Driving through the black Alberta night, Mike Barnett let his curiosity get the best of him. "You scored on the short side, but there was no short side," Barnett, a player agent, said to his client and passenger, Wayne Gretzky.
That was the winter of 1985 or '86, Barnett recalls, back when the Great One was also the Yellow One when it came to air travel. So Glen Sather, coach of the Edmonton Oilers, would let Gretzky drive the 180 miles to and from Calgary for games against the Flames. It was on the return leg one night that Gretzky found himself being grilled by his driver.
Earlier that evening, as Gretzky cocked his stick for a slap shot from 20 feet, Flame goalie Reggie Lemelin hugged one of the pipes, presumably taking away the short side. Yet that was precisely where Gretzky had put the puck for a goal.
"How did you do it?" Barnett asked.
"Well," replied Gretzky, "I had to turn the puck on its side."
Eight or so years later Barnett is asked. Was he serious?
"I wasn't going to ask him," says Barnett.
When you arc on your way to becoming the most prolific goal scorer in NHL history, you get the benefit of the doubt.
Hockey's most celebrated player, however, did not begin his NHL career auspiciously. Nearly three full games into his first season, 1979-80, the alleged prodigy from Brantford, Ont., had yet to score a goal. Then, with two minutes to play in a game against Vancouver, Stan Smyl of the Canucks took a tripping penalty. On the ensuing power play, the 18-year-old Gretzky carried the puck out from behind the Vancouver net, faked Canuck goalie Glen Hanlon onto his back and roofed goal number 1.
Final score: 4-4. Date: Oct. 14, 1979. Says Gretzky, "I remember thinking, Wow, even if I never play in the NHL again, at least I scored a goal."