The Rangers normally wore white at home, but on this spring day, general manager Neil Smith decided they should go back to their original blue because this was not a normal game.
All eyes were on the man sporting a matching blue turtleneck with 99 embroidered under the lace-up collar. His white and black Nike Air Zoom skates glided around the rink, the one with that same 99 painted behind the net on both ends. His blue jersey was tucked in — only on the right side, of course — as red pants hung off his lithe frame. A Jofa helmet with NYR stickers on the sides was precariously placed on his head as the fingers of his Hespeler gloves gripped one of countless sticks by the same manufacturer being used that day.
No, this was not a normal game.
Twenty-one years ago Saturday, the hockey world held its collective breath for 60 minutes, its gaze fixated on a sheet of ice five stories up in the middle of New York City as Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One,” played his last NHL game.
“I always thought that if you put Wayne Gretzky on the Rangers it would be like having Babe Ruth on the Yankees,” Smith, who three years earlier had enticed Gretzky to sign as a free agent, told Sporting News during a recent phone interview. “It would be an amazing thing for New York to have the greatest player to ever play in their uniform and that’s how I always felt the whole time he was playing, the whole three years.
“Every time I looked down and saw that he was in that uniform I sort of looked twice, to go like, ‘Oh my God, he really is in the Rangers jersey and it’s Wayne Gretzky.'”
Not a soul at Madison Square Garden was sitting during the pre-game ceremony as the fans chanted his name, with old-fashioned camera flashes illuminating the moment.
Mario Lemieux was there, as was then Oilers and future Rangers GM Glen Sather and ’94 Stanley Cup hero Mark Messier, a member of the Canucks that day. Phil Esposito, Jerry Seinfeld and Christopher Reeve looked on as he hugged Alexei Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was, of course, booed — until he announced that No. 99 would be retired across the NHL.
He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with captain Brian Leetch, linemate Niklas Sundstrom and the rest of the Rangers’ starting five on the blue line before the puck dropped against the Penguins, singing along with Bryan Adams to the Canadian national anthem — except when the words were changed to, “We’re gonna miss you, Wayne Gretzky.”
Swathed in Ranger blue, in a jersey that fit the baggy clothing of the day, he watched as MSG’s legendary anthem singer, John Amirante, got the crowd in more of a frenzy with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
MARCH 29, 1999: The day Wayne Gretzky scored his last NHL goal
It was a moment that many in that building, and watching on television across the continent, were not ready for: the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer, with 894 tallies to his name, was hanging up his skates at the age of 38.
It was a moment that was not officially happening until just two days prior when he formally announced that the curtain was indeed coming down on his illustrious 21-year professional hockey career.
“He didn’t want it to be a gong show for 82 games: Wayne’s last season, last time he’s in New Jersey, last time he’s in wherever,” said Mike Richter, the Rangers’ starting netminder that day. “He had that understanding of his place in the game and how that would be a distraction to the league and to our own franchise trying to play games.
“But at the same time, he also knew enough to not just decide to mail it in from a golf course in August saying ‘I’m not coming back next year.’ He’s too important.”
Word had spread — unofficially — as the season wore on, however, that his time was winding down. His final game in Canada was against the Ottawa Senators three nights earlier on April 15.
“It was overwhelming,” Richter told Sporting News. “It was like a national day of mourning and we sat after lunch and told stories and Wayne just wanted to hang out and tell more stories. … [But] John Rosasco, our head of PR, kept saying, ‘Hey Wayne, you’ve got a call.’ He said, ‘John, you know, I’m going to address the press tonight, I just want to stay here, my last meal, have conversations with the guys.’ …
“He just kept telling stories after our meal and John came and said, ‘No, there’s another call here for you.’ He’s like, ‘John, I’m not speaking to anybody.’ [Rosasco responded], ‘Well, it’s the Prime Minister of Canada.’ [Gretzky said] ‘I’d better take that one.'”
On that Sunday at MSG, fans settled into their seats as referee Bill McCreary got set to drop the puck for the opening faceoff between Gretzky and Martin Straka, who himself would end his career later as a Ranger.
While it was the last game of the regular season for both teams, they were two franchises headed in opposite directions. The Rangers were in Year 2 of a seven-year playoff drought — which was eventually ended, thanks in part, to the superstar that would end this particular game — while the Penguins were gearing up for the postseason.
“It was another game for us … but there’s no one that it wasn’t in the back of their mind,” Penguins forward Matthew Barnaby said. “That probably is the only game in my life that I was thinking more about growing up and having a chance to play against Wayne Gretzky and him being an idol as a kid. Any Canadian kid, I think, looked up to him. …
“Just knowing that the greatest player that ever played the game and someone that we grew up [and watched] and I was gonna have a chance to play in that last game.”
GRETZKY BY THE NUMBERS: A look at “The Great One’s” NHL career
After a scoreless opening frame, it was Kovalev, who was traded in November from these Rangers to those Penguins, that potted the first goal.
Then, with the Garden faithful cheering every time “The Great One” touched the puck, they were finally rewarded with under a minute to go in the middle 20. With New York on the power play, Leetch dished it to Gretzky just inside the offensive zone on the right wing. He took two steps to the top of the circle and fed the trailer, Mathieu Schneider, in the high slot. The Manhattan native faked the shot, taking netminder Tom Barrasso out of position, and hit Leetch for the easy redirect goal.
Madison Square Garden roared and shook as only Madison Square Garden can. The game was tied. It was NHL point No. 2,857 for Gretzky, yet he celebrated like it was point No. 1.
“He just found a way to carve out a sense of enjoyment every time he was on the ice,” Richter said during a recent phone chat. “He just brought a lot of energy to it. He wasn’t a young guy when he came to our squad and he had every record in the book, but he would bring more energy than some of the rookies we had on the team. That’s just who we was. That’s how he loved the game and that’s how we figured out how to have success.
“This guy was gifted, obviously, but … he just absolutely loved the competition and playing and having the puck on his stick when the game was on the line. Not everybody’s built that way. … His reads and his element of surprise and trickiness, which he used that skill, setting up behind the net, passing when you thought he was going to shoot, sometimes shooting when you didn’t think he would.
“The way he saw the game was really just beautiful. It was amazing to watch.”
And his teammates and the fans weren’t the only ones watching Gretzky’s every move that afternoon.
“I just remember sitting on the bench and literally the game not meaning anything to me as we were going through,” Barnaby told Sporting News. “Usually [I’m] uber-competitive and thinking about a fight that I might have out there. I’m thinking about the next play that I might have. I found myself on the bench all game long just staring at Wayne and looking at him when he got to the bench and what he was doing; as he was either taking off another pair of gloves, getting another stick into his hands.
“I spent the whole game just watching Wayne from our bench.”
Barnaby, who would later join the Rangers before his career ended, added, “It was electric every time he touched the puck — every time he got onto the ice. It was really Wayne and everyone else. Everyone just stared at Wayne, whether you’re in the game, whether you’re watching the game. He knew the magnitude of what it was going to be but it was pretty electric for a team not going to the playoffs.”
As the game wore on, the tension — and anticipation — grew palpable. Would “The Great One” score in his last NHL game? Could he, in fact, bury the game-winner? And with the game still tied after 60, how magical would it be for him, in his last NHL game, to score the overtime capper?
“Freaking Jaromir Jagr scored on me in OT and I would have liked to have had that,” Richter said.
Approximately 30 minutes earlier, during the second intermission, Jagr told the CBC’s Scott Oake that he hadn’t planned on playing the second night of back-to-back games with the playoffs coming up; he changed his mind because he “wanted to be here” for Gretzky’s last game. When asked about taking the mantle now, the Penguins captain added that, “Nobody can fill Wayne Gretzky or Mario’s shoes, it’s too big and those kinds of players are born once in a 100 years.”
Yet, in a way, he did.
He ended the game one minute and 22 seconds into the extra session.
“We wanted to win the game, right, but I don’t think anyone from our team would have been upset if Wayne Gretzky scored the winner and [was] carried off the ice and had that ending,” Barnaby said, and considering the demure celebration by Pittsburgh as its regular season came to a close, that was pretty evident.
“Was it kind of a passing of the guard? Yeah, Jaromir was at the top of his game and he was the new guard. He was the new NHL superhero. … To watch Jags and Gretz hug [afterward] and their little conversation that they had, whatever was said, was kind of poetic. It was like a movie, the passing of the guard. …
“So [if] Wayne wasn’t gonna score, Jaromir was the second-best option.”
The Penguins, the fans and, of course, his teammates all celebrated as Gretzky’s career came to a close. He took a picture with his teammates wearing 99 hats, looking on the verge of much-warranted tears. He skated around the Garden ice saluting the crowd, similar to how he celebrated the four Stanley Cups he won in Edmonton in the 80s.
He came back out from the tunnel for another spin, just as he did every before every game or every time he was named a star of the game. He looked around the World’s Most Famous Arena one last time in a jersey that hung on his thin frame drenched in sweat — and probably a few tears — before the lights went dark on Broadway.
“It is really indescribable because you’re playing your hero, the greatest player that ever played the game and you’re watching this unfold,” Barnaby said. “I got a chance to play in his last game, I got to watch his last shift, I got to be a part of something that is absolutely incredible. I couldn’t imagine as a kid, you know, watching Wayne and admiring him to be in his last game and to watch it unfold, but I wasn’t emotional. I was more awestruck and couldn’t believe that this is the last time he’s ever gonna wear a pair of skates.”
Gretzky took his time removing those skates; more than an hour passed before he began to untie them and slip the blue jersey over his head. He told reporters, knowing the finality of it all, that, “probably, subconsciously, I don’t want to take it off. … I was a boy that happened to love a game and got lucky and the good Lord gave me a passion for it.”
“It [would have been] so cool in overtime to have him, the last time the puck touched his stick to be a goal, but he wrote so many amazing stories,” Richter said. “It was a celebration of his life, career, greatness, singular talent, personality. He always said records are made to be broken, and he broke plenty in his life. And you expect some of his to be broken, but he is just so different than all the others, and there’s been many, many great players.
“But boy, there’ll never be another Wayne, right?”
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