On January 26, 2011, Wayne Gretzky turns 50. The IIHF looks back at his greatest moments in international hockey, one a day for ten days, starting with number 10 and working towards the top story to be published on his birthday.
Number 10 – Gretzky has five points vs. Sweden in final game of his only World Championship to win tournament in scoring.
It’s almost inconceivable to understand what Wayne Gretzky accomplished during the 1981-82 hockey season. His season started in early August when he attended training camp for the 1981 Canada Cup. The conclusion of that tournament, in mid-September, was a shocking loss in the one-game finals to the Soviet Union, 8-1. Gretzky led that event in scoring, however, after which he went to the camp of his NHL team, the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, of course, but they were stunned in the first round, losing a best-of-five-game series to Los Angeles, 3-2. The next day, Gretzky flew to Finland to play for Canada at the World Championship, appearing in his first game four hours after touching down in Helsinki. He led the team to a bronze medal (which might well have been a silver save for a controversial final day) and led that event in scoring as well.
Oh, and during the NHL’s regular season, he scored 50 goals in the first 39 games, ended the year with 92 goals in all, and recorded 212 points. All were records that defy logic.
On paper, the opening round of the 1982 playoffs was no contest. The Oilers finished first in the Smythe Division with 48 wins and 111 points in the 80-game schedule, while the L.A. Kings were a distant fourth, winning only 24 times and recording 63 points. But in the first game, in Edmonton, the visiting Kings won the game by a preposterous score, 10-8, to give themselves a little hope.
Although they lost game two more predictably, 3-2, they changed the tenor of the series in the third game, on home ice. Lambasted and trailing, 5-0, the Kings looked to be down, out, and humiliated, but they roared back to tie the game in regulation and win in overtime. Ever since, the game has been known simply as the “Miracle on Manchester” after the name of the street on which the Forum was situated. The Oilers won game four by another 3-2 score, but back at Northlands Coliseum, the Kings were unstoppable, winning, 7-4, and eliminating the heavily-favoured Oilers in one of the greatest playoff upsets of all time.
Dumfounded, Gretzky could not imagine ending the season on such a horrible note, especially after the disastrous Canada Cup ending and his record-setting year. He accepted an invitation to play for Canada at the World Championship, and convinced teammate, roommate, and friend Kevin Lowe to join him. Oilers’ teammate Jari Kurri also came over to play for the host nation Finland. They left Edmonton at noon, arrived after 17 hours of travel, and got ready for game one. Upon landing, Gretzky declared, “I wouldn’t have missed playing for Canada for anything in the world. I wish we were still in the playoffs, naturally, but now I’m concentrating on the next best thing, which is to win here.”
A few hours later, he skated in his first game, an easy 9-2 win over Finland. Kurri was held pointless for the home side, and an exhausted 99 was held to a single assist. To make his evening even longer, Gretzky was selected for doping control after the game.
Gretzky was one of only three players who began the year with Team Canada, at the Canada Cup, the others being Bob Gainey and Craig Hartsburg. The Canadians had many star players on the team, from its youngest, 18-year-old phenom Dale Hawerchuk, to future hall of famers such as Darryl Sittler, Mike Gartner, and Bill Barber. But the team struggled in the preliminary round, losing to the Soviets and Czechs and tying lowly Italy, 3-3. They advanced to the playoff round with these nations as well as Sweden, and in every game they player better and better.
A second loss to the Soviets took Canada out of gold-medal contention, but a silver was possible. They beat the Czechs, 3-2, to set up a crucial final day. In the early game, Gretzky was at his most masterful, scoring three goals and adding two assists in a 6-0 win over Sweden. Bronze was now assured, but if the Soviets, with a 9-0-0 record, could beat the Czechs, 5-1-3, Canada would get silver.
Most viewers who watched the game suggested neither of the brotherly countries was playing to win, and the 0-0 result ensured a Soviet-Czech 1-2 finish rather than Soviet-Canada-Czech finish. The Canadians were livid but admitted in reality the tie against Italy had been their undoing.
In the process of being shut out for the first time since 1969, however, the Soviets were unable to get their star players, Viktor Shalimov and Sergei Makarov, any goals or assists. As a result, they both finished the tournament with 13 points while Gretzky’s five-point afternoon gave him 14 points to lead all scorers.
Gretzky was only 21 years old and not even at the height of his powers, yet who could have known that on that final afternoon in the spring of 1982, when he had a hat trick in less than half a game, that that would be the last World Championship game he ever played.