Thursday, December 30, 2010

December 30, 1981: 50 in 39

EDMONTON - Ever since Maurice "Rocket" Richard scored 50 goals in the 50-game 1944-45 season, the most hallowed scoring mark in the NHL has been the 50 goals in 50 games mark. While the length of the season has changed throughout the years in the NHL, making it a little difficult to compare scorers from different eras, the 50 goals in 50 games mark has always been the benchmark, especially since it took another 33 years for someone to match Richard's mark.

The Islanders' Mike Bossy was the second to achieve that hallowed mark, scoring his 50th goal in the Islanders' 50th game of the 1980-81 season. Later in 1981, in a new season, a young man in Edmonton would make Bossy's mark be quickly forgotten.

Wayne Gretzky was only 20 years old when the 1981-82 NHL season began, but he had already established himself as the best player in the game. Even so, nobody could have expected the flurry he was about to unleash on the NHL. Gretzky was piling up goals faster than anybody had before him, faster than even Bossy the year before. As the final week of December rolled around, Gretzky had scored 41 goals in the Oilers' first 37 games, putting the 50 in 50 mark well within reach.

Then, an explosion. On a Sunday afternoon against Los Angeles, Gretzky unloaded for four goals, his third such game of the season, to give him 45 goals in 38 games. Now, the question wasn't whether he'd get 50 in 50, but whether he'd get it with 6 or 7 games to spare.

On December 30, 1981, the Oilers hosted the Philadelphia Flyers, who still had many of the same players from their Broad Street Bullies heyday of the mid-70s. Though not as dominant as they once had been, they were still a tough and talented defensive team.

That didn't stop Gretzky. He scored his first goal in the closing seconds of a power play, taking a pass off the boards and putting it in the net to give the Oilers a 1-0 lead. Not long after, he fired a slap shot from the slot into the top corner of the net for his 47th goal of the season.

The Flyers started to chip away at the lead, cutting the deficit to 3-2. Ten seconds after Philadelphia's second goal, though, Gretzky struck again, scoring on a breakaway for the hat trick and giving him 48 for the season. For his 49th goal, he crossed the blue line and avoided three players before scoring from long distance.

The Edmonton crowd was going crazy. Gretzky had scored eight goals in two games, giving him 49 in 39 games. It was a remarkable stretch of offensive brilliance. They clamored for one more. And while they should have been upset when Philadelphia scored two quick goals in the third to cut the Edmonton lead to 7-5, the fans weren't too upset, because they knew what it meant: at some point soon, the Flyers were going to pull their goalie. Gretzky was going to have an empty net to shoot at for his 50th goal.

And so it happened. Philadelphia pulled its goalie and got a few shots off with the extra attacker. Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr made one stop, firing ahead to Glenn Anderson. Anderson found Gretzky on the left boards, and Gretzky skated ahead, flanked by a defender, and fired, scoring his 50th goal, and 5th of the game, with 5 seconds left.

Gretzky's teammates piled on top of him in the corner in celebration, but many of them likely couldn't believe it. He had taken one of the most sacred records in hockey, something that had been done only twice, and obliterated it, getting to 50 with 11 games to spare. When Gretzky's 50th goal crossed the line, no other player in the NHL had yet reached 30 for the season.

Gretzky's first 39 games were a sign of things to come. When the Oilers played their 50th game, Gretzky had reached 61 goals, setting a still-standing mark for scoring brilliance. He kept it up, too, eventually reaching 92 for the season, a single-season mark once thought unreachable and now seen as untouchable. Adding in his 120 assists, and Gretzky earned an unthinkable 212 points in the 81-82 season, another mark people thought would be unbreakable ... until Gretzky himself broke it four years later.

Wayne Gretzky's list of NHL records is so long that it seems impossible that one man could have done all that. Since the 81-82 season, three other players have reached 50 goals in 50 games - Gretzky himself two more times, Mario Lemieux once, and Brett Hull twice. But nobody has come anywhere near Gretzky's 50 goals in 39 games. And it's likely that nobody ever will.

This video shows all 12 goals from the game. It's worth the 9:00 view time if only for the Canadian accents and the wonder that was the Flyers' full-length pants

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