NYR The Great One Says Goodbye

“The greatest place to play as a professional athlete is right here in New York.”

With that line, the greatest player in NHL history concluded his pre-game remarks on the ice at Madison Square Garden and prepared for the start of the game between the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

The date was April 18, 1999, and for Wayne Gretzky, the game was the 1,487th – and final – of his unparalleled NHL career. In 20 NHL seasons, The Great One rewrote the NHL record book, holding or sharing an astounding 61 league records. Gretzky spent the final three seasons of his career with the Rangers, and it was fitting that an event such as the final chapter of a legendary career took place at The World’s Most Famous Arena.

Although Gretzky only played three seasons with the Blueshirts, his connection with and affinity for the organization began over three decades prior, when he was a kid learning the game from his father, Walter.

“I grew up in Brantford, Ontario, 20 minutes away from where the Rangers used to have Training Camp every year in Kitchener,” Gretzky said recently as he reflected on the anniversary of his final game and his tenure with the Rangers (note – the Rangers held their Training Camp in Kitchener for eight consecutive seasons from 1967-68 through 1974-75; Gretzky was six years old in the first of these eight straight years). “My dad used to really listen to what Emile Francis used to say, and how he talked about the Rangers and his players.

“So, when it comes to the Rangers, I go all the way back to 1967-68 (note – Gretzky mentioned the year unprompted) when I was six years old watching Emile Francis do interviews at Training Camp.”

Gretzky officially joined the Rangers when he signed with the team as a free agent on July 21, 1996. Reunited with his friend – and former teammate with the Edmonton Oilers – Mark Messier, Gretzky had a terrific season for the Blueshirts. His 97 points were tied for the fourth-most in the NHL, and his 72 assists were tied for the most in the league. In addition, he helped the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference Final with a terrific playoff run in which he tallied 10 goals and 20 points in 15 contests.

The following season, Gretzky tied for third in the NHL in points and once again tied for the league lead in assists with 67. But by the midway point of the 1998-99 season, No. 99 felt that his career was nearing its end.

“I had kind of decided in January or February of that year that I was going to retire,” Gretzky remembered. “The only person who knew was my wife. We talked about it, and she quietly said some things to try and maybe talk me out of it. It was really just a husband and wife chatting about it with no pressure.”

Gretzky missed a month of the 1998-99 season – from the third week of February through the third week of March – with a herniated disc in his neck. Despite missing 12 games, his 53 assists were tied for the sixth-most in the NHL that season. But, as Gretzky said, “although I got a lot of assists that year, I knew it was time to retire. I always tease my kids that nine goals used to be a good weekend.”

Gretzky’s ninth goal of the season – and final goal of his career – came on March 29, 1999 against the Islanders at MSG. The goal put the Rangers ahead in the game, 2-1, with 2:07 remaining in regulation. More importantly, it gave Gretzky 1,072 career professional goals (NHL and WHA, regular season and playoffs combined), breaking a tie that he had with his idol, Gordie Howe, for the most professional goals in hockey history.

“Gordie and I were really close,” Gretzky said. “If it wasn’t for Gordie, I don’t know if there would be a Wayne Gretzky. When I was at 1,071 goals, I thought that it would be kind of fitting that we’re going to be tied for the most goals in professional hockey.

“I remember the goal vividly. The puck was just loose on the goal line and I just jammed it in. It wasn’t really a great goal; I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time. I remember thinking, ‘wow, I can’t believe I just passed Gordie.’”

Following that game in late March, the Rangers had eight games remaining in the season. At that point, there hadn’t been much discussion publicly about Gretzky’s future beyond that season, which is exactly how he wanted the situation to play out.

“I didn’t want to do a (retirement) tour,” Gretzky said. “I didn’t want to go from city to city with people knowing I was going to retire, so we kept it really quiet. It kind of leaked out that the game against Ottawa could be my last game in Canada.”

The Rangers’ second-to-last game of the season took place against the Ottawa Senators on Apr. 15 in Ottawa. With stories starting to emerge that Gretzky’s career could, in fact, be over at the end of the season, the attention surrounding the game was greater than usual.

“I remember a couple of things about the game in Ottawa,” Gretzky said. “I remember my grandmother being there, my mom and dad coming in, and a good friend of mine flew my family to Ottawa for the game. Everybody knew the writing was on the wall. I felt like the Rangers – the organization, the ownership, and the fans – had been so good to me that I really wanted to announce it in New York. I didn’t want to jump ahead of the gun and announce it in Ottawa, even if everybody kind of knew.

“Something else stands out to me about the game in Ottawa. There are usually two buses that go (from the hotel to the arena on the road) for a 7:30 p.m. game – one leaves at 4:00 p.m. and the other leaves at 4:30 p.m. – and I always went on the first bus. They always have a room at the hotel where you get coffee or something to eat before you leave for the arena, and when I walked into that room, the whole team was sitting in there. Guys were telling me, ‘We’re going to take one bus,’ and that was pretty enlightening. We drove out to the arena – all of the players, coaches, and trainers – and we were laughing and telling stories, and that was fun for me. That was kind of the highlight of the game against Ottawa for me as far as just being with the players.”

The contest in Ottawa resulted in a 2-2 tie, but the final score was not what was important to the fans. Gretzky received several ovations from the fans in the arena, was named the only star of the game (in lieu of the traditional three stars of the game), and went back on the ice for a curtain call, as the fans in Ottawa continued to applaud him long after the final buzzer had sounded.

The next day, Gretzky formally announced his retirement at a press conference at MSG and said that his final game would be Sunday, April 18, at The Garden. While everyone around him was sad at the thought of not being able to watch Gretzky play anymore, he reiterated that he wanted the day to be a celebration and uplift all of those around him.

That feeling permeated everything Gretzky did over the final few days of his career, including his final practice as an NHL player.

“On Saturday, for our final team practice, (Head Coach) John Muckler had us skating hard for 45 minutes,” Gretzky said. “One of the guys said to me, ‘What do you think Muck is doing?’ I said, ‘That’s just John Muckler. He made me the player I became, and we practiced hard every day.’ So, we had a good, hard practice before my last game, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

As Gretzky has said several times over the last 25 years, the day of his final game was one of the best he ever had in hockey. Every part of the day was memorable, starting with the ride to MSG.

“For my final game, I decided that since my dad drove me to the first game I ever went to, it would be great to drive my dad to my last game,” Gretzky said. “The ride was good, but it was kind of awful in the same sense because every three minutes, he kept hitting my leg and telling me that I could play one more year. I said, ‘No, dad, I’m done.’”

Although their blue jersey was their road uniform in 1998-99, the Rangers wore their classic “Blueshirt” at home for the special occasion. The pre-game ceremony included dignitaries such as Mario Lemieux (who Gretzky said was the greatest player he ever played against), Glen Sather (who was his coach for nearly a decade with the Oilers), and Messier (who Gretzky said was the greatest player he ever played with, and whose appearance drew a raucous ovation from the MSG crowd).

Gretzky, with his family by his side, received several gifts and honors, but perhaps none bigger than something which was not tangible. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that “when you take off that sweater, your jersey, after today’s game, you will be the last player in the NHL to ever wear 99.”

Although the day was focused on Gretzky, he – as he always did throughout his career and afterwards – deflected the attention and thought about the people around him. He used over 40 sticks throughout the game, and during the second intermission, he stood up and addressed the Rangers in the locker room about what he intended to do with them.

“This was my way to thank everyone on the team and the coaches,” Gretzky said to the team during the intermission. “All of these sticks I use tonight, I want to make sure everyone gets one. I got a “99” engraved in it. I’ll give Leetchie (team captain Brian Leetch) his, and I have for all of you guys, and you guys can all pick them up after. Thank you, guys.”

In the game, Gretzky added one more assist and point to his legendary total. In the final minute of the second period with the Rangers on a power play, Gretzky received a pass inside the blue line along the right-wing boards. Gretzky made a pass to Mathieu Schneider, who was standing in the slot in between the circles. Schneider faked a shot and passed the puck to Leetch, who was standing all alone at the side of the net and redirected Schneider’s pass behind Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso and into the net.

It was Gretzky’s 1,963rd career NHL assist and 2,857th career NHL point, both league records that will remain unbroken for a long time (and possibly forever). In fact, Gretzky has more assists than Jaromir Jagr, who is second on the NHL’s all-time scoring list, has points (Jagr has 1,921 career points).

Ironically, Jagr ended Gretzky’s final NHL game, scoring the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory. As was the case in Ottawa, there was only one star of the game that afternoon at MSG – No. 99. Gretzky circled the ice several times, posed for a photo at center ice with his teammates and Rangers staff members, along with his sons, Ty and Trevor.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New York Rangers

Back in the locker room almost two hours after the game ended, Gretzky finally took off his skates and jersey for the final time as an active player.

Shortly after his career ended, Gretzky said in his documentary Ultimate Gretzky that his tenure with the Rangers was “the greatest three years that I had in hockey as far as the people, the friendships, and the atmosphere. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”

For all of the talent, hockey IQ, All-Star Game appearances, records, and sheer genius that has been associated with Gretzky and his career, one of the more underrated and perhaps underappreciated traits he possessed was his consistent effort and determination. In his press conference after the game ended, Gretzky was asked by a reporter how he would want people to think of him. He responded by saying, “that I cared about the game and cared about my teammates. I don’t think I ever played without giving an honest effort, whether it was an exhibition game in September or Game 7 in May. If you work, and prepare, and play as hard as you can, that’s all you can ask for as a player.”

Now, 25 years later, Gretzky says it’s those same qualities that endears players to New York fans, which helps shed light on – at least one of the reasons – why he said that the best place to play as a professional athlete is in New York.

“The thing I found most interesting in New York is that the people are really hard-working, and they just want to see an honest effort,” Gretzky said. “If you give an honest effort, play to the best of your ability, and play as hard as you can each and every night, the people will back you. That is what I found out about New York."