When 11-year-old Wayne Gretzky met Gordie Howe at a sports awards banquet in 1972, Howe gave him a piece of advice: Work on your backhand. Fast forward to Sunday, Oct. 15, 1989. Gretzky takes the puck on that backhand and flips it into the net with 53 seconds left in the Los Angeles Kings' game with the Oilers at Edmonton's Northlands Coliseum. In that instant, the NHL career scoring record of 1,850 points that Howe built over 26 seasons was surpassed.
Gretzky had tied the record with an assist early in the game, but as time ticked away in the third period, it had appeared that the mark would not be broken this night in this place, with its strong ties to Gretzky. Then, suddenly, there was that Howe-recommended backhand, which Gretzky had practiced at home with a tennis ball only a zillion times or so.
Gretzky's momentous shot not only broke Howe's record but also tied the game 4-4. He then won the game for the Kings in overtime with still another goal, and he did all this against his old teammates, in the city where he led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups before being traded to Los Angeles last year. And he did it in 780 games to Howe's 1,767.
The record breaking almost had to wait for game 781, because what had been a wide-open game settled down in the second period, and so did Edmonton goalie Bill Ranford, who twice made strong pad saves against Gretzky during a 5-on-3 L.A. advantage. In addition, Gretzky suffered mild dizziness from a bump on the head in the second period, and coach Tom Webster held him out for a few shifts. When Ranford stopped a Gretzky-fed Bernie Nicholls shot on a power play with two minutes to go in the third period, there was a feeling that, well, nobody comes through on cue every time, not even the greatest player who ever lived.
But then Gretzky did deliver. Teammate Steve Duchesne saved a clearing attempt by Edmonton's Kevin Lowe and whacked the puck toward the crease, where it hit Kings winger Dave Taylor on the leg and came right to Gretzky on the left side of the goal. "I don't know what made me go there," said Gretzky. "I'm usually the outlet guy [in back of the net]."
What made him go there were the best instincts in the history of the game, and what made the Coliseum erupt in tumultuous cheers was a bond that Gretzky's trade to the Kings has not severed. The game was interrupted for a presentation of gifts from the NHL, the Oilers and the Kings. When it resumed, and Gretzky scored the overtime winner, Howe said, "There is no end to Wayne's brilliance." The magnificence of the moment may even have warmed the cool relations between Gretzky and Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington, who offered his congratulations out of public view after the game.
Gretzky's accomplishments have been so astonishing that they have acquired a mystical aura. It was suggested during the countdown to the record that destiny was guiding events so that the payoff points would come in Edmonton. More certain than the hands of fate, however, are the hands of Gretzky. He came into this season having averaged 2.37 points a game for his career. At that rate, needing 14 points to break the record, he would reach 1,851 in game 6. The fact that game 6 was to be played in Edmonton met the league's schedule, and Gretzky's, and destiny's.
The possibility—nay, probability—of getting his 1,851st at his old home rink was not lost on Gretzky. He mentioned the Kings' Oct. 15 visit to Northlands Coliseum as early as June, at the NHL awards ceremony, where he received his ninth Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. Of course, when Gretzky was asked where he really wanted to set the record, he always carefully considered the feelings of Bruce McNall, the owner of the Kings, and the Forum faithful. "My first choice is to do it in Los Angeles," Gretzky said. "If I can't, I'd like to do it in Edmonton."
Anyone who remembered how Gretzky became the first NHL player ever to score 50 goals in fewer than the first 50 games of a season, in 1981, certainly didn't discount his chances of getting the record even before he arrived in Edmonton. After 38 games in '81 Gretzky needed only five goals to reach 50, and on the morning of game 39 he told his roommate, Kevin Lowe, that he thought he could get all five that evening at home against the Philadelphia Flyers. And darned if he didn't. His fifth, an empty-netter, came in the final minute.
So Howe, who was invited by McNall to travel with the Kings during the chase, didn't risk arriving too late. On Oct. 8, he was seated in McNall's box at the Forum for the Kings' third game of the season, in which Gretzky had three assists against the Detroit Red Wings. Two nights later Gretzky added a goal and two assists at home against the New York Islanders and was only five shy of the record when he got to Vancouver for last Friday's game.