Thirty-five years ago, the Edmonton Journal dedicated the entire front page of its sports section on Jan. 29, 1984 to a single topic, neatly summarized by the breaking news banner headline splashed across the top: GRETZKY STOPPED!
The picture below displays a young man, sitting down and wearing nothing but two towels, staring off somewhere beyond the surrounding crowd of reporters and microphones. Beginning with the Oilers’ season-opener on Oct. 5, Wayne Gretzky had recorded a point in 51 straight games. And now the streak was over, halted by the Los Angeles Kings--not to mention a bum right shoulder--on a Saturday night at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton.
“I feel bad,” interim Kings coach Rogie Vachon said later, via the Journal. “I was cheering for him too. Fifty-one games? That’s unbelievable.”
Seriously. Fifty-one. It’s comical, really. Mario Lemieux got pretty darn close in ‘89-90, kicking off on Halloween and stopping 46 games later. But Gretzky also had a staggering 50 more points (153-103) in those five additional contests. Since then, though, no one besides Gretzky himself (39, ‘85-86) has come within 20. "It’s almost mathematically impossible now," says New Jersey's Taylor Hall, who hit 19 games last season.
At the time Gretzky also held the previous record for longest streak (30) ... which he easily eclipsed two weeks before Christmas. "I remember getting to 25, and 28, and 30, and I was really thinking, okay, how many games in a row can I go?" Gretzky says. According to newspaper reports, the Oilers invited Joe DiMaggio as a guest of honor to their 56th and 57th games. That is how confident folks were that the Great One wouldn't stop.
By then, though, Gretzky was wiped. Not only was his shoulder nagging as the result of an awkward hit sustained in an earlier meeting with Los Angeles, but the streak had been dominating discussions at every turn. “The sooner I could get that point early in the game, the sooner I could put that behind me and mentally have a break,” Gretzky says today. “It could wear on your mind a little bit, because everyone’s talking about it and thinking about it.
“Eventually I knew it was going to come to an end. It was a fun ride while it lasted.”
Over the phone, Charlie Huddy is about to come clean. “I wasn’t bringing that up,” the former Oilers defenseman says. “I was going to keep that top-secret.”
He is referring to the end of the streak. Specifically a sequence that happened partway through the first period on Jan. 28 against Los Angeles. Carrying the puck on a two-on-one rush, Gretzky coaxed Kings goalie Markus Mattsson way out of position before passing to Huddy, who shot at the vacated net … and missed. In hindsight, his reticence is perfectly understandable.
“I can still see Charlie,” says defenseman Paul Coffey. “F------ blitzed it right over the net.. Just high and wide.”
“There’s not a better guy to make the story funny,” defenseman Kevin Lowe says. “One of the nicest guys in hockey.”
“I always tease him,” Gretzky says. “Every now and then I’ll come up and I’ll say, ‘Hey, Charlie, remember when you ruined my streak?’”
“He gave it to the wrong guy, unfortunately,” Huddy says. “But he still talks to me, so I guess it’s all good.”
There were other close calls, like the four-game goalless blip in mid-December, though not many. Of those 51 games in the streak, Gretzky registered only one point on 13 occasions. For comparison, he tallied four-plus points 15 times.
Looking back, Jan. 11 sticks out for its dramatics. The Oilers were visiting the Blackhawks at Chicago Stadium. Late in the third period, as Edmonton nursed a one-goal lead, Gretzky was on the ice when Chicago goalie Tony Esposito headed to the bench for an extra skater. “As time dwindled down, I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to get one more chance, don’t blow it,’” Gretzky says.
Sure enough, the puck rimmed around the boards and wobbled into the neutral zone, where Blackhawks defenseman Troy Murray had just jumped off the bench. Seeing an open teammate across the ice, Murray flung a hopeful pass. Mistake. “Two things I remember are the puck getting knocked out of thin air and me chasing it to the empty net,” Gretzky says.
“If you ever look at the clip,” Murray says, “I’m the guy chasing him down and I break my stick over the top of the crossbar.”
As Gretzky scored, extending his run to 44 games, he looked into the crowd and saw a sign: THE STREAK STOPS HERE. “That’s when I realized it had become more of a national-attention-getter instead of just people in Edmonton and writers of the Oilers,” Gretzky says. It also explained why Blackhawks fans had booed when Esposito got pulled.
Nine days later, Edmonton began a home-and-home back-to-back with Los Angeles. Gretzky was his usual self in the first game, finishing with five points and tying Marcel Dionne’s then-shorthanded goals record of 10. “He was dancing,” Oilers coach Glen Sather said after, via the Journal. “And he seemed to like it.”
The next night, though, Gretzky got pinched in the corner by longtime Kings forward Dave Taylor, bruising his right shoulder. He finished the game, earning two assists in the third period to keep the streak alive, but reports recounted him avoiding high-trafficked areas and attempting one-handed passes to compensate for the pain. Fortunately for him, the Oilers were about to enter a four-day schedule break; Gretzky spent the time relaxing in a whirlpool in Palm Springs.
The streak hit 50 games when Edmonton returned on Jan. 25, thanks to two goals from Gretzky in a 6-4 win over Vancouver. The next day was Gretzky’s 23rd birthday, which he celebrated by reaching 51 against New Jersey on Jan. 27. One night later, Huddy missed the open net.
“He probably did me a favor so I could get a break,” Gretzky says.
Sidney Crosby is sitting inside his stall at Madison Square Garden, tattered Penguins hat pulled low after their morning skate. “I didn’t get that close,” he says. “I was in the 20s, wasn’t I?”
Smack in the middle, actually. Crosby registered points in 25 straight games from Nov. 5 to Dec. 28, 2010. Less than half of Gretzky, and yet the second-longest streak since ‘91-92 behind Chicago’s Patrick Kane. “He was at 51?” Crosby asks upon hearing Gretzky’s final tally, as though the number needs repeating. “Yeah, not anywhere close. It’s crazy to think about.”
Gretzky’s former teammates will agree.
“The longer it went, the more it got ramped up and you started really to think about how incredible it really was,” Huddy says.
“Put it this way, we had the best seat in the house,” Hunter says.
“I’m pretty sure he could’ve had an 80-game point streak,” Coffey says.
As it was, Joltin’ Joe never wound up venturing to Edmonton when Gretzky finished five shy of his legendary mark. Even if DiMaggio had, though, he wouldn’t have been the first famous baseball player linked to Gretzky’s streak. Earlier in the season, Gretzky phoned good friend George Brett and inquired about Brett’s pursuit of batting .400, which had captivated national attention in 1980. “He had the same attitude I did,” Gretzky says. “It was all part of the fun of chasing down a record. Just a little bit more time-consuming.”
As for whether someone could ever reach his mark? (Correct answer: No chance.)
"Listen, um, records are made to be broken," says Gretzky, sounding as political as possible. "And never is a long time. Who knows? But … you know, you’ve got to have a lot of things go your way.”