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Heritage Classic

Wayne Gretzky recalls fierce Oilers-Jets rivalry

Will play in Edmonton-Winnipeg Heritage Classic Alumni Game on Oct. 22

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The history book tells a story of a lopsided rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets. That's not how Wayne Gretzky remembers it even after he's reminded that his Oilers went 18-1 in five Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Jets from 1983-88.

"We had a Hall of Fame goaltender," Gretzky said. "Grant Fuhr was that good and was the difference every time we met them in the playoffs. Had they got past us, they probably could have gone on to win the Stanley Cup, but Grant Fuhr was the difference."

Fuhr's knees are too balky now for him to get up and down in the crease even in an alumni game, but he's expected to join Gretzky and many of his former Edmonton teammates in Winnipeg in late October to help rekindle a rivalry that has since been lost.

Gretzky will headline Edmonton's team filled with Hockey Hall of Famers, including Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, in the Heritage Classic Alumni Game at Investors Group Field on Oct. 22. The following day, the present-day versions of the Jets and Oilers will play in the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic.

Gretzky said Curtis Joseph, an Oilers goalie from 1995-98, is expected to be in Edmonton's net instead of Fuhr.

"Glen [Sather] always told us when we won our first Cup [1984], 'When you win, you get memories for life,'" Gretzky said. "I don't think any of us anticipated or knew or realized exactly what he meant and what he had said, but it's so true. So when [Jets chairman] Mark Chipman called me, I was like, 'Absolutely.'"

Gretzky, though, admitted he wasn't a definite to attend until he got word from Messier and Coffey that they were on board too. It's part of the "win together, walk together forever" mantra Gretzky said he and his Oilers teammates have abided by even long into their retirement years.

"It doesn't work if one can't play or doesn't want to play or go," Gretzky said. "[Fuhr] can't play anymore, his knees are too bad, but he'll be there. We wouldn't go if he wasn't there. That's the one thing about our group, we all go together. If one guy can't go, pretty much nobody goes. It's such a close group, so close knit.

"So, Glen is going to coach. Kevin Lowe and [Craig MacTavish] are going to be assistant coaches. Ron Low is going to be involved. And this game we're sort of combining a lot of older Oilers players, like Blair McDonald, one of the original captains, and some of the younger players like Ryan Smyth. It's a cross section of the guys and it's always fun when we get together. The trainers come in from that era. It's just a really wonderful get together."

And because it's in Winnipeg, Gretzky expects the conversation to turn to the glory days of the Jets-Oilers rivalry, which dates back to the World Hockey Association.  

Winnipeg defeated Edmonton in the final WHA game ever played before the Oilers' run of dominance against the Jets in the NHL postseason, perhaps because of Fuhr but maybe also because of guys like, oh, you know, Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and Kurri.

The Oilers won 16 straight playoff games against the Jets before losing Game 3 of the 1988 Smythe Division Semifinals. They won the next two before going on to win their fourth and final Stanley Cup championship with Gretzky.

Edmonton outscored Winnipeg 96-53 in those 19 playoff games.

"Glen's vision or goal in building the Oilers was patterned after Bobby Hull and Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson and Kent Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg in Winnipeg," Gretzky said. "That's the kind of team Glen wanted and that was the kind of team that he built in the NHL when nobody had a team like that. He really believed in puck control and puck-handling and skating. So, we have a huge history, and probably closer than people would know or realize or imagine."

Eighteen wins in 19 playoff games suggests otherwise, but Gretzky insists he knows better than to call it one-sided.

"We didn't really crush them," he said. "Each and every game was probably closer than numbers would dictate. Grant was the difference."

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