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When it’s Edmonton time, it's hard not to think about Gretzky



Back in the spring of 1978, I was working at a small radio station up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.  It was the first opportunity I had to watch Wayne Gretzky, then just 16-17 years of age, play hockey in person.

Gretzky was unique, obviously.  He had always been small, not the fastest skater and certainly not the hardest shooter. But what I saw amazed me.  He almost never went off side.  He had what can only be described as the uncanny ability to think two plays ahead.  He had vision like nothing I had seen, except for probably Bobby Orr.  (And I had seen guys with great on-ice vision…Howe, Beliveau, Mikita and some others.)

Sometimes, up in the tiny, cramped press box at the old Sault Ste. Marie Gardens, fellow reporters would remark that Wayne didn't pass enough.  But the thing is, Gretzky held on to the puck, yes, but he didn't just throw it away blindly like players often do.  He would wait and wait until the right moment, then find the guy who was open or coming late.

I met Gretzky a couple of times because the fellow who had coached him most of that season in the Soo, Muzz Macpherson (who was fired in January), knew Wayne well, of course.  Muzz was the guy, as the story goes, who suggested Wayne wear number 99.  Another guy on the team with more seniority was already wearing number 9, which Gretzky liked to wear, so as Muzz and Wayne  were skating around together at practice one day, Muzz suggested 99. Wayne wore that number from then on, and for the rest of his extraordinary career.

Muzz had joined the radio station I was at, shortly after he was fired by the Greyhounds.  I had just come on board as well. (I had never been to Northern Ontario before.) We became fast friends and started doing a weekly radio show together, including a special one-hour program in the summer of ’78 after Gretzky announced he was signing a pro contract with the Indianapolis Racers. (Click here to hear a snippet of that interview.)

Leaf fans know the rest of the Gretzky story.  The Racers folded and Wayne ended up in Edmonton, where he became the best player of his generation and helped them win a few Stanley Cups before the big trade to Los Angeles.

Gretzky had some huge games against the Leafs over the years, but the particular play I always seem to remember (other than what he against Toronto in Games 6 and 7 of the 1993 semi-finals) occurred during a game at the Gardens during his first NHL season, in 1979-’80.  With just seconds remaining in the first period, Gretzky made a rush along the side boards inside the Leaf blue line.  I never figured he had time to do much, much less create a scoring opportunity.  He somehow flew around the net with a guy following him, came out from behind the net and in one motion lifted a backhand shot to the upper corner behind the Leaf goalie. (I can’t remember who was in goal for Toronto that night.)  The puck went in just before the green light went on to end the period.

It was one of the more remarkable individual efforts I had seen.

After that first interview with Muzz, Gretzky was always generous through the years in responding to my requests for interviews while I was in sports broadcasting.  I ran into him a couple of times after I left broadcasting when I was travelling on client business—once on a plane as we were both heading to Edmonton in the mid-later 1980s.  He asked me not to tell anyone he was coming into town. Since I was in town on a confidential assignment, I asked him not to tell anyone I was in town, either.

I likely thought I was pretty funny, at the time.

I’m trying to think of fond memories of the Leafs playing the Oilers in those years.  I don’t think there were too many.  I do remember a Leaf forward making a really good hit on Gretzky during a game in Edmonton.  I’m thinking it was the very early ‘80s, but I can’t honestly remember the year or the forward who hit Gretzky.

Can anyone fill me in on the circumstances?  I seem to recall there was a bit of a fuss made about this player daring to take a run at number 99.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Michael, first time commenting here, really enjoy your work.

    I am a little younger than you but also saw Gretzky as a Greyhound. I'm a Sudbury boy and saw him play the Wolves with my Dad at least once. My Dad's verdict - he'll never make it, too small. ;)

    Here is a link to a story on that hit:

    http://scottsportsworld.blogspot.com/2010/04/short-career-of-bill-mccreary-jr.html

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  2. Black Dog, Thanks for sharing the link and for your comments...I also got to know Joe Drago over the years, a wonderful guy (as you know, the former GM and coach of the Wolves in the '70s and '80s...) As you well know, Sudbury and the Soo have had hockey battles long before and long after Gretzky!

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  3. I remember when Brian Curran punched Gretzky in the side of the head and told him to stop whining at the ref as they were skating back to the bench after a stoppage but I think that was in TO. Good times.

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  4. Long suffering Leaf fanDecember 15, 2010 at 5:23 PM

    The forward gave Wayne his first and only bone crushing body check was none other than Bill McCreary Jr. Funny after that clean hit he never played another game in the NHL. As for the goalie, it was Mike Palmateer.

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  5. I was going to post a link to my blog about that hit, but, I've been beaten to the punch.

    Not for that game in question. That was Gretzky's second trip to the Garden, March 29, 1980. The six point game, as it's now known.

    With about 10 seconds left in the period, Turnbull had the puck in his own end and did the smart thing: used the boards to get the puck out.

    But Gretzky is smarter! He parks himself RIGHT when the puck is going to hits the boards, puck goes to Ashby, who passes to Blair MacDonald who gets the shot that Palmy deflects into the corner. Leafs are safe now.

    Are they?

    Look who's there! Gretzky blows past Turnbull, who turns around and pursues Gretzky (Futile, of course!).

    Gretzky winds around the net and JUST beats the horn and Palmy!

    Remember Gretzky's first trip to the Garden? Nov 21, 1979? Wow! Gretzky broke a 1-1 tie with a goal, then got an assist on the Oilers third goal for a 3-1 lead.

    Back came the Leafs!

    Three unlikely sources combined to give the Leafs a 4-3 lead: McKechnie (2nd of the season), Butler (3rd), Saganiuk (4th).

    But like what we found out Nov 3rd against Washington this year, the Leafs couldn't hold it.

    Williams takes a penalty, and on the ensuing PP, Gretzky's 9th ties the game 4-4, and that's how it ended!

    Edmonton, as a team, has averaged, to date (Despite 4-1 loss, Dec 14) 4.05 goals against the Leafs, more than any other active team has averaged against the Leafs.

    They had some good victories over the Oilers in the 80s

    Remember:

    6-3 win, Nov 11, 1980
    4-4 tie, Nov 21, 1980
    4-4 tie, Oct 29, 1980
    4-2 win, Nov 14, 1980
    4-1 loss, Jan 3, 1981 (Okay a loss, but the HIT)
    7-1 win, Jan 16, 1982
    6-6 tie, Jan 26, 1983
    8-3 win, Oct 26, 1983
    3-3 tie, Mar 22, 1985
    11-9 win, Jan 8, 1986
    4-2 win, March 28, 1987
    4-4 tie, Feb 17, 1988

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  6. Scott, great stuff. You are absolutely correct. You raise some memorable games with the Oilers! It's hard not to notice scores like 11-9. Thanks for sharing those memories, and confirming my memory of that wonderful last-second Gretzky goal.

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  7. Actually, the frist two dates, should be 1979. But anyways, I'm was looking through my collection of classic hockey games and I came across the six point game.

    Here's the play I described earlier @ 1:32 to 1:43

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZbl1rw28Bw

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