Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gretzky and Flyers forever linked

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Wayne Gretzky turns 50 today. We'll let the nation to the North of us go forth with a 24-hour cycle of hagiographic tributes, but suffice to say here that The Great One did a heck of a lot of damage to the NHL record book, and swept up the Flyers in that whirlwind during his first nine years with the Edmonton Oilers.

Throughout the 1980's, the fortunes of Gretzky and Philadelphia were linked. He was the best and brightest of the new guard, the group of kids who invaded the NHL after the WHA folded and Edmonton was one of four teams to be absorbed into the Old Guard. He alone stood out above the rest to take up the mantle passed to him by Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke.

He was an imperfect foil for the Flyers franchise at a time of transition, as no matter how high they reached, Gretzky alone reached higher and elevated the rest of his teammates. 

In his first three seasons alone, the skinny kid from Brantford, Ontario hung a three-goal game, a four-goal game and a five-goal game on the Orange and Black. The last one in the series occurred on December 30, 1981 at Northlands Coliseum.

Needing five goals to reach 50 for the season in just his club's 39th game, Gretzky opted to get 'em all in one night against beleaguered Flyers defenders and goaltender Pete Peeters...

Three years later, with Mike Keenan guiding the young Flyers to a hot start, Gretzky came to town with his Oilers sporting an NHL-record 15-game unbeaten streak to start the season (12-0-3). A 7-5 Philadelphia victory was the result on that November Sunday evening, and though Gretzky did put up points, he failed in his one-on-one duel with Pelle Lindbergh...

Six and a half months later, the Flyers and Oilers were dueling in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Flyers shocked everyone but themselves by taking Game One, but Gretzky and his dynastic teammates won Game Two in advance of three straight games in Edmonton.

It didn't take long for The Great One's presence was known, and his actions put the Flyers in a deep hole in enemy territory...

He did it again in the late stages of Game Four, and though the Flyers opened up the game with a 3-1 lead before the first period was over, the Oilers responded with four straight scores and four-power-play tallies overall in a 5-3 victory which left Edmonton one game from clinching a Cup triumph...

It was the first of two Stanley Cups Gretzky prevented Philadelphia from winning, with the second coming in heartbreaking fashion in 1987's legendary Game 7.

After the blockbuster trade to Los Angeles in August of 1988, Gretzky was an inconsistent assassin against the Flyers while wearing the Black and Silver. There were just as many nights when Number 99 was frustrated as there were offensive fireworks, including a two-goal, four-assist night in a 6-2 win on March 4, 1989.

A brief stop in St. Louis for the tail end of the 1995-96 season turned into a free agent contract with the New York Rangers, and Gretzky -- teamed up with multiple other members of the old Oilers' run -- was once again in the Flyers' face for the Eastern Conference Finals.

His hat trick in Game Two at Philadelphia evened the series, and though the Flyers responded with two wins in Manhattan, Gretz was up to his old tricks, pulling out all the stops to keep the Blueshirts competitive...

Though the most indelible image from the end of that five-game Flyers victory was the sight of one of Gretzky's kids wailing in the front row because daddy lost, it was clear that this was his one last shot to make a deep playoff run. Two years later, he'd hang up the skates for good, appropriately in 1999.

For those of us who are a certain age, those early images of Gretzky, clad in orange, blue and white, peeling down the wings and waiting for any number of star-caliber forwards, put the fear of the Hockey Gods in us. He knew what he was going to do when nobody else could figure it out, and left a trail of skidding back checkers in his wake, leaving it to us to marvel over his vision during the replays.

A tip of the hat to you, sir. You made hockey more exciting. We just wish you'd let us win more often, and when it counted.

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