"Well, it's time they got their act together, folks. They're ruining the whole league. They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on ice."
-- Wayne Gretzky about the state of the New Jersey Devils, 26 years ago today
It was a mismatch of epic proportions. The home team was the Edmonton Oilers at their offensive peak, a juggernaut the likes of which the league has never seen before or since. The Oilers and their six hungry young Hall of Famers were on their way to a still-extant league record of 446 Goals For, and inclined to take no prisoners. The visitors were the hapless New Jersey Devils, a team so historically bad that two previous cities (Kansas City, Denver) had drawn the drapes. The Devils stunk just as bad as the Scouts and Rockies had, and entered this, the 740th game in franchise history, with just 159 wins. The '83-84 Devils would win just 17 games in a season notable only for a memorable stretch run in which they tried but failed to out-lose the equally dreadful Pittsburgh Penguins, who got a booby prize named Mario Lemieux. By season's end the Oilers would have 119 points, the Devils 41.
On this night they weren't that close. The Devils, in the midst of a long, unsuccessful road trip, entered the game 2-17-0. The Oilers had finished their first quarter with a snazzy 16-3-1 record and an astonishing 119 GF. They were hot, having opened November with 6 successive victories, scoring 7 or more goals in each of those games. Did I mention those Oilers could score?
Well score they could, and did at will against the "Hapless Devils" (capitalized from countless newspaper headlines of that era). Wayne Gretzky was all over the scoresheet, kicking things off with a penalty in the game's first minute that led to an early Devils' powerplay goal. Immediately thereafter the Devs tallied again on an unassisted goal by Jan Ludvig, a young Czechoslovak who two years earlier had played on three different teams with Edmonton connections -- the St. Albert Saints (AJHL), the Kamloops Junior Oilers (WHL), and the Wichita Wind (CHL, and the Edmonton Oilers' top farm club) . The next year he was signed as a free agent by the Devils, and by 1983-84 he was the team's second leading scorer. Nothing against Jan Ludvig, but when he's one of your top scorers, you're in trouble.
So it's 2-0 and all the Devils need to do is kill the next 57 minutes. I wouldn't bet a nickel against them being able to do that today, but on this night all the early goals did was wake up the mighty Oilers, who roared back with 4 before the end of the first. The subsequent periods followed a similar pattern, with the Devils scoring first in each but the Oil replying in bunches of 4 and then 5 goals in the second half of each period. The final damage: Oilers 13, Devils 4.
Individually, Jari Kurri led the way with a career-best 5 goal game, while Gretzky "chipped in" with 3 goals and 5 assists for 8 points, also a career high. Willy Lindstrom was yet a third Oiler with the hat trick, an ultra-rare feat that has been accomplished just three times in NHL history. Even raw rookie Jim Playfair, a 19-year-old first round draft pick up on emergency 2-game recall, managed to find the net in the third period with his first NHL goal. (What seemed a promising career at the time would see him score just once more in the NHL.)
For Gretzky of course, hat tricks were "old hat"; this was one of his (own-)record-tying 10 he scored that season, and one of 50 in his remarkable career. His hat trick goal closed the scoring in the game's last two minutes, a shorthanded marker that suggests neither Gretzky nor Glen Sather was philosphically opposed to running up the score.
Yet after the game the Great One was unexpectedly livid. The recently-promoted captain of the Oilers was renowned for his careful choice of words that were right from the Crash Davis book of uncontroversial sports quotes ("I just want to help the ball club.") What could have prompted him to chastise his opponents so harshly mere minutes after mercilessly destroying them on the ice?
The answer was sititng in the other room, peeling off his heavy goal pads and sweaty jersey after yet another night's overwork. The Devils' starting goalie, Ron Low, was a former Oiler teammate and personal friend of Gretzky. Traded 9 months earlier to the Devils, Low had been shelled for 8 goals over the first 40 minutes before being mercifully pulled. His batterymate and fellow respected veteran, Glenn "Chico" Resch, was similarly lit up by Kurri and Gretzky in the third. Gretzky probably gave two hoots about Resch, the former Islander. But Wayne was feeling low for Low, a good goalie and better person who was in deep with such a crappy team.
It wasn't Low's first crappy team. He had broken in with the crappy Toronto Maple Leafs in 1972-73, tabbed to replace Bernie Parent after the Leafs had been throughly raided by the fledgling WHA. Two years later, Low wound up with the crappiest team in hockey history, the expansionist Washington Capitals. His W-L-T record of 8-36-2 can only be put in its true perspective when compared to the combined record of his two back-ups: 0-31-3. Low won all 8 games for the Caps that season! After two more desultory years in Washington, Low would move on to a crappy Detroit team for a while, then play for two "expansion" teams (Quebec and Edmonton) in the same season! After experiencing a modicum of success here in Edmonton, Low got beaten out of the job by his young protégés Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr and unceremoniously peddled to the Hapless Devils to play out the string. Poor bugger ended his career with a 102-203-38 record.
Gretzky's words became instant Huge news that rippled well beyond hockey. I heard the quote at the time as "put somebody on the ice", meaning players, but history recorded it as "put somebody on ice" which means something else entirely. Well-intentioned criticism or not, it was pretty close to the truth, and once the Devils and their fans got through with over-reacting and got down to taking action, who knows, it may have done them a world of good. There were already a few unripe seeds on that young Devils squad, notably a pair of teenaged diamonds in the rough in Pat Verbeek and Ken Daneyko. Who could have predicted that Daneyko, an Edmonton product BTW, would retire 20 years later, still a Devil, and a three-time Stanley Cup champion? Nobody in their right mind, that night. If I had been told the two franchises would win 8 of the next 20 Stanley Cups, I would have guessed all 8 of them for the Oilers. (We Oiler fans were a cocky lot, back in the day.)
The Oilers and Devils met two more times that 1983-84 season, with both games being notable for different reasons. The Oilers visited the Swamp on January 15, 1984, where a rare sold-out crowd had a special welcome for Gretzky. The cavernous arena that had drawn a typical crowd of 9,050 for the Devils' previous game against the Nordiques was packed to the rafters with 19,023 souls, all screaming for some sort of imaginary revenge. Didn't happen, though at least they made a game of it. But It was business as usual for the Great One, whose three assists paced the Oil to a 5-4 win.
Two weeks later the teams met again in Edmonton in the Oilers' 51st game of that magical season. Gretzky was playing on a wing and a prayer after suffering a shoulder separation a few nights earlier that would soon sideline him for 6 games. For now, though, he had scored at least a point in every game all season -- 50 games and counting! -- and intended to keep going as long as he could. The Great One, clearly labouring well below his best, managed to beat Low in the first period for his 61st goal and 153rd point of the season. But there the streak would end, as Gretzky was shut out the next night, establishing 51 games as yet another record that stands to this day. What became the milestone goal of one of the Great One's greatest records was scored against his old friend, Ron Low.
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Historical footnote: Of the players named above it would be difficult to find three more different hockey intellects than a grizzled goalie, a superstar forward, and a fuzzy-cheeked defenceman. Nonetheless Ron Low, Wayne Gretzky and Jim Playfair shared a common future: all became NHL head coaches.