Remembering “The Great One” breaking Gordie Howe’s NHL all-time point record
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“In hindsight, it was only fitting he did it in Edmonton because the fans really enjoyed being a part of it and after all, our core had been a part of just about every other record he achieved,” – Kevin Lowe, retired Edmonton Oilers defenceman
Wayne Gretzky’s idol as a kid was Gordie Howe. As the “Great One” began to dominate the NHL in the 1980s with the high-flying dangerous offence of the Edmonton Oilers, one by one, Howe’s NHL records would be surpassed by Gretzky.
In May 1988, the Oilers had won their fourth Stanley Cup in five seasons. Then two months later, for Edmonton fans, the unthinkable occurred in August 1988, when Gretzky was traded to the LA Kings. It was a blockbuster deal with multiple players and cash exchanged.
In his second season as an LA King, the “Great One” was set on his next career milestone—breaking Gordie Howe’s NHL all-time point record of 1850 points. Howe, in his NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings and Hartford Whalers, scored 1850 points in his 26th season. In contrast, Gretzky would break Howe’s record in his 11th season.
On October 15, 1989, Gretzky and the visiting LA Kings were in Edmonton to play the Oilers at Northlands Coliseum. Gretzky went into the game with 1849 points. Gretzky would get an assist on a first period goal by Bernie Nicholls, tying Howe’s record with his 1850th point. And late in the game, with the Oilers leading 4-3, Gretzky tied the game to break the record—scoring a backhander past Bill Ranford at 19:07 of the third period.
The game was then paused for a special ceremony held at centre ice. Gretzky was joined by NHL president John Ziegler, vice-president Scotty Morrison, Kings owner Bruce McNall, Gretzky’s father Walter, wife Janet, and Gordie Howe. Howe was classy and gracious in congratulating Gretzky: “I’d like to say in all honesty, I’d been looking forward to this day. I’ve been spending the last 10 days with Wayne and I thought I knew him before. He’s just grown an inch taller than what he was in my mind. [He’s] a super young man, a great hockey player—who shares in everything he does. It’s really nice for me to be sharing those honours with Wayne. Congratulations Wayne.”
Gretzky later addressed the crowd, thanking his teammates, friends and family—and also thanking and showing respect for his boyhood idol, “Mr. Hockey.” Gretzky said, “And of course, [I want to thank] the greatest one of all, Gordie Howe—who has been following us around. He’s just still the greatest in my mind and everyone else’s mind…” Interestingly, it was fitting that Gretzky would break Howe’s scoring record with a backhander. The “Great One,” who met Howe at a Kinsmen dinner in 1972 in Gretzky’s hometown of Brantford, Ontario, said Howe told him to practice his backhand.
Remarkably, Gretzky was not finished. When the game resumed, he would score the winner at 3:24 of overtime, as he skated from behind the net—and scored on a backhand wrap-around. Gretzky, who retired in April 1999 as a member of the New York Rangers, finished with 2,857 career NHL points (894 goals and 1963 assists). The “Great One” is the all-time leading scorer in NHL history, and currently in second place behind Gretzky is Jaromir Jagr with 1921 points.
Kevin Lowe, retired Edmonton Oilers defenseman and former teammate of Wayne Gretzky, said it was appropriate that Gretzky broke Howe’s record in Edmonton. Today, Lowe is a hockey executive and alternate governor with the Oilers. “In hindsight, it was only fitting he did it in Edmonton because the fans really enjoyed being a part of it and after all, our core had been a part of just about every other record he achieved,” Lowe said in an email interview with the Other Press. “And for me, it would have been okay with him breaking the record that night as long as we won the game. So, the result ended up being doubly disappointing. There was never any resentment for Wayne leaving and doing well in LA. We were all very close and knew what type of guy he was. [He was the] ultimate team guy and very caring of his teammates. We just didn’t appreciate the suggestion from pundits the Oilers were [all about] Wayne.”
Finally, Howe, during the post-game press conference continued to show class and respect towards Gretzky: “The record I had I was very extremely proud of it. I held it for a long time and in general, records are made to be broken and if they can be broken by the type of individual that Wayne is. [He is a] sharing [and] caring individual who loves the game of hockey—and puts 100 percent out for his fans every day and every shift. It’s almost an honour to hang that over.”