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It was 20 years ago yesterday ...

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With the sad news this morning that Gordie Howe has passed away we thought it appropriate to dig into the archives for this wonderful story from Bruce McCurdy. I hope you enjoy it.

As usual, a day late and many, many dollars short. But what the hey, I never did get any prizes for being early.

Spending some time on beautiful Vancouver Island so have been a little out of the loop. Visiting old friends tonight and getting pleasantly buzzed on a beautifully balanced meal of sherry, wine and port offsetting lasagna, salad, and fudge and I've already forgotten what all else. Said friends have since retired leaving me with the couch to flop on, the last of the port and all of my insomnia. So don't expect this one to hang together all that well, it's stream of consciousness and publish, none of this "editing" business!

Just caught a reference on the late night sports case about yesterday (Oct 15) being the twentieth anniversary of a famous hockey game, the one in which Wayne Gretzky broke Gordie Howe's career points record under dramatic circumstances. It was my bittersweet pleasure to attend said game, which produced a number of memories worth sharing.

I had circled Oct. 15 on my calendar as soon as the schedule came out. Gretzky had ended the previous season -- just his tenth in the NHL -- with a staggering 1837 points, just 13 behind the statistical mountain accumulated by Gordie Howe over a still-record 26 NHL seasons. Knowing that the Kings were due four visits I knew we had a fighting chance of seeing the big game, but the wrenching truth was it was a 1 in 20 chance and not the 1 in 2 chance we had become accustomed to in this town. Being intimately familiar with the Great One's long-established production rate of 2.5 points per game (yes, it's true, and it persisted for many years), I tabbed Game 6 as the one I hoped against hope to see. Wouldn't you know it, but that was exactly the game we got!

On a personal level, after eleven seasons of full season tickets, I had reduced slightly to a shared arrangement in the years after Gretzky's departure, but I still went to 2/3 of the games, and you can be damn sure that Sunday October 15 would be one of those games. But as the date approached I found myself staring down a Great Horned Dilemma. Or something like that.

It turned out a Gretzky-sized hero from another side of my life was visiting town on that very day, and staging his own performance on the very hour of the hockey game! Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, was cruising through western Canada on a book tour, and we in the local astronomy club were lucky enough to nab him as a speaker. Trouble was, we had to move our meeting night to ... Sunday, October 15. I could see the clash coming a mile away; sure enough Gretzky inexorably closed ground with a machine-like 12 points in the first 5 games, and decision time was rushing up like a freight train. What to do? What to do?

"There are no replays in hockey!" I exclaimed. I just had to take in that game, and maybe rush out and catch the aftermath of the lecture. If Gretz gets it done early, I might even (gasp) vacate the premises. So I donned my running shoes, my 99 Oiler white, and headed to the Coliseum early enough to watch the pregame skate.

In many ways it was early season hockey, a little on the sloppy side as Oilers-Kings affairs were prone to be at any time. The drama was all in the record, with a one-game deadline; there would be no do-overs for the record to be set in Edmonton where  (IMHO) it rightfully belonged. So there was a tension hanging over the place. The crowd seemed more respectful than exuberant, but we were very much into the moment I can assure you. Most of us wanted to see Gretzky break the record and the Oilers win anyway, but somebody asked me if I could get just one of the two which would it be I said without hesitation, "The record". There would be many other games, but not too many records as esteemed as Gordie Howe's career points record. 1850 had seemed light years away to any player when Gordie had retired less than a decade before.

Adding to the occasion, Mr. Hockey was in the building. The peerless Gordie Howe was dutifully following Gretzky across North America throughout the pursuit of the record; the league had planned official ceremonies. Walter Gretzky was there, along with Commissioner Ziegler. They sat in what passed for a box at the time, a kind of walled in row at the top of the lower bowl, just up behind me and a couple sections over.

Early in the first period the Kings got a two-man powerplay, made a series of crisp passes and scored a ruthlessly efficient goal (as those Kings were wont to do). Can't remember who scored it (Hockey Summary project doesn't have this game!), Bernie Nicholls or Luc Robitaille maybe, but having followed every Gretzkian touch I knew the record had been tied with a routine second assist. Nice, and a huge round of applause marked the feat. But nobody had really come to see Gretzky TIE that record .. we wanted the big one.

During the intermission I ran into Gordie Howe on the concourse near the washroom. I had seen Gordie many times in the building as a member of the Houston Rockets or New England Whalers, but it had been a while and never this close. He looked good in a suit, greeting his many well-wishers with his unique brand of aw shucks graciousness. I was lucky enough to be one of them on that historic night. I shook his hand and congratulated him on being a co-holder of a pretty amazing record; Gordie smiled ruefully and said "Not for long!"

The game went on and every time Gretzky got a quarter chance the crowd would ooh and aah (just like usual) but nothing was really working, things were just a little out of synch. Other Kings scored and assisted, the Oilers matched them goal for goal, then pulled ahead 4-3. Time was running out. Here was a dilemma of a different type: I still wanted the Oilers to win of course, but I wanted to see that record. Maybe Gretz could tie it up and we could still win in overtime, I rationalized. The Kings called timeout with 1:01 to play, faceoff in Oilers end, the crowd was alive, standing, cheering, chanting. It was an unreal environment, some of which is nicely captured in the video link at bottom.

The big guys were all on the ice for both teams, and it was an impressive twelvesome that lined up in the Oilers defensive zone right in front of me: John Muckler sent out Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Kevin Lowe, Jeff Beukeboom; between the pipes, Bill Ranford. The Kings countered with Larry Robinson, Dave Taylor, Bernie Nicholls, Luc Robitaille, Steve Duchesne. And of course, the extra attacker, Wayne Gretzky. Lots of Stanley Cup rings in that group.

Messier won the draw but Lowe failed to clear while Beukeboom abandoned his side of the ice, so Gretzky stepped out front and waited for the puck to do what the puck always did and come to him. Sure enough the point shot bounced through the traffic and Taylor somehow chopped it over and Gretzky was eyeball-to-eyeball with Ranford, the puck on his lethal backhand side. In a flash it was in the top corner and Gretzky was jumping, dancing in the corner directly in front of me as the Kings left the bench to congratulate him and the Oiler faithful roared their approval at seeing the home team blow a lead in the last minute. It was surreal, but it was very much real. I saw it with my own eyes, sonny.

So right then and there they stopped the game, score tied, 53 seconds left, overtime looming. No Bettman point in those days cuz there was no Bettman. Instead pipsqueak commissioner du jour, John A. Ziegler Jr. came right out on the ice to preside over a ceremony that included a speech by Mister Hockey and a presentation on behalf of the Oilers (for whom, lest we forget, Gretzky had scored 1669 or over 90% of those 1851 points.) Captain Mark Messier did the honours; little did we know that 15 long years later Messier would also climb Howe's mountain, and that these would eventually be the top three scorers in NHL history, a fact that remains both true and unthreatened today.

Thinking of my dwindling lecture I shuffled my feet but hung in there, to experience the history, and to see the game through to its denouement. There was still a chance to see the Oilers win, and I wouldn't have minded a tie as a fitting outcome. At most there was 5:53 to play.

Gretzky needed less. In the overtime period he was flying, the weight off, the game still very much on. I had seen him like this before, break a record during a game and then just pile it on with ever more goals and points. Like the time he broke Phil Esposito's goal record in Buffalo by scoring his 77th to break a 3-3 tie late in the third, only to score his 78th and 79th on the next two shifts, each one prettier than the last. The guy was just unreal that way.

This time he had one more point up his sleeve, and an exclamation point at that. He swooped behind the Oilers' cage to pick the pocket of Esa Tikkanen, darted in front, and deposited another backhand past Ranford for the unassisted game winner. What a moment! I was again pulled from my seat like the Great One had invented anti-gravity, but this time the cheer was entirely different, indeed I felt in the minority. In the moments between the "last minute of play in the third period" announcement and now, he had become the enemy. He already had his damn record, he didn't need to win the damn game too.

But I didn't mind. I just shook my head in wonderment, and thought, how many times did Wayne do something like this for the Oilers, harpoon the hearts of Jets fans, Canucks fans, Flames fans, Habs and Islanders and Flyers fans too. It felt somehow delicious to be on the receiving end, to gain a fuller appreciation for how those poor saps felt all those years. All I could do was laugh.

... and skedaddle to my meeting, surely winding down by now. I pulled in breathlessly to hear the applause marking the end of the lecture, caught the Q & A, got to meet Clyde Tombaugh, to have him autograph my copy of his book and my Pluto certificate (that's where I'm from). He was a real gentleman in every sense of the word. But I had missed the distinguished lecturer to watch a hockey game for goodness sake. How bad was that?

Not bad at all as things transpired. There may be no replays in hockey, but on the rubber chicken circuit do-overs are all the rage. Clyde stayed over in Edmonton and gave a second public lecture at the University the next night (twenty years ago today :) which was reportedly identical to the one on the Sunday night. (Clyde was 83 by then, had discovered Pluto at 24, and had given that lecture literally thousands of times in his lifetime.) Needless to say, I had a good seat on Monday night and a helluva memory to go with it. October 15, 1989: The night Wayne Gretzky broke the game's biggest record in storybook fashion, and the night I shook hands with Gordie Howe and Clyde Tombaugh.