Wayne Gretzky turns 50 today, the fresh-faced and skinny kid who made his international debut as a 16-year-old at the 1978 U20 is now facing middle age. Today is the culmination of a countdown of his top international moments as IIHF.com reveals the #1 moment from his Team Canada career.
“Game two of the 1987 Canada Cup final was probably my best international game,” Gretzky said in his illustrated autobiography which came out soon after he retired in the spring of 1999. Who’s to argue?
“Mario had three goals, and I had five assists, and we played really well together. I always gauge my games on the basis of the level of competition that we have, and I felt that that particular Soviet team was one of the game’s greatest.”
And only 17,026 fans at the Copps Coliseum got to see the game live, although today many more thousands claim to have been there.
Prior to this game, coach Glen Sather had played Gretzky and Lemieux together only on the power play, but that all changed the night of September 13, 1987. They were out there together every shift, the team in desperate need of victory after losing game one of the best-of-three finals. And they delivered.
Canada scored in the first minute when Mark Messier set up defenceman Leon Rochefort in the slot, his quick shot surprising goalie Yevgeni Belosheikin. But as they showed all series, the Soviets were a resilient group, and it took less than a minute for Andrei Khomutov to tie the game.
Then, Gretzky took over.
He made a sensational pass to Doug Gilmour at the Soviet blue line to set up the second Canada goal at 3:48, sliding the puck to him as Gilmour skated over the line, and Gretzky receded from it, giving all appearances to be circling back to centre ice. Then, midway through the period on a scrambly three-on-two, Gretzky made another gem of a pass from the side of the goal to Paul Coffey, and Coffey made no mistake from in close to give Canada a 3-1 lead.
Canada looked to be in control during the middle period, but a huge lapse midway through cost them the lead. First, the Soviets scored on a power play, Fetisov doing the damage, and then Vladimir Krutov let go a quick shot that fooled Grant Fuhr while CCCP was short-handed. A carefully constructed 3-1 lead was gone, and teams were even once again.
The 99-66 magic restored the Canadian lead before the end of the period. Gretzky collected the puck at his blue line on a turnover and went in on a two-on-one with Lemieux, feeding number 66 at the perfect moment. Mario buried the shot, and Canada headed to the dressing room with a 4-3 lead.
The Soviets tied the game early in the third off a deceptive backhand from Vyacheslav Bykov, who beat Fuhr low to the stick side. Call it 4-4.
Canada got a power play midway through the final period, and Gretzky again created a goal for Lemieux. His shot went through the crease, and Lemieux was on the back side to drill it in at 10:14 to give Canada what would surely be the final goal it needed for victory.
As the final minutes played out, the Soviets were relentless. And then it happened. Valeri Kamenski split the Canadian defencemen, and as he fell to the ice he rifled a shot over Fuhr’s glove, a shot Fuhr thought was impossible to take given Kamenski’s total loss of balance. Just 64 seconds were left in the game that was now headed to overtime tied, 5-5.
The best scoring chance in the first overtime came when Igor Larionov went clear in on goal, only to make one too many passes which Fuhr intercepted and held. The teams went to the dressing room again to prepare for a fifth period of hockey.
The winning goal came midway through the next period. First, Gretzky set up Lemieux for a one timer that went just wide of Belosheikin’s goal, but Canada maintained possession in the Soviet end. The puck came to Gretzky again to the side of the goal off a nice pass from Larry Murphy at the point, and Gretzky’s shot hit the post. Lemieux was right there to knock the rebound in and give Canada a 6-5 win.
Soviet assistant coach Igor Dmitriev tried to describe Gretzky’s style of play: “He is a bit like an invisible man. He appears out of nowhere, passes to nowhere, and a goal is scored.”
Gretzky and Sather estimated the great 99 played approximately 50 minutes of the 90-minute game which Rick Matsumoto, writing in the next day’s Toronto Star said, “may have been the best game played by any two hockey teams on this planet.”
Even in the dressing room right after the game, Gretzky was awed by what he had experienced. “That is as good a game as I’ve played in. Maybe it ranks up there with one of the best games I’ve ever played.” Twelve years later, he agreed with himself. And today, IIHF.com couldn’t agree more. Happy 50th, Wayne.
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
Number 3 – Gretzky, as GM, wins Olympic gold at Salt Lake
Number 2 – Dramatic Gretzky-to-Lemieux pass wins Canada Cup ’87
Number 1 – Gretzky has five assists in leading Canada to game two win in ’87 Canada Cup