Monday, June 27, 2011

Gretzky and the quest for a 100 goal season.

In the winter of 1981/82, the Wayne Grezky Legend exploded in earnest. This was the first time in NHL history in which there was serious talk of a player scoring 100 goals in a regular season. And I was a 10 year old Gretzky-idolizing, hockey stat loving kid. I was in my glory. Gretzky was coming off his first two NHL seasons with goal totals of 51 and 55, so nobody expected him to make a run at 100 in season three. Sure, he'd scored 28 goals in the last 29 games of 1980/81, but 100...come on.

Gretzky is quoted before the season by Terry Jones of the Edmonton Journal saying he was going to go for goals instead of assists. He said,"Lafleur advised me at the Canada Cup, to shoot more." Gretzky actually started off the season on a pedestrian 50 goal pace with 7 goals in his first 11 games. He notched 24 in his next 15 games to get to 31 in 26 overall games by Nov. 29 but then went goal-less in the next four to sit at 31 goals in 30 games. There was no talk of 100 goals but the 50 in 50 watch was in full stride. He notched one goal in each of the next four games to sit at 35 goals in 34 games heading to Minnesota on Dec. 19. Then he got really silly. A hat-trick against the North Stars was followed by 2 against Calgary and 1 against Vancouver to bring him to 41 goals in 37 games by Christmas. Breaking the record of 50 goals in 50 games set by Rocket Richard and tied by Mike Bossy the previous year seemed a certainty.

On Dec. 27 against Mario Lessard and the Los Angeles Kings he potted four to stand at 45 goals through 38 games. Three nights later of course, The Great One obliterated Richard and Bossy's record by scoring five against Philadelphia, the last one his 50th in 39 games. Even as a ten year old, that math was easy. The Oilers were one game shy of the halfway mark in the season, Gretzky was on pace for 100 goals (actually 103). And I wasn't the only one getting excited about it.

The Dec. 31 Edmonton Journal's headline proclaimed "I CAN DOUBLE EVERYTHING; GRETZKY FEELS HE CAN GET 100 GOALS THIS SEASON." Gretzky is quoted,"As long as the rest of the guys on the team keep playing the way they are playing, I think I'm capable of doubling what I've done so far." His room-mate Kevin Lowe noted, "Now he'll probably want to get 65 (goals) in 50 (games)". The Montreal Gazette on Jan. 2 headlined,"GRETZKY AIMS AT 100 GOALS AS ROCKET CHEERS HIM ON" Richard is quoted,"He's a natural scorer just like I was. There's no doubt he would have scored-not as many goals-in my day, but he would have been the best scorer in the league." And Mike Bossy himself chimed in with,"He seems on a course for a 100-goal season. And I think he can do it."

Although was held pointless in his 40th game against Vancouver his scoring line read a neat and tidy 50 goals through 40 games. He slumped for the next two weeks with only 7 goals in 8 games, (how ridiculous is that sentance in today's era of hockey?), and he fell to a 95 goal pace before scoring 3 against Gary Edwards and the St.Louis Blues. 4 goals in the next 5 games was followed by another hat-trick (against Rick St.Croix and the Flyers) to close out January. He now had 67 goals in 55 games, on pace for 98. Then came another slump of 3 in 5 games to drop the pace to 93 for the season.

Of course it was almost a given at this point that Gretzky would break Phil Esposito's NHL record of 76 goals in a season but talk of 100 had died down. Gretzky himself wasn't quite ready to concede though as he ripped off 12 goals in six games to close out February including hat-tricks against Hartford's Greg Millen and Buffalo's Don Edwards on the night he broke Espo's record. By the time March rolled around he had 82 in 66 games, full season pace...99 goals. He was asked about the possibility of scoring 100 goals and on March 1 is quoted,"I am getting a little bit excited now that it's getting close. Basically, because no one else has ever done it."
Then came a REAL slump...

From March 2 through March 13 Gretzky scored zero goals in 6 games while collecting 9 assists. He was stymied by the following goalies; Rick Walmsley of Montreal, Daniel Bouchard of Quebec, Chico Resch of Colorado, Mario Lessard of Los Angeles, Don Edwards of Buffalo and Rick Heinz of Vancouver. By March 14 Gretzky had 82 goals in 72 games. The pace was down to 91. When he finally did score a goal against L.A on March 15 he said afterwards," I'm paid to score goals. When you're not scoring goals you get concerned you're letting the team down. I've been getting lots of chances but the puck wasn't going in."

With his tenth hat-trick of the year on March 17 against Pittsburgh he broke another of Bossy's records. Penguins coach Eddie Johnston summed up the game saying, "If Gretzky's Irish, he had a hell of a night," in reference to St.Patricks Day, "Is it O'Gretzky?" Gretz himself addressed his probable falling short of 100 goals, "Maybe this year wasn't supposed to be my year to get 100 goals; maybe that will be something for me to aim for next year." He did however score 8 over this 4 game stretch through March 25 to get it to 90 in 76. Could he possibly score 10 in his final 4, 10 year old me pondered. He had in fact done exactly that from Dec.19 to Dec 27. And even had 10 goals in 3 games from Dec 23 to Dec 30. Alas, it was not to be.

He scored once on Colorado's Chico Resch on March 26 to reach 91 goals with three games left. On March 28, L.A.'s Doug Keans surrendered 4 goals on 7 shots to the Oilers in the first 11 minutes...none to Gretzky. He did however put one past Mike Blake later in the game. On March 31, Mario Lessard was beaten seven more times by Edmonton with Gretzky collecting three helpers and no goals. On the final night of the season, Winnipeg's Doug Soetaert shut down the Great One to keep him stuck on 92 goals.

The following season there was no talk of 100 goals as Gretzky took 25 games to score his first 20 and sat at 30 through 40 games. He'd pot 41 over the final 40 to finish at 71. In 83/84 he scored 30 in his first 30 then ripped off 22 in his next 13 to reach 52 in 43 games. His was now on pace for 97 goals. Of course he never really would have a chance at 100 as he injured his shoulder on a hit by the Kings Dave Taylor on Jan. 21. After aggravating the shoulder during the All-Star Game, Gretzky missed six straight games. Upon returning he potted 12 goals in his first 5 games to get to 73 goals in 57 games, an 80 game pace of 102. Problem was, Edmonton only had 17 games remaining. He would slow down to score 14 over that stretch and finished with 87 in 74 games, a full season pace of 94 goals.

Gretzky would never again threaten the 100 goal plateau. In 84/85 he scored 42 in the first half but finished with 73. The race for the single-season goal record and 100 goals in 1981/82 proved to be a rivetting and memorable event for a ten-year old hockey nut as well as the rest of the hockey world.

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