "It was fun growing up with this team," he said.

But beginning in 1983, Washington's playoff runs annually stalled short of the Stanley Cup -- and wherever he played, Gartner would similarly be denied. The Capitals of his era never advanced beyond the second round, often falling in heartbreaking fashion.

Some blamed him, but Gartner had 36 points in 29 postseason games from 1984-87. Even after his sub-par 1988 postseason (seven points in 14 games) his trade to Minnesota at the '89 trade deadline shocked both him and fans. Undaunted, Gartner scored seven times in 13 North Stars games down the stretch, including his 400th career goal. He scored regularly the following season, too, scoring 41 goals in 80 games. But for a second straight season he was traded at the deadline. Gartner was off to New York.

Clean-shaven and wearing No. 22, Gartner became an immediate hit on Broadway, piling up 11 goals in his first 12 Rangers games, helping them win their first division title in 48 years. His hat trick in Game 5 of the first round helped eliminate the rival New York Islanders. Then the Capitals dumped the Rangers in the second round.

The Rangers rewarded him with a new contract, and he repaid them. "I maybe, in some ways, played my best hockey as a Ranger," he told the New York Daily News in 2010.

Gartner became the first player in Rangers history to have three consecutive seasons of 40 or more goals, finishing with 49 in 1990-91. His team enjoyed success, too, winning the 1992 Presidents' Trophy. Yet the Rangers' inglorious championship drought reached 52 years that season.

After Keenan became coach for 1993-94, Gartner fell out of favor and was once more traded at the deadline, sent to Toronto. It was a stinging move; the Rangers finally won the Stanley Cup that spring.

"We were in first place overall and had a feeling that this could be the year," he told authors John Halligan and John Kreiser for "Game of My Life: The New York Rangers." "To be with the team for a number of years before that and see it build to that point and then get traded and watch that same team that I'd been playing with go on to win the Stanley Cup was obviously a tough thing to watch."

Still, having grown up in Ontario, he was thrilled to join the Maple Leafs and again made a strong first impression with six goals and 12 points in 10 games, helping Toronto finish second in its division. His five playoff goals - three of them game-winners, one in overtime - and 11 points cemented his popularity as the Maple Leafs advanced to the Western Conference Final, the lone time Gartner played that deep in the postseason, before losing to Vancouver. Had Toronto won, they'd have faced the Rangers for the '94 Cup. "That would have been pretty strange," he said.

Toronto unexpectedly traded him in June of 1996 to the Coyotes, the franchise that was relocating from Winnipeg. Gartner scored 32 goals in 1996-97, including the Coyotes' first goal plus two more in their first victory, against the Boston Bruins. He led Phoenix with 13 power-play goals and was tied for the most game-winning goals on the Coyotes with seven.

"People keep telling me that 36 going on 37 is old to still be playing pro hockey," Gartner said. "But I have a hard time believing that and so does my body."

On Dec. 14, 1997, Gartner snapped a quick one-timer from 12 feet out to beat Chris Osgood of the Detroit Red Wings for goal No. 700, to the roars of the Phoenix crowd. He'd score the tying goal that night, too, with under five minutes remaining.

If he had lost a step it hardly showed, but at season's end, after 1,432 games -- seventh most in NHL history -- Mike Gartner hung up his skates.

Those skates had propelled the fastest game's fastest man.

 

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