Thirty years ago today. The date was February 24, 1982. The site: Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. A skinny kid from Brantford, Ontario, who was re-writing NHL record books, came into town with the rest of his high-flying (39-13-11 at the time) Edmonton Oilers team – to see if he could change NHL history yet again.
Wayne Gretzky, who earlier in the season set an NHL record by scoring his 50th goal in only his 39th game, came into the game against the Buffalo Sabres with 76 goals, which tied him with former Boston Bruins great Phil Esposito for most goals in a single season.
Of course, the record was going to be broken at some point. But, was history going to be made on this night, in front of a sold-out Aud crowd of 16,433 (and who knows how many more found their way into the crammed arena)?
I, along with my Step-Mother, sat about half-way up in “the Reds” – right behind Sabres’ goalie Don Edwards – and where the Oilers would be shooting twice. The Aud was a brewing electrical storm, ready to explode, with every Sabres fan in the building pulling for this kid who was embarking on a journey to becoming the greatest hockey player of all-time.
Everyone would have to wait, though. Edwards, along with Sabres’ great Gilbert Perreault made sure of that.
Over the first two-and-a-half periods, Gretzky poured seven shots from every possible angle on the hard-working Buffalo goalie, yet Edwards stood tall. Every “ooh” and “ahh” punctuated every Gretzky scoring chance, and I cannot remember if ever there was a time when a hometown crowd rooted for an opposing player as much as this night.
Perreault – never one to be shown up and always the life of the party – almost stole the show from “The Great One” by scoring three goals of his own (all three Sabres goals, actually), helping the outmatched Sabres team hold on through the first 52 minutes of the game, a 3-3 tie up to that point.
Then everything happened so fast.
With just over seven minutes to play in the third period, Gretzky stole the puck from Sabres winger Steve Patrick from just outside the Buffalo blueline. He put a quick, subtle move on Sabres defenseman Richie Dunn and, in one sweet motion, beat a sprawling Edwards from about 15 feet.
The Auditorium exploded. I mean, exploded. The entire Oilers bench cleared. Hockey fans – Sabres fans – erupted into a frenzied, full two-minute standing ovation. And, in a moment I will never forget, a man sitting behind us, in his excitement, dumped his entire beer all over my Step-Mother’s coat.
She hardly noticed.
The game was stopped for about five minutes to allow Esposito, who had been trailing Gretzky from town to town, to finally acknowledge the record. He presented the record-breaking puck to Gretzky, and gracefully retreated into the stands again, having not-a-clue what was about to happen next.
A few minutes later, Gretzky received a long, breakout pass from Mark Messier, entered the Sabres zone and – in a similar backhand-forehand move to his previous goal – ripped a wrist shot passed Edwards to make it 5-3 Edmonton. Sabres’ fans were on their feet yet again for this 21 year-old wizard. And, finally, in an absolute “are-you-kidding-me?” moment, with time running out on an obvious Oilers victory, Gretzky received another long, tape-to-tape pass – this time from Oilers forward Pat Hughes – and unleashed a laser, which found the back of the net behind Edwards, giving Gretzky the natural hat-trick.
It’s a night, as long as I am a breathing, cheering hockey fan, I will never forget. I will always remember the anticipation of that game. I will always remember the top being blown off the Aud, when Gretzky finally scored – and scored twice more. I will always remember the love that over 16,000 Buffalo Sabres fans showered the “enemy” with.
And, I will always remember my Father’s thoughtfulness, in allowing an 11 year-old, budding hockey fan – his son – the chance to witness NHL history.
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