SPORTS

STILL MR. HOCKEY

JOE CHIDLEY March 21 1994
SPORTS

STILL MR. HOCKEY

JOE CHIDLEY March 21 1994

A DREAM COME TRUE

SPORTS

Wayne Gretzky closes in on Gordie Howe’s sacred goal-scoring record

Gordie Howe’s National Hockey League goal-scoring record was supposed to be one of those career achievements that no one else could touch. Sports experts likened it to Bob Beamon’s epic long jump at the 1968 Summer Olympics, an astonishing effort—29 feet, 2½ inches—that was nearly two feet farther than the previous record. Howe, a strapping right-winger from Floral,

Sask., accomplished something equally remarkable. His 801 goals in 26 seasons made the i previous record of 544, set by Montreal’s Maurice (Rocket)

fell short And why not? A player would have to average 50 goals for 16 seasons just to get close. But just as Beamon’s leap was eclipsed in 1991, Howe’s NHL pre-eminence is finally coming to an end. This week, or very soon after, Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kings will likely strip Howe, his boyhood idol, of one of his most cherished possessions. “Nobody, especially me, dreamed I’d be this close to breaking Gordie’s record,” Gretzky said last week.

The Great One’s modesty aside, Howe’s record has probably been in jeopardy since Gretzky first laced up a pair of skates. As a scrawny 10-year-old in Brantford, Ont, Gretzky scored 378 goals in Atom games, 238 more than his nearest competitor. He turned pro in 1978 at age 17 with the now-defunct World Hock. ey Association, scoring 46 goals that season. A year later, Jr his Edmonton OilJr

ers were admitted into the NHL and he became an instant sensation, tying Dionne for the scoring title. Long-standing NHL standards began to tumble. The single-season record for goals was 76, set by Phil Esposito in 1970-1971. Gretzky scored 92 in 1981-1982. The record for assists in one season was 102, by Bobby Orr in 1970-1971. Gretzky drew 163 in 1985-1986. In his 10th season, Gretzky overtook the supposedly unassailable NHL career points record of 1,850 that had taken Howe 26 years to reach.

Despite Gretzky’s imminent milestone, his lead atop the league’s current points standings and his recent signing of a record three-year, $34.5-million contract, the Great One is noticeably glum. The

GRETZKY Achievements 2 Age at which each began skating 46/1 WHA goals/No. of seasons played 174/6 798715 NHL goals/No. of seasons played 801/26 110 NHL playoff goals 68 4 Stanley Cup wins 4 9 No. of times NHL’s most valuable player 6 9 No. of years as top NHL scorer 6 *As of March 11

Kings, Stanley Cup finalists last season, have played poorly this year and are in danger of missing the playoffs. Gretzky treasures the four Stanley Cups he won with the mighty Oilers of the 1980s, and when he was sold to the Kings in 1988, he vowed to bring a Cup to the west coast. But time, for him and the fading Kings, is running out. He hates to lose, and this season it shows. Even his comments about breaking the record are tinged with disappointment. After being held scoreless in a recent game in Boston, he acknowledged that he wanted the thing over with. “I want to score as badly as they want me to,” he said, referring to the gang of reporters following him around, “so we can all go home.”

Although the record chase has renewed debate over who is the best, Howe and Gretzky claim that their records should not be compared. Among other things, Howe insists that career scoring records should include totals from his time in the WHA in the 1970s. Gretzky, meanwhile, thinks his totals should be marked with an asterisk because the two performed in such different eras. Howe played most of his career before the six-team NHL expanded in 1967. In those days, the game was dominated by a conservative, defensiveminded philosophy. Gretzky’s Oilers, the most potent offensive force in league history, ran up the score on weaker teams in a league diluted by expansion. “You are talking about the two greatest players who ever lived,” said Cliff Fletcher, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who saw both men in their prime. “But they played in such different circumstances that it would be impossible to fairly compare them.”

JAMES DEACON