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The great stretch drive of 1980

Fans of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers are better off living in the past. Nobody knows that better than me, who was a fan of the Oilers during their dynasty of the 1980s and before that, a fan of the Leafs during their last dynasty way back in the '60s. "My" team has won the Stanley Cup nine times over the years, but it's been a helluva long time since the last such total victory.

Goodness knows the present is a real nasty place for both squads, ranking 29th and 30th in the 30-team NHL. Tonight's game is all about draft position, not playoff position.

It was hardly that way thirty years ago this month in March, 1980, when the Oilers rolled into the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens for a late-season game against the Leafs. The game didn't matter so much from a Toronto perspective as the Leafs were comfortably in the middle of the 21-team pack, ultimately finishing 11th. The Oilers, however, were just one point out of the 16th and final playoff spot, riding a four-game winning streak and the ever-more-remarkable feats of their young phenom, Wayne Gretzky.

Of course Gretzky was from nearby Brantford, Ontario, returning to his roots as the conquering hero. It worked out that the Oilers' visit was on a Saturday night and, it being after all a Leaf game, was shown on national TV. No HNiC double header back in the day, and for the most part it was still the Leafs and Habs getting by far the lion's share of the coverage. So a lot of people across the country, including within the Greater Toronto Area, were getting one of their very first looks at the Great One. Interest in the game was extreme; the hype, extremer.

The Oilers were new to the NHL but not exactly an expansion team in '79-80, having survived the NHL/WHA merger with a decent nucleus of players, most importantly Gretzky himself. They also had an extant organization of brash and aggressive newcomers to the rather staid NHL scene, notably owner Peter Pocklington, scout Barry Fraser, and coach Glen Sather. Indeed, Pocklington had made headlines during the Oilers first and only previous trip to Toronto, back in November. it was a Wednesday game, so shown locally on ITV. After Gretzky scored the tying goal late in the third to cap a four-point night in his first "at home" game and carry the Oilers to a 4-4 tie, Pocklington came on the post-game interview and promised - promised - the Oilers would win the Stanley Cup within 5 years. It seemed an outrageous claim; even those of us utterly sold on the unlimitations of Wayne Gretzky could see the gaping holes in the team, the over-the-hills and the not-good-enoughs and the young-and-error-prones and the sieves. Pocklington was already well known to be full of ... let's say pomp and bluster, yet he clearly believed the product he was selling and damned if he didn't get a whole lot of people along for the ride. Including, ultimately, his team.

Sather and titular GM Larry Gordon made a bold move to address the goaltending issue at the deadline, trading captain Ron Chipperfield to Quebec Nordiques for journeyman netminder Ron Low. That Chipperfield's mother was on her death bed at the time just added to the lore, but the nature of the trade deadline leaves little time for sentiment. Low came in to take over between the pipes, while Gretzky's winger B.J. MacDonald assumed the captaincy. The stage was set for a remarkable stretch run.

The Oil won their first two games with Low, but after being bashed 7-3 at home by Montreal on March 15, the situation looked grim. Not only were the Oilers three points behind Washington, they had just 8 games left to play, the Capitals 10. It was hard to like those odds, but damn it sure was easy to like that team. Gretzky was really starting to come on, and so were the Oilers. The Great One assisted on a late game winner against the Rangers, scored a natural hat trick to kick dirt on the Penguins, then delivered another of his 2-2-4 nights to turn a 4-1 deficit into a remarkable 5-4 comeback against Jim Craig and the Atlanta Flames to kick off the last road trip. Not only were the Oilers narrowing the gap on the playoffs, the teenaged Gretzky was closing in on league scoring leader Marcel Dionne. It was a real exciting time to be a fan, never more so than that night in Toronto.

Suffice to say that Gretzky delivered the goods with two goals, four assists in a thrilling 8-5 Oilers victory. A couple of those points may have been of the phantom variety (a very rare occurrence during his career I hasten to add), but the rest were real, and spectacular. Gretzky's first goal tied the game with one second left in the first, and his second broke a 5-5 tie in the third to stand up as the game winner. He missed by a hair from scoring his hat trick goal in the dying second of the game, one that would have been his 50th of the season. So there was still room for a tiny bit of disappointment on what could have been an even-more-unbelievable night.

If you've got ten minutes for a little fun, I've embedded some game video from an embittered Toronto fan up top. If you've only got half a minute, I recommend zooming to around the 6:10 mark to watch a textbook demonstration of Gretzky's office, the 19-year-old showing the patience of Job in holding the puck for 12 (twelve) seconds before dishing a perfect 5-foot saucer pass onto the blade of the goal scorer. The Leaf defenders clearly didn't quite know what to do with themselves.

More galling to Leaf fans was the performance of a couple of ex-Leafs. Don Ashby, recently installed as Gretzky's LW, enjoyed a career night with three goals, three assists, while the famous Stan Weir scored on a rare penalty shot (embedded at bottom). Ashby, who died tragically in a car crash a year later, was second star with a bullet, but it was Gretzky's night. I still remember the extended post-game interview that Dave Hodge conducted with the Kid; what struck me most was his eyes, so alert and alive, seemingly the fastest of his innumerable fast twitch "muscles". HNiC had set a ratings record for a regular season game, and Canada had a new hero.

At night's end the Oilers were one point ahead of the Caps, Gretzky one point ahead of Dionne. Two dreams that seemed at best a year away at the trade deadline, suddenly both seemed realistic. After a bad 5-0 loss in Vancouver to end their road trip, the Oilers returned home to earn a crucial point in a 1-1 tie against Minnesota, Low playing brilliantly and Gretzky scoring his 50th to tie it up. What a moment that was, a huge goal in its context, the first goal for the team in 90 nervous minutes. The Coliseum exploded as the Great One became (and remains) the youngest to ever hit 50. 

Washington was stumbling, so the Oilers could and did wrap up their playoff berth with a convincing home win over Colorado in their 80th and last game of the season. The Oilers, 20-37-12 at the deadline, had finished the season on an 8-2-1 roll and passed the Capitals by two points. Gretzky scored three points to finish the game two up on Dionne, but could only watch helplessly as the Little Beaver scored a pair of assists in his own season finale to tie up the scoring race at 137 points apiece. Gretzky had played one fewer game, but the tie-breaker was most goals, meaning Dionne by 53-51. The disappointed Gretzky kept his composure and showed his class, delivering only the famous line "my dad always taught me that an assist is as good as a goal". He missed out on the Calder Trophy, also controversially, as he and other WHA "veterans" were excluded from rookie status. But the voters were not to be denied, and Gretzky wound up with the biggest individual bauble of all, the Hart Trophy, along with the Lady Byng. And a berth in the playoffs.

As the 16th place team in a fully interlocking schedule, the Oilers were in over their heads in drawing the first-overall Philadelphia Flyers. That was the squad that ran off the still-extant NHL record 35-game undefeated streak under rookie head coach Pat Quinn. (30 years later that same Pat Quinn, now coach of the Oilers and ex- of the Leafs, returns to Toronto as something of a conquering hero in his own right. See, even ancient history has relevance of some sort!)  Back then Quinn's Flyers would roll over the Oilers in three straight preliminary round games, although the blue and orange forced two of those games to overtime and gained some very valuable playoff experience along the way. Low was outstanding in defeat; he had provided just the sort of gritty netminding and leadership Glen Sather had been counting on. Despite the disappointment of the loss and the unfinished business it represented, it had been a thrilling and wholly-satisfying first NHL season.