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Assist by the Great One: How Wayne Gretzky redefined scoring in the NHL

With the NHL trying to boost scoring, Wayne Gretzky’s single-season assist totals in the 1980s stagger the mind.

How long would you say it takes before you start monitoring the NHL leader boards to see who might end up with the Art Ross Trophy each season? Or—dare one say it—crack the 100-point barrier, something that practically assures winning the scoring crown, too? Let’s say 20 games, right? You notice which players didn’t merely go on a week-long scoring binge to start the season, and which ones have staying power, the key to accumulating points.

But scoring’s gotten weird in NHL. Last season, the Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn entered the final day of the campaign ranked third with 83 points, and then he popped for four and managed to steal the scoring title despite not being in the league’s top five in goals or assists. That ain’t easy to do.

But then you start thinking about numbers, and when we talk about them we tend to return to the singular metrics of Wayne Gretzky. 

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That you can now lead the league in scoring with a semi-decent Steve Larmer-type of stat line doesn’t, of course, mean anything except that the game has changed. Ditto for the players, and, presumably, the degree of difficulty. But that still doesn’t help explain what Gretzky did 30 years ago in the single most dominant season anyone has ever had in the history of North American sports. A season which, remarkably, was a “quiet” Gretzky campaign and not one that we ever tend to discuss as his best, his most signature, his most Gretzky-esque, even.

If you were around back then, you might remember reading that Gretzky had said something about wanting to register an average of two assists per game. Think about that. Basically, it means, “Well, I’m so good, I will elect to get this percentage of my points this way, because I am bored amidst these mortals.”

Up until Gretzky’s 1985-86 onslaught, the 150 point level had been reached six times: once by Phil Esposito and on five occasions by the Great One. Points. Not assists. Mario Lemieux would later exceed 150 points four times. Steve Yzerman and Bernie Nichols (both in 1988-89) would get there, and that was it.

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But what seems to get lost with Gretzky talk is his performance in the mid-1980s as compared to his peers. Yes, there was his coming out party during the 1980-81 season, with his 164 points breaking Espo’s scoring record of 152 set in 1970-71. And then there was the next season, when Gretzky put in 92 goals and topped 200 points—which still seems like the accomplishment of an extraterrestrial—crossing over into American pop culture in a way that athletes, let alone hockey players, rarely do. We’re talking about the Tom Bradys, the Michael Jordans, the Magic Johnsons. The 1981-82 season might have been Gretzky’s best, and what a rip-roarin’ good time this was: the high-flyin’ 1980s, baby, an era of up-and-down-the-ice hockey with passing that is still mourned by middle-aged men on discussion forums as they cry in their ale.

Those were the years when the Gretzky-based math just got nutty. Consider the 1986-87 season. Gretzky led the league with 183 points, but look at the number two spot: Edmonton teammate, JarriKurri, with 108 (54 goals, 54 assists). They were linemates, so Kurri’s total is in large part due to Gretzky inflation. Someone could go for 108 points this season. Maybe Tyler Seguin of the Stars stays healthy and he’s the man to do it. But as far as elite scoring goes, 90 points is the ballpark figure for what we might see now.

So how the hell then did Gretzky best the rest of the NHL field by around 70 points or so in '86-87? Clearly, the mores of the game didn’t apply to him as much as they applied to everyone else. A maturing Gretzky, at the age of 26, hit his prime and went all transcendent and preternatural and all of that. But what you want to do is try to figure out if he could do the same in the NHL as it is now. If you want to make the case that he could, the ’85-’86 season is actually where you might want to start.

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Gretzky’s goal totals “dipped” to 52 during that campaign. You watch how he scored many of his prime-era goals, and you think there’s no way they’d be getting through today’s goaltenders. A slapshot, on the ice, from 30 feet out, with no screen? Yeah, that’s going to be a tough sell. So what we’re talking about is his supreme playmaking. His linemate Kurri reached a career of 68 goals in '85-86 and if Gretzky had not scored even one that season, he’d still be tied with the 1990-91 version of himself for the tenth-highest scoring campaign in NHL history.


1. 163: Gretzky (1985-86)

215: Gretzky (1985-86)

2. 135: Gretzky (1984-85)

212: Gretzky (1981-82)

3. 125: Gretzky (1982-83)

208: Gretzky (1984-85)

4. 122: Gretzky (1990-91)

205: Gretzky (1983-84)

5. 121: Gretzky (1986-87

199: Lemieux (1988-89)

6. 120: Gretzky (1981-82)

196: Gretzky (1982-83)

7. 118: Gretzky (1983-84)

183: Gretzky (1986-87)

8. 114: Lemieux/Gretzky (1988-89)

168: Lemieux (’87-88)/Gretzky (’88-89)

9. 109: Gretzky (1980-81; '87-88)

164: Gretzky (1980-81)

10. 102: Orr (1970-71)/Gretzky ('89-90)

163: Gretzky (1990-91)

Granted, Gretzky was surrounded by a cast of offensively gifted players, not to mention that future Hall of Famer on his wing. But deciding that you want to obliterate and conquer in a certain way and then going out and doing it indicates a level of ability beyond the physical, which would succeed in any era. This all gets rather cartoonish, I know, but it does speak to a level of command that few humans have ever had. With anything. And when we reach for comparables, we usually have to go outside of the sports world with Gretzky. Mozart would probably get what the Great One was up to and how his mind functioned.

What would you do in today’s league, 30 years later, if you had been capable of 160+ helpers once upon a time? You’d probably end up with fewer. You have those tanks in net, after all. But then again, maybe you’d decide you wished to attack them a different way, and that supernal mind thing you had going on fashioned some new approach that no one has really considered before and could not be definitively emulated. Either way, you’d assuredly be taking the Art Ross Trophy, and we’d all know it by Thanksgiving, and you could probably take off the last month, too, and gear up for the Stanley Cup run.