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On This Date in Sports April 18, 1999: Gretzky's Last Game

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Wayne Gretzky hangs up the skates after playing his final NHL game with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Great One is honored with a pre-game ceremony as his #99 is retired league-wide. Gretzky would get one last assist as the Rangers are beaten in overtime by the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1. Wayne Gretzky finished his career with a record 894 goals, 1,963 assist, and 2,857 points.

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Wayne Douglas Gretzky was born January 26, 1961, in Brantford, Ontario. From the time he was able to skate it was clear he had a natural skill for the game. At the age of six, Gretzky was playing with boys almost twice his age and was the best player on the ice. It was here that Wayne Gretzky began his trademarked look of tucking the jersey in one side of his pants because it was too large. He would wear his uniform like this, his entire career. By the age of ten, Wayne Gretzky was already a well-known youth player as he scored goals at a stunning pace this allowed him the opportunity to meet Gordie Howe who was the NHL’s all-time leading scorer.

Wayne Gretzky began his career early, signing to play with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association at the age of 17 in 1978. At the time, the NHL had a rule that all players had to be 20, and the rival league trying to stay afloat tried to grab some of the rising stars by having no age limit. The signing could not save the Racers who were forced to sell Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers and ceased operations. With the Oilers, Gretzky won the Rookie of the Year and led the team to the AVCO Cup Finals. As the playoffs began the Oilers would be one of four teams to agree to join the NHL.

With the Oilers joining the NHL, the league changed the age limit to 18, allowing Wayne Gretzky to play. That first year, he won the league’s scoring title as well as the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. It would be the first of eight straight scoring title and eight straight Hart Trophies, as Gretzky became the face of the league. In 1982, Wayne Gretzky shattered the record for goals, assists, and points in the season, lighting the lamp an incredible 92 times while posting 120 assists. He would top the assist record the following year and again in 1984, before finally establishing a likely unbreakable record of 163 assists in 1985, also setting the bar for points in a season at 215. As Wayne Gretzky began setting records, the Oilers became a dynasty winning the Stanley Cup four times in five years.

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Wayne Gretzky’s streak of MVP and scoring titles ended in 1988, losing both to Mario Lemieux, that year saw him get married to actress Janet Jones, in a royal-like wedding that made it appear as if he was the Prince of Canada. That summer the Oilers stunned the world, trading the Great One to the Los Angeles Kings. With the Kings, Gretzky reclaimed the scoring title and won the last of his record nine Hart Trophies in 1989. At the same time, he began his assault on the career records of his idol, Gordie Howe, first setting the record for assists and points, then breaking the record with his 802nd goal in 1994. In Los Angeles, Gretzky only took the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final once, losing to the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. In his final years in L.A. back injuries began to take their toll on their Great One, but his impact was beyond what anyone could have expected as it triggered a new era of expansion into the Sunbelt.

Wayne Gretzky finished the 1996 season with the St. Louis Blues, before becoming a free agent. He would sign with the New York Rangers, taking the old NHL retirement plan to fullest, which was signing with the Rangers for a big contract in the twilight of a player’s career. With the Rangers, Gretzky was reunited with several of his former Edmonton Oilers teammates, including Mark Messier also following the NHL Rangers retirement plan. Messier and Gretzky guided the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997 but were separated again when Messier stunned New York by signing with the Vancouver Canucks.

The Rangers failed to make the playoffs in each of Wayne Gretzky final two seasons, as the toll of 20 seasons left him a shell of his former self. However, he did get a chance to play for Team Canada in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. In the 1998/99 season, Wayne Gretzky only occasionally showed flashes of his former self, winning the 1999 All-Star Game MVP. However, the season was another let down as he managed just nine goals and 53 assists.

When Wayne Gretzky announced his retirement it was not a surprise to anyone, but it turned the final game of the season into a major event as the Rangers coached by John Muckler faced the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Penguins. The pregame ceremonies aired live across Canada and the United States, with other games scheduled at the same time, including the Boston Bruins at the Philadelphia Flyers, were put on hold to look in. Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the #99 would be retired league-wide as many of Gretzky’s former teammates, including Mark Messier, were on hand. In breaking with tradition “O, Canada” was sung even though the game was played with two American based teams, adding the line “We’re going to miss you, Wayne Gretzky.” While video messages from other sports legends, including Michael Jordan, were played.

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In the game, the Penguins scored midway through the second period on a goal by Alex Kovalev. With 30 seconds left in the second period, the Rangers answered with a power play goal by Brian Leetch. A goal that was assisted by Wayne Gretzky. Neither team scored in the third period as the game went to overtime tied 1-1. In overtime, the Penguins would win the game 2-1 on a goal by Jaromir Jagr.

After game Wayne Gretzky seemed to linger on the ice, as players from both teams wanted to wish him farewell. From there Gretzky walked back to the locker room and hung his skates for the final time. The NHL would announce that the usual three-year wait for getting in the Hall of Fame would be waived, a practice the NHL no longer does.