Going into the game on November 4, 1987, opponents Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers and Marcel Dionne of the New York Rangers each had 998 assists. They seemed evenly matched in the race to be the second (after Gordie Howe) to reach 1,000 assists. However, Dionne already was at a disadvantage. The Rangers only had a record of 4-7-3 on the season while the Oilers came in at 7-5-0. In fact, the Oilers had just defeated the Rangers 7-6 on November 1st. The Rangers, having already lost at Madison Square Garden, now faced the Oilers in their own barn at Northlands Coliseum.
Dionne, born in 1951, also had a decade on Gretzky who was born in 1961. Gretzky would have only been 10 when Dionne was drafted 2nd overall by the Detroit Red Wings. In 1975, Dionne moved on to Los Angeles and played for the Kings over the next 12 seasons. Gretzky joined the NHL when the Oilers did in 1979. After the Kings traded Dionne to the Rangers in March 1987, they essentially replaced him with Gretzky for the start of the 1988-89 season. That 1988-89 season would be Dionne’s last before retiring. In an interesting twist of fate, Gretzky would then play for the Rangers for his final seasons, from 1996 to 1999.
Taking all of that into consideration, perhaps the extremely rough start the Rangers had on November 4, 1987 made more sense. With the smallest crowd in five years, the Oilers were in peak form with Gretzky earning his 999th assist less than five minutes into the game. He followed that up by scoring two goals in the first period and another in the second. Gretzky went into the third period with a hat trick, and the Oilers had a 6-0 lead on the Rangers. The Rangers managed to halt the shutout before Gretzky earned his 1,000th assist on the Oilers’ final goal of the night. Dionne did manage to produce his 999th assist on the last goal of the game, on a power play within two minutes of the game’s end. The Oilers had crushed the Rangers 7-2.
It did not take long for Dionne to reach 1,000 assists. In his next game, on November 7, the Rangers played in Dionne’s old barn in Los Angeles. When the Rangers scored their first goal during the first period, Dionne originally received credit, but he insisted his teammate Jari Gronstrand made the goal. Dionne thus became the third to reach 1,000 assists. He topped off the night with a goal in each of the following periods, which gave him his 700th goal and 1,700th point. Even so, the Rangers could not improve their record and lost 5-4.
By the end of the 1987-88 season, Dionne only had 34 assists while Gretzky had 109. In fact, on March 1, Gretzky had surpassed Howe’s 1,049 assists to hold the record. Dionne may not have kept up with the assists, but he scored his 718th goal on February 14 giving him second place (behind Howe) on the all-time goal-scoring list. He credited his success in scoring to “determination, confidence and consistency.” Meanwhile, the Oilers went on to sweep the Boston Bruins and win the Stanley Cup to end the season.
Dionne retired in 1989 with 1,040 assists, 731 goals, and 1,771 points. At the time, that ranked him third in assists and points and second in goals. Since then, Dionne still ranks tenth in assists, fifth in goals, and sixth in points. Gretzky topped all three lists by the time he retired in 1999.
- Brian McFarlane, Brian McFarlane’s History of Hockey (Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing Inc., c1997), 224-226.
- Mike Commito, Hockey 365: Daily Stories from the Ice (Toronto: Dundurn, 2018).