• Sal Maiorana

The Great One becomes the NHL's greatest goal scorer ever

LOS ANGELES (March 23, 1994) – All right, so changing the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner may have been going overboard just a bit.

That’s what happened prior to the final game of Wayne Gretzky’s historic NHL career in April 1999 at Madison Square Garden when the tenor bellowed, “for the land of Wayne Gretzky … and the home of the brave.”

But as silly as that improvised line may have sounded, there was an underlying truth hidden there. During the 20 years Gretzky played in the NHL, this Canadian icon made America his land, bringing hockey to the masses the way no superstar before him ever had.

You can bring up just about anyone’s name, be it Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and maybe even Babe Ruth. But no one dominated their sport – stood above everyone else and simply toyed with his peers – the way Gretzky did.

As the now departed Sport magazine once proclaimed, “Admit it America, Wayne Gretzky is the best player in any sport.”

Jordan is not the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Brady is not the NFL’s all-time leading passer, and Ruth is not baseball’s all-time home run king. Gretzky is hockey’s all-time everything.

“What amazes me most is that he never stops amazing me,” his former Edmonton and New York teammate, Mark Messier, once said.

On this day 26 years ago when Gretzky skated onto the ice at the Great Western Forum, he already owned more records than a 1970’s disc jockey. And then at 14:47 of the second period of a 6-3 loss to Vancouver, he added the most hallowed one of all when he scored his 802nd career NHL goal to surpass Gordie Howe for No. 1 on the all-time list.

“I talked to Gordie before I left for the game, and he was saying if you get that chance, make sure you put it in,” Gretzky said. “I got that chance tonight, and I put it in."

The historic marker came off a give-and-go with, of all players, tough guy Marty McSorley who had been Gretzky’s de facto bodyguard for half his career with Edmonton and now Los Angeles. The same McSorley who scored 359 total points in 17 NHL seasons, or basically a season and a half for Gretzky when he was in his mid-80s prime with the dynastic Oilers.

“I really couldn’t believe how much room I had,” Gretzky said of the 25-foot shot he scored on. “When I gave it to Marty, I knew that he was somehow going to try and give it back to me. And when I got it back, I saw the whole net. I was just flipping it at the net. I don’t think words can describe the emotion I felt, the

feeling I had and the gratitude I had for my teammates and the fans. That was

one of the best ovations I’ve ever had. “

And he heard many.

Gretzky had surpassed Howe’s career point-scoring record of 1,850 early in the 1989 season, needing 987 fewer games to set the new mark. In the next decade, he would raise the bar by another 1,007 points to 2,857, a line in the record book that will never be erased, akin to Joe DiMaggio 56-game hitting streak.

True, the same thing was said about Lou Gehrig’s Ironman streak before Cal Ripken came along, but Gretzky’s records are untouchable, for two reasons. There will never be another player with that much skill who will endure for so long, and also because the game has changed exponentially, particularly the size and skill of today’s goaltenders.

During his 20-year career, among the records he set were 50 hat tricks; nine 50-goal seasons; 12 seasons of at least 40 goals; 92 goals in 1981-82; 163 assists in 1985-86; 215 points in 1985-86; 122 goals, 260 assists and 382 points in the postseason; a 51-game point-scoring streak in 1983-84; 50 goals in just 39 games in 1981-82; nine MVP awards; and 10 scoring titles.

“He’s made the record book obsolete,” former Minnesota North Stars general manager Lou Nanne once said. “From now on, Gretzky’s only point of reference is himself.”

Interestingly, while most of Gretzky’s records are likely safe, the goal record – he finished with 894 – is the one that could be in jeopardy.

Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals recently surpassed the 700-goal plateau and he’ll be only 35 years old when the 2020-21 season starts. If he stays healthy and continues to play into his early 40s, he’ll have a legitimate chance to go past the Great One.

Even if that happens, Gretzky’s place in the game as the greatest player ever will not change.

“I know everything has been written about him,” former Philadelphia Flyers captain and general manager Bob Clarke once said of Gretzky. “I think none of it is adequate.”

Gretzky’s legacy will live not only in the pages of the NHL record book, but in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to see him play.

“He’s the greatest thing ever to happen to the game of hockey, bar none,” said Bobby Hull. “He came along at the right time, when hockey needed a shot in the arm, and he sure gave it a shot.”