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.
On September 9, 1994, the NHL signed a five-year, $155 million contract with Fox Sports in the United States, their first game scheduled to be the All-Star Game in San Jose on January 21, 1995. A few days later, major league baseball cancelled its season, and the World Series, because the players and owners couldn’t agree to a new contract. The NHL season, scheduled to start on October 1, was postponed 15 days by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman because the league and players couldn’t agree on a new contract of their own.
As October 15 came and went, it was clear an agreement was a long way off. Teemu Selänne of the Winnipeg Jets decided enough was enough. He wanted to play hockey, so he agreed to join Jokerit Helsinki in his native Finland. More meetings and deadlines came and went, and players quickly followed Selänne’s lead. Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg returned to Sweden, and Jari Kurri followed Selänne back to Finland.
Canadian players from all teams skated informally together, made appearances for charity, and agreed to play in a 4-on-4 tournament in Hamilton. The skaters were not prepared to concede on contract talks with the NHL, but they dearly wanted to play the game. That was what they missed the most during the weeks of negotiations.
In late October, Wayne Gretzky, then of the Los Angeles Kings, decided he would take the puck away from the lawyers and money men and organize a tour. He phoned friends from around the NHL to put a team together, and with his agent Mike Barnett organized a trip to Europe to play a series of games against club teams while the NHL and NHLPA tried to work out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The players would be paid about $4,000 for each game on the trip, and the profits from the games would be split between the NHL pension fund, the club teams overseas, and a variety of charities. Gretzky himself selected the team sweaters, using a design of the Detroit Cougars from the 1920s with “Ninety-Nine All-Stars” emblazoned across the chest (Gordie Howe and the Red Wings, successors to the Cougars, were his favourites as a kid in Brantford).
Gretzky chose the players carefully, mixing a blend of skill and defence to ensure quality games. Some were Oilers, some were Kings, and all were players he respected and whose company he enjoyed. He got Doug Wilson, a key member of the NHLPA during the heyday of his own illustrious career, to be the team’s coach. Walter, Wayne’s dad, and Doug, Mark Messier’s dad, acted as Wilson’s assistants. It was nothing more than an exclusive, and highly talented, pond hockey team – and Gretzky and the boys wouldn’t have had it any other way. Their mission? To play hockey. No strings attached, no funny business, no monkeying around. Drop the puck and go.
The “Ninety-Nine All-Stars” chartered a plane so everyone could bring a guest, and most players brought their fathers. “It turned out to be one of the greatest road trips in hockey history,” Gretzky said several years later.
Indeed, it was. After playing an exhibition game against the IHL’s Detroit Vipers before 16,239 delirious fans in Michigan, Gretzky’s team flew to Europe to play some hockey. They arrived in Helsinki, Finland, and promptly beat Jokerit, 7-1. Kurri had been playing for that Finnish team all year, but a fan vote “traded” him to Gretzky’s team for this night so fans could see the highest-scoring twosome in NHL history play one more time.
The next morning, Gretzky and some of his teammates were up and running a clinic for local kids, some 2,500 of whom turned out for the special occasion. That night, Ilves beat the All-Stars, 4-3, and then it was off to Oslo.
The Norway experience was typical. Not only were fans flocking to the games, but players were calling trying to get on the team. As a result, The “Spektrum Flyers All-Stars” played Gretzky’s team so that as many top players as possible could skate against the Great One. The visitors won, 6-3, but the 6,500 fans at the Spektrum enjoyed a once in a lifetime game. Before and after, players posed for pictures and signed autographs.
The tour continued with three games in Sweden, the last, in Malmö, significant because Mats Näslund not only played but had so much fun he returned to the NHL as a result. He scored once in the first period and again in the final minute of the third period to tie the score and send the game into overtime. Stefan Persson scored to give the home side an entertaining 6-5 win.
“I had retired after winning the gold medal at the Olympics,” Näslund related, “but I was asked by Malmö management to play in this game. I thought it would be fun to play against Gretzky one more time. I played against him in the World Juniors in 1978 and many times after,” he continued. Indeed, the diminutive Swede played from 1982 to 1990 with the Montreal Canadiens and met Gretzky on ice on a regular basis each season.
”After the game,” he related of Gretzky’s tour, “the media in Malmö asked me about returning to the NHL. I said if someone was stupid enough to offer me a contract, I’d play. Amazingly, my agent got a couple of offers, one from Boston. I felt I had won the lottery! I enjoyed playing in Boston, but I just wasn’t ready to move my family again.” He retired for good after playing the final 34 games of the 1994-95 season with the Bruins. “I never would have gone back to the NHL if it hadn’t been for that game,” he admitted of the Ninety-Nine All-Stars experience.
Gretzky’s tour lasted two weeks and eight games, a Summit Series of international goodwill put on by the game’s greatest ambassador. When the All-Stars returned home, they talked of a tour to the Far East in the New Year, but soon after Christmas the 103-day rift was resolved and play started in the NHL for a condensed, 48-game season.
Pro hockey in North America was back, but the lockout gave Gretzky a chance to share his game with fans across Europe, true to the hockey player’s first and last credo – we just want to play hockey.
Ninety-Nine All-Stars: (Doug Wilson, coach; Walter Gretzky, assistant; Doug Messier, assistant) Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Russ Courtnall, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Rick Tocchet, Tony Granato, Steve Larmer, Al MacInnis, Kirk Muller, Todd Gill, Brett Hull, Rob Blake, Paul Coffey, Marty McSorley, Pat Conacher, Doug Gilmour, Charlie Huddy, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Kelly Hrudey
Number 10 – Gretzky has five points vs. Sweden in final game of his only World Championship to win tournament in scoring.
Number 9 – Number 99 unofficially retired by hockey world
Number 8 – Gretzky has a goal and two assists in game one of the 1984 Canada Cup finals vs. Sweden
Number 7 – Number 99 named MVP of Rendez-vous ‘87
Number 6 – “Gretzky-san” mobbed in Nagano as NHL makes Olympics debut
Number 5 – Gretzky leads U20 in scoring at age 16
Number 4 – “Ninety-Nine All-Stars” barnstorm through Europe