What a strange but jubilant feeling Wayne Gretzky must have experienced as he surpassed his idol, Gordie Howe. Everything he did in his career, even choosing No. 99, he did in pursuit of the greatness of No. 9. Gretzky scored his first NHL goal on October 14, 1979, at the start of Howe’s final professional season. That goal was scored on the Vancouver Canucks, the same team on which Gretzky scored his 802nd NHL regular-season goal on March 23, 1994. Howe had held the record with 801 regular-season goals at the end of his NHL career. The way Gretzky smashed through scoring records, it had only been a matter of time before he truly owned the moniker “The Great One.”
The day approached when, on March 20, 1994, Gretzky tied Howe’s NHL career total of 801 goals. The tying goal was made on goalie Arurs Irbe at San Jose. At this point, Howe seemed less-than-pleased because he thought his WHA goals should count towards his record. Those six seasons gave him another 174 goals for a total of 975.
On March 23, 1994, a sellout crowd of 16,005 filled the Forum to watch Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings host the Vancouver Canucks. Among that crowd were actors Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Martin Short, and Tom Hanks (who received a standing ovation). Los Angeles’s mayor, Richard Riordan, also made an appearance. The game proceeded until 4:31 of the second period before the Kings finally scored the first goal. That was followed by two Canucks goals. Gretzky tied the game to no avail. The Canucks scored again before the period ended then twice again when the third began. The Kings managed one more goal, but the Canucks ended the game with a final tally.
Vancouver beat Los Angeles 6-3, leaving the Kings tied for ninth place in the Western Conference. The Canucks had a much better season. They defeated the Kings five times in six games. Vancouver went on to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the New York Rangers at the end of seven games. As would become something of a habit, Vancouver rioted after the loss.
Gretzky’s goal was the real big news for March 23. He had an inkling it would be his night to break Howe’s record. His agent, Mike Barnett, told the press, “He called it. It was a big goal at the time and he wanted it to be a big goal. He has a flair for the dramatic. He has always been able to take it to a bigger level when he wanted something desperately. This he wanted desperately, to do it in front of the home fans.” Before the game, Gretzky’s wife, Janet, told him, “Try to enjoy it. It only happens once in your life. Try to take it all in and enjoy it.”
On a power play at 14:47 of the second period, as the Los Angeles Times described, “Luc Robitaille started the play with a drop pass just inside the blue line to Gretzky. Gretzky found [defenseman Marty] McSorley and headed for the net. McSorley was patient and perfectly timed the pass and waited until he skated past the middle of the right circle.” They had drawn Vancouver Canucks goaltender Kirk McLean out to “play the angle,” leaving the net virtually empty. From McSorley, “Gretzky took a cross-ice pass” and made the shot “with a neat but unspectacular wrist shot from near edge of the left faceoff circle.” According to one Times writer, “Gretzky put his own unique signature on the historic goal, jamming it into the net out of the air before the puck dropped to the ice.” Another praised the shot as “Nothing flashy, just subtle, smart and well executed.” McSorley, who had played with Gretzky on the Edmonton Oilers, and Robitaille received credit for the assists. The former assisted Gretzky on 17 of his 802 goals, while the latter had assisted on 42. Jari Kurri, another former Oilers teammate, was also on the ice at the time, and he assisted Gretzky with more goals than anyone else. In addition to being the record-breaker, this was Gretzky’s 37th goal of the 1993-94 season. He commented later, “I don’t think words can describe the emotion that I felt, and the feeling that I had. I was pretty tickled. It was a pretty fun moment.”
As soon as the puck landed in the net, the crowd erupted and the game paused. According to the recap, “Gretzky threw his arms in the air and the first player to hug him was Robitaille,” followed by McSorley and the rest of the team. The Kings held a 15-minute on-ice ceremony to honor Gretzky’s accomplishment. He wife Janet and parents Walter and Phyllis joined Kings owner Bruce McNall and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for the presentation. “It was the greatest moment I’ve ever had in my business career,” admitted McNall, who had brought Gretzky over to the Kings. “Wayne made a point of coming over, and that meant a lot. He had a billion things on his mind, everyone was hassling him and he came over to me.” McNall rewarded Gretzky with a $275,000 Rolls Royce. In giving his thanks, Gretzky told the crowd, “As I’ve said many times, to me, this is the greatest game in the world. Six years ago, they said California wasn’t a great hockey area. In six years, we have a pretty strong franchise and we’ve shown the rest of North American they’re wrong.” He also proclaimed, “I’ve played here six years and I hope I play here another six.”
At that point in his career, Gretzky had played for almost 15 seasons and a total of 1,117 games. It had taken Howe 26 seasons and 1,767 games to score 801. Doing the math, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that Gretzky thus averaged about 55 goals per season and 2.19 points per game whereas Howe had averaged about 1.05 points per game to earn his 1,850. Gretzky finished his career in 1999 with 894 goals and 2,857 points. In his first 802 NHL goals, 21 had been game-tying and 78 game-winners. He made 46 on empty nets, 72 of them shorthanded, and 179 during power plays. He already held 62 NHL scoring records by the time he finally broke this last remaining significant record. Gretzky and Howe still top the charts for most NHL goals.
- Brian McFarlane, Brian McFarlane’s History of Hockey (Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing Inc., c1997), 266-267.
- Lisa Dillman, “No. 99 Gets Goal No. 802 – Now He’s No. 1 on List,” Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1994, pp. C1 and C8.
- Helene Elliott, “Doubting Him Was a Great Mistake,” Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1994, p. C8.
- “Greatest Hits,” Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1994, p. C8.
- Steve Springer, “Gretzky Knew Early On Day Would Be Historic,” Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1994, p. C8.
- “802 and Counting,” Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1994, p. C10.