Wayne Gretzky and a Season Like No Other

From a team standpoint, the five Stanley Cup championships that Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers won are obviously on a level all their own, but the same can be said about the season Gretzky put together back in 1981-82. After taking a couple of seasons to “find his stride” at the NHL level, in which he posted a ridiculous 106 goals and 301 points in 159 games, No. 99 started to kick things into gear during his third year in the league.

From 1981-1986, Gretzky collected a mind-numbing 1, 036 points in just 394 games. He scored an absurd 375 goals and “chipped in” 661 assists for good measure. To put that into perspective, those five seasons on their own would be enough to put the Great One in a three-way tie with Patrick Marleau and Bobby Smith for 69th on the all-time scoring list. The difference being, those two accomplished the feat in 1410 (Marleau) and 1077 (Smith) appearances.

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Simply do the math and you will see Gretzky scored at an astonishing clip of 2.63 points per game over a five-year period. No matter how you look at it, the numbers are just staggering and as impressive as that run was, the year that stands out above all the rest was the aforementioned 1981-82 campaign. While some would argue that his 1983-1984 season of 87 goals and 205 points in 74 games was even better, in my mind, that argument loses steam once you take his surrounding cast into consideration.

Oilers Supporting Cast Was Developing In 1981-82

By the time ’83-’84 rolled around, Edmonton had not only Gretzky putting up points at an insane rate but another three players who cracked the hundred-point barrier in Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, and Jari Kurri and a fourth, in Glenn Anderson, finish the season with 99 points. That was the season in which the Oilers set the new standard for goal scoring in a single season, with an eye-popping 446. In contrast, he was surrounded by those same players in ’81-’82 but all four had only started to scratch the surface on what they would be capable of accomplishing as a collective unit.

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In that year, Anderson was the only other player who reached the 100-point plateau but the club did manage to break the 400-goal barrier for the first time, finishing with “only” 417. Gretzky had his hand in on 50.9% of the Oilers goals that season and it was the start of what many consider the most dominant run of any one player in professional team sports history. His performance erased all doubt as to who was the best player in the game and it wasn’t even close.

Gretzky had “essentially” won the previous two seasons scoring races with 164 points in 1980-81, 29 better than runner-up Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings, but saw the 1979-1980 scoring title awarded to Dionne on the strength of scoring two more goals of the then 19-year-old rookie. With that being the case, the fact the Brantford native won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top scorer in 1981-82 was no shock but doing it in the manner which he did is what was so damn impressive.

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Even as a kid, I remember watching the season unfold in front of my very own eyes and it seemed as though Gretzky was on another planet. He appeared to be toying with the opposition on a nightly basis and looked to be capable of doing whatever he liked out on the ice and there was nothing anyone else could do about it. Simply look at his stat line, (92 goals, 212 total points and +81 plus/minus rating), and it is quite obvious my youthful eyes were not deceiving me.

Wayne Gretzky and his 50 goals in 50 games puck (THW Archives)

Gretzky scored goals in 44 of the Oilers 80 games and put up 10 games in which he scored a minimum of three goals. No. 99 potted six hat tricks on the season, a trio of four-goal performances and his historical five-goal effort that put an exclamation mark on his incredible 50 goals in 39 games. From a very young age, Gretzky appeared to have that flair for the dramatic and it was further solidified during his record-breaking season of 1981-82.

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Most tend to forget that leading up to his memorable performance against the Philadelphia Flyers, the kid was on a four-game run in which he scored 19 points, including a five and seven-point efforts. After scoring three goals against the Kings in game 38, the plan was to have Phyllis and Walter Gretzky join the Oilers in Vancouver on December 31st with the intent of watching their son score No. 50 live and in person. Unfortunately, their son did not give them that opportunity.

99 Had A Flair For the Dramatic

If you include his five goals against the Flyers, the nine-time Hart Trophy winner scored 15 goals and put up 25 points in five games. Scoring 50 in 39 is an accomplishment in itself but doing it in said fashion, makes it all the more remarkable. To that point, only two players in history had accomplished the feat, Maurice Richard (1944-45) and Mike Bossy (1980-81), and both did it in their 50th appearance in each of those seasons. The scary thing is, Gretzky put a similar stretch together on one other occasion within that same season and not surprisingly…it came during another one of those special nights.

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As Gretzky neared Phil Esposito’s single-season record of 76 goals, the media scrutiny increased and in typical No. 99 fashion, the phenom took his game to another level. During the Oilers’ 61st, 62nd and 63rd games of 1981-82, the 21-year old registered three consecutive five-point evenings and managed to pull himself into a tie with the future Hall of Famer. With three days off in between Edmonton’s the next game in Buffalo against the Sabres, arrangements were made for Esposito to be in attendance and the rest, as they say, is history.

Through opening two periods of play, Gretzky had two assists but Sabres had managed to keep him from getting No. 77 in what was a 3-3 game but that all changed in period three. Again, in typical Gretzky fashion, he forced a turnover at the Buffalo blue line, broke in and slipped an unassisted marker underneath netminder Don Edwards and just like that, another NHL record had been taken over in what truly was a season for the ages.

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After a brief on-ice celebration in which Esposito took part, the Great One proceeded to put his usual stamp on the moment. While goal No.77 gave the Oilers a 4-3 lead , Gretzky scored two more late in the period to give him 79 on the season and his fourth consecutive five-point night and yet another hat-trick. To this day, I vividly remember watching the local ITV telecast and at the end of the game just laughing to myself. Even as a kid, I sort of understood what I had just witnessed but all I could do was chuckle in amazement and little has changed in the last 30+ years.

1981-82 Season Was Like No Other

No. 99 played all 80 games during the 1981-82 season and was held off the scoresheet a grand total of eight times. His point totals from the remaining 72 games, in which he collected 212 points, fell into the following categories:

  • 7-point game (1), 6-point game(1), 5-point game(10), 4-point game(10),3-point game(15), 2-point game(24), 1-point game(11)

Add those numbers up and you will quickly realize that the four-time Stanley Cup winner managed to register a minimum of two points in 61 of the Oilers 80 games. He wound up beating Mike Bossy by an incredible 28 goals in the race for the league’s top goal scorer and won the scoring race by 65 points…which more than doubled the amount he beat Dionne by in 1980-81. Gretzky not only led the league in goals, assists and points but also in plus/minus, short-handed goals (6) and game winners with 12.

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When you factor in everything that Wayne Gretzky accomplished during that 1981-1982 campaign, in my mind, it not only was the best season of his illustrious career but it was the greatest individual single-season performance in NHL history. So with Rogers Place set to open its doors in the not too distant future and the focus rightly set to shift towards what the current edition of the Edmonton Oilers might accomplish in their new digs, there is absolutely nothing wrong with embracing the past for what it was and recognizing just how special No.99 and company were.

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