Anniversaries I: A special time

As the Oilers celebrate their 30th anniversary (sic) season, this is as good a year as any to reflect on our local franchise's storied past. Hey, it's not like we old geezers need much of a reason to remember the Good Old Days (TM). Especially an old geezer with a new blog.

This week marks a number of important anniversaries in the Oilers NHL history, several of which involve the two gentlemen pictured above. The two are irrevocably linked, from their start in the World Hockey Association (that’s a Cincinnati Stingers uni in the upper left pic) to the glory days scoring, breaking records, and winning together in Edmonton (clockwise from upper right :) to winding down their careers in Manhatten to their current status as the top two scorers in the history of the NHL. WHA prehistory notwithstanding, those points starting counting for keeps in October of 1979.

October 13 : It was my best birthday present ever. I had followed the NHL closely since the age of 7, but circumstance had precluded my ever attending a single NHL game, so what was a first for my adopted home of Edmonton was a first for me as well. Any doubts that the NHL was Really Here were instantly dispelled at the familiar sight of the elegant red-and-white unis of the visitors. The Detroit Red Wings were a fitting opponent whose own storied history had been intertwined with Edmonton's, as the Edmonton Flyers of the Western Hockey League had been a feeder team of the Red Wings for many years. In the year of my birth, both Red Wings and Flyers had won the "double", champions of both regular season and playoffs in their respective leagues. That Flyers' squad featured the likes of Glenn Hall, Al Arbour, Norm Ullman, Johnny Bucyk and Bronco Horvath, perhaps the greatest team to grace the River City. Until now.

But the new hometown heroes were no longer a farm team in a lower tier, they had entered the League as equals and ended the night with a 3-3 tie to prove it. Goals by personal favourite B.J.MacDonald staked Oilers to 1-0 and 2-1 leads, but the Red Wings rallied late and were poised to send the crowd home disappointed. Lightning struck late in the third, when the Oilers' 18-year-old rookie Mark Messier made a centring pass which glanced off the skate of a Wings defender and past the helpless goalie, giving the Oilers a well-deserved split in the points. It was the first goal of Messier's NHL career, and already one more than I had expected from the loosey-goosey youngster at the start of training camp.

October 14: After waiting 24 years for my first NHL game, I only needed wait 24 hours for my second, when the Oilers faced a new geographic rival, the Vancouver Canucks. The emotions and pageantry of opening night had worn off to some extent, but dammit even the Canucks were an NHL team and it was never too early to start laying the beat on them. In a wide-open, sloppy affair the Canucks took a 4-3 lead into the late stages, but this time the Oilers' "other" 18-year-old rookie, the ballyhooed Wayne Gretzky, emerged as the hero, scoring on a backhand from the edge of the crease with the goalie pulled to knot the count at 4-4. It was Gretzky's own first NHL goal, one day later but seven days younger than Messier. The official time of the goal was one of those spooky coincidences of foreshadowing: 18:51.

October 15: Flash forward 10 years and a day, to October 15, 1989, nineteen years ago today. In an impossibly-short period Gretzky had overtaken the mountainous career scoring totals that had taken the fabulous Gordie Howe 26 seasons to compile. As karma had it, the Great One – now a member of the Los Angeles Kings – was scheduled to visit his old stomping grounds early in the new season, just as he was poised to shatter Howe’s mark. Mister Hockey himself was in the building to witness history.

In the first period Gretzky tied the record with an unremarkable second assist on a powerplay goal, but he remained stuck on 1850 for the rest of the game. As time wound down with the Oilers leading by one, the loyalties of this fan never felt so divided. I wanted the Oilers to win, as always, but dammit, I wanted to see that of all records. I had personally witnessed close to a thousand of those points; I wanted to see the big one.

It unfolded like déjà vu, with Gretzky emerging as the Ultimate Hero, scoring on a backhand from the edge of the crease with goalie pulled to knot the count at 4-4. Many/most in the crowd rose from our seats in the manner of champagne corks, putting the event in its proper perspective as an Historic Moment ahead of the outcome of an early regular season game. It was only fitting that it truly be a Big Goal.

The game was stopped right there on the knife edge, tied in the last minute of the third period. A red carpet unrolled at centre ice for an official ceremony which included Mister Hockey himself. Representing the Oilers was their captain, Mark Messier, a great player in his own right who would go on to win the Hart Trophy and the Stanley Cup that eventful season. But nobody in the building would have guessed that the centre ice ceremony involved what would become the top Three scorers in NHL history. The durable Messier ultimately eased past Howe in the final year of his own colossal 25-year career, and to this day is the only NHLer within 1000 points of Wayne Gretzky.

Remarkable to think that both scored their first NHL goal on consecutive nights in my first two live NHL games. That each was the biggest goal of the respective games was the cherry on top … those goals meant a lot at the time, and they still do today. The Impossible Dream was off to an amazing start.


DeBakey said...

Nothing like an opportunity for geezers to talk about the old days.

Did you take notes to remember some of this stuff - the details? Jesus.

The first NHL game I saw [along with 5,200+ others] was in the fall of 1970 in the Edmonton Gardens. An exhibition tilt between the newly minted NHL Canucks & the Minnesota North Stars.

I was fairly young & don't recall a tonne of details. Kurtenbach was playing. I think it was a tie. I was just groovin' on the scene man.

I cheered for the North Stars for most of the 70s - I blame that game.

Bruce said...

Mr. Debakey: Thanks for your comments and especially that 1970 Ex game. I didn't move to Edmonton to stay until 1971, so missed out on that opportunity by a year. The rest of the 70s we were in the WHA and officially "the enemy", although the last two or three years there were a few interleague exhibition games. But i'm talking about Real games.

Did you take notes to remember some of this stuff - the details? Jesus.

I took no notes other than those of the mental variety. When I am actually paying attention I am blessed with a very good -- some would say exceptional -- memory. It's bolstered by such modern sources as hockey-reference.com and NHL Network which tend to confirm details as I remember them in a satisfyingly high percentage of cases.

Nothing like an opportunity for geezers to talk about the old days.

For Edmonton hockey fans, the old days were actually Good. Great, even. Worth talking about in my view.

Kyle said...

Great story Bruce, I love hearing hockey moments in perspective.

Doogie2K said...

18:51. Damn.

Great stories. Looking forward to more.

Bruce said...

18:51. Damn.

D2K: That was Gretzky. I still remember reading the time on the clock: 1:09 (69 seconds, one of my favourite numbers :). The Oilers had pulled their goalie a little earlier than I personally like, and the sixth man hadn't even joined the play yet when Gretzky -- in what would become a signature move -- walked out from behind the net and slipped a backhander past Glen Hanlon. Everybody in the house knew it was the first of many, but the dramatic fashion was a nice touch. That too was Gretzky.

The number meant absolutely nothing at the time, Howe was still playing and made his triumphant return to the NHL 8 years after his first retirement at the advanced age of 51, posting his last 41 points and an astonishing +9 rating on "expansionist" Hartford WHA-lers. But once Howe retired at the end of that 1979-80 season, 1851 became the de facto target, and one year into his NHL career it was apparent that the Great One already had it in his sights.

The top three all-time scorers, Gretzky, Messier, and Howe, barely overlapped careers, but did so in a meaningful fashion. All played in the WHA in 1978-79 and the NHL in 1979-80, and believe me, Edmonton was the place to watch that history unfold, as in less than a year first Gretzky, then the NHL, and then Messier came to River City. Even Howe took a star turn as a hometown hero, playing on a line with Gretzky and his son Mark (a fabulous player in his own right) on a WHA All-Star team that hosted a three-game series, all on Coliseum ice, against a touring Moscow Dynamo just after Christmas of 1978. Mister Hockey was 50 years old, the Great One just 17, but on the ice they spoke the smame language. In the series opener Gretzky opened the scoring just 35 seconds in with an assist to both Howes, and the WHA Stars were off and running to a series sweep (4-2, 4-2, and 4-3).

Great stories. Looking forward to more.

Well, there's another one. I tell you, that was just a magical time. I don't have to make shit up, I just have to report stuff the way it happened. Like 18:51.