FTHN Legends – Wayne Gretzky Part 3: The Rangers Years

The Rangers and Mark Messier (right) announce the signing of Wayne Gretzky (left) back in 1996. (Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

The Rangers and Mark Messier (right) announce the signing of Wayne Gretzky (left) back in 1996. (Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

After turning down a very lucrative offer from the St. Louis Blues, Wayne Gretzky elected to close that chapter of his career and instead rejoin his old Oilers running mate, Mark Messier, in New York City to play for the Rangers under the lights of Madison Square Garden.

THE STARS ARE BRIGHT ON BROADWAY

The move to New York in 1996 not only reunited Gretzky with Messier but also with former Oiler teammates Kevin Lowe, Adam Graves, Jeff Beukeboom & Esa Tikannen & former Kings teammate Luc Robitaille.

While Gretzky viewed the move as a chance to win another Cup, critics viewed it as a disaster waiting to happen. The common question was how could the all-world Gretzky now fit into a locker room run by his former apprentice Messier? Much to their credit though, whatever friction that was anticipated never materialized.

Gretzky and Messier talk some things over during a game. (Photo: Ron Frehm/AP)

Gretzky and Messier talk some things over during a game. (Photo: Ron Frehm/AP)

Gretzky in particular had a remarkable season that year as he led the Rangers in points with 97 (25 goals, 72 assists) and the Rangers finished 4th in the Atlantic Division which put them in the playoffs where they met up with the Florida Panthers led by goalie and former Ranger star John Vanbiesbrouck.

The Rangers and Panthers were pretty much even in the standings as Florida had finished with 89 points, good enough for 4th in the Eastern Conference, while the rangers finished with 86 points as the 5th seed. In a memorable game at MSG, Gretzky turned back the clock and scored a hat trick enroute to a Ranger win in a series the Blueshirts would take 4-1 to set up a second round matchup against their rival New Jersey Devils.

The Devils finished as the top seed in the East and were a heavy favorite. It was their first matchup with the Rangers since their epic battle in the 1994 East Conference Finals and many of the players on both teams were still on their respective squads. Each team had won a Stanley Cup since that epic battle in 1994 and this was now a chance for the Devils to even the score.

In the end however, the Rangers, led by Gretzky, Messier, Brian Leetch and the goaltending of Mike Richter, were able to overcome a 1-0 series deficit and defeat the Devils in the series 4-1, winning Game 5 on an OT winner by Adam Graves. Next up was the East Conference Finals and a date with Eric Lindros and the Legion of Doom.

Wayne Gretzky salutes the Garden faithful. (Photo: AP).

Wayne Gretzky salutes the Garden faithful. (Photo: AP).

The Philadelphia Flyers imposed their will on the Rangers in that series. Lindros, John LeClair, Mikael Renberg & Rod Brind’Amour overmatched the smaller ranger forwards and defense. Despite the stellar play of Gretzky, Richter and in particular Leetch, the Flyers eliminated the Rangers 4-1 to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Gretzky ended up leading all Rangers in playoff scoring notching 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 15 games. Shortly after the Stanley Cup Final ended with the Red Wings defeating the Flyers, Messier became engaged in a nasty contract dispute with the Rangers and left to play for Vancouver. The reunion of Messier-Gretzky would only be a one & done.

Sadly as fate would have it, that would be the last anyone would see of Wayne Gretzky in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Despite leading the Rangers in scoring the next two seasons (23 goals, 67 assists for 90 points in 1997-98 and 9 goals, 53 assists for 62 points in 98-99), Gretzky was unable to lead the Blueshirts into the post season.

With a bit of symmetry, Gretzky – forever etched as #99 in our hearts – had decided to call it a career at the end of that 1998-99 season.

Gretzky would play his final NHL game, a 2-1 OT loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at MSG on April 16, 1999.

LIFE AFTER

Gretzky was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 1999 by bypassing the mandatory 3-year waiting period. He would also be the last person to have this done as the league amended the rules to prohibit this from happening again. In addition, the league retired his #99 much like baseball had retired #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson but obviously for different reasons. Then in 2002, the Kings retired his jersey and in December of 2010 the Oilers did likewise.

In 2002, Gretzky was named the executive director of Team Canada and put together the team that would win Canada a Gold Medal. He was also instrumental in Canada getting the opportunity to host the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver by serving as ambassador and contributor during the bidding process. He also served as part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes from May 2000 – May 2009 as Gretzky owned a 10% share of the team and eventually became their head coach in August 2005.

It wasn't always the best of times for Gretzky while he was in Phoenix and it often showed. (Photo: AP)

It wasn’t always the best of times for Gretzky while he was in Phoenix and it often showed. (Photo: AP)

Under Gretzky, the Coyotes posted a record of 143-161-24 and after some financial struggles the Coyotes had in the summer of 2009 hit a point where there was uncertainty about the future of the franchise and whether they would even stay in Phoenix, led to Gretzky deciding to part ways with the organization.

During his time in the desert, there was one brief yet embarrassing moment as his wife Janet was embroiled in a gambling conspiracy that also involved Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet. While Gretzky wasn’t personally involved, it was one of the few times the negative spotlight shone on him.

Even though he is no longer actively involved with any particular organization, Gretzky continues to be an ambassador of the game and whenever the opportunity presents itself, he willingly gives of his time to give back to the game that has given him so much.

At this year’s Outdoor Series Game in L.A. where the Kings took on the Ducks at Dodger Stadium, Gretzky dropped the ceremonial first puck. He also did likewise for Game 1 of this past year’s Stanley Cup Final when the 2 of his former teams – The Rangers and Kings – did battle.

To say Wayne Gretzky is a legend seems pedestrian. Wayne Gretzky is hockey royalty – iconic even – and his achievements and the marks he has left on the game of hockey will go on long after each of us have left this earth. For that, he has essentially become a legendary immortal.

Pittsburgh Penguins' superstar Jaromir Jagr, left, talks with Wayne Gretzky, after Jagr scored the OT winner to beat the Rangers in Gretzky's last ever NHL game. Gretzky later told reporters after the game that he had told Jagr that he was "passing the torch to him". (Photo: John Dunn/AP)

Pittsburgh Penguins’ superstar Jaromir Jagr, left, talks with Wayne Gretzky, after Jagr scored the OT winner to beat the Rangers in Gretzky’s last ever NHL game. Gretzky later told reporters after the game that he had told Jagr that he was “passing the torch to him”. (Photo: John Dunn/AP)

 

We hope you enjoyed FTHN’s three-part series about one of the greatest hockey players of all-time, Wayne Gretzky. If you missed any of it, you’ll find links to Parts 1 and 2 below.

Part One: The Oilers Years

Part Two: The L.A. Kings Years

Thanks again for reading!

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