March 11, 2021

Ukrainian pro hockey update

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In the National Hockey League, the hometown team always wears white, but this was not the case on this particular spring day, when General Manager Neil Smith defied tradition, and outfitted his New York Rangers in their blue sweaters. This was supposed to be a most special game.

Inside the arena, everyone’s eyes were fixated on the player wearing a matching blue turtleneck with 99 embroidered under the lace-up collar. His black and white Nike Air Zoom skates glided around the rink, the one with the same 99 painted behind both goals. The blue jersey was tucked in only on the right side, as usual, inside his red pants. The head was covered with a Jofa helmet decorated by NYR stickers on the sides, while the fingers of his Hespeler gloves gripped one of the many Hespeler sticks he used on this day.

Yes, this was a most special game. Twenty-one years ago, on April 18, 1999, the hockey world fixated its gaze on a sheet of ice in the middle of New York City when “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, played his final NHL game.

Not one spectator at Madison Square Garden sat during the pre-game festivities, as hockey fans chanted his name and camera flashes lit up the moment. Witnesses included Mario Lemieux, future Rangers General Manager Glen Sather, 1994 Stanley Cup hero Mark Messier, Phil Esposito, Jerry Seinfeld and Christopher Reeve. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was booed, as always, until he announced No. 99 was retiring from the league.

Before the center ice faceoff against the Penguins, Alexei Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr got hugs and No. 99 took his place among the Rangers’ starting five on the blue line, next to captain Brian Leetch and linemate Niklas Sundstrom. The Canadian and American national anthems managed to incite the crowd into even more of a frenzy leading up to a most special moment.

It was a moment most hockey fans were not totally prepared for; at the age of 38, the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer (894) was hanging up his skates. The world learned that Gretzky would retire only two days prior, when he made the formal announcement regarding his illustrious 21-year pro hockey career. Rather than pose a distraction to the league and to his Rangers, he opted for a dignified departure at season’s end.

Unofficial rumors were out there all season long that his time was winding down. His final game in Canada was on April 15, 1999, against the Ottawa Senators, after which he took a personal telephone call from the Canadian prime minister.

Action on the Ice

The MSG faithful were seated as the puck dropped at center ice between Gretzky and Martin Straka. The two clubs were heading in opposite directions – the Rangers were in the second year of a seven-year playoff drought, while the Penguins were prepping for the playoffs.

Ex-Ranger Kovalev netted the contest’s initial score in the second period. Rangers loyalists cheered every time “The Great One” touched the puck and were rewarded with less than a minute remaining in the middle 20 when, on the power play, New York evened the score. Leetch passed to Gretzky just inside the offensive zone on the right wing, who took two strides to the top of the circle and fed the trailing defenseman, Mathieu Schneider, in the high slot. Schneider faked a shot, taking goalie Tom Barrasso out of position, and hit Leetch for an easy redirect goal.

Madison Square Garden proceeded to shake and roar with the game tied and Wayne Gretzky tallying his 2,857th NHL point. The man of the hour celebrated like it was point No. 1.

The fans present and those watching on television witnessed his sheer sense of enjoyment, energy, love for the game and the competition. One last time he would set up behind the net in “Gretzky’s office,” pass when everyone thought he would shoot, sometimes shoot when least expected. His unique way of reading the play on the ice, the anticipation, his element of surprise and trickiness was on display one final time. It was electric every time he handled the puck, each time he jumped on the ice. It truly was Wayne Gretzky and everyone else.

The game was tied after 60 minutes with tension and anticipation building to an improbable magical ending for “The Great One” to bury the overtime game-winner in his last NHL game. Instead, it was Pittsburgh’s Jagr, who originally was not going to play back-to-back games with the playoffs coming up, ending the match 1:22 into the extra session. Some said it was the passing of the torch with Jagr, at the top of his game, taking over as the new NHL superhero.

Everyone present, including the victorious Penguins, celebrated the close of Gretzky’s brilliant career. There was a team picture with all of his mates donning special “99” hats. He took a celebratory skate on the Garden ice as if he had just won another Stanley Cup. He returned from the tunnel for another curtain call, as if he had been named a star of the game. He gazed around the Garden one last time, the blue Rangers jersey hanging on his sweat-and-tear-drenched thin physique before the lights went dark in the Garden.
Gretzky took his time removing his skates for the final time. Those present claimed more than an hour passed before he untied them and slipped the sweater over his head. It was, as if, subconsciously, he didn’t want to take it off.

The night was a celebration of his greatness, talent and personality. It was yet another amazing chapter in a most storied life and career. It was Ukrainian Wayne Gretzky – the greatest player in the history of the National Hockey League.

Ihor Stelmach may be reached at iman@sfgsports.com.