Great Rangers Moments: The day Wayne Gretzky hung up his skates

There are very few things in sports that get me emotional, I can easily recount them. The 1980 U.S. Miracle On Ice, the 1994 Cup from zero seconds and until they left the ice with Lord Stanley. Another was Wayne Gretzky playing his final game in the NHL and being blessed with the fact it was with the New York Rangers.

A Birthday Present from the Rangers

The Rangers signed Wayne Gretzky on July 21st, 1996 and held a press conference. I remember it vividly because it was my birthday and it was like a gift to me from the team I live and die by. And yes, I can be objective and still be a die-hard fan.

There he was, the greatest player to ever play this game holding up a Rangers jersey with G-R-E-T-Z-K-Y stitched over the iconic number 99. It was pure magic for me. A dream come true. Matter of fact, I still get giddy when I think about it.

Gretzky and Smith (Getty Images)

“I guess what probably tipped the scale was the chance to play with Mark and the opportunity to get a chance to play with a team that is really focused on trying to win a championship,” he says during his introductory press conference after signing a two-year contract worth $10 million. “I’m probably one of the first free agents to ever come to New York that came for a less-money situation. This will be my last stop. I’ll make that clear.”

Wayne Gretzky (NHL.com)

Oddly enough, Neil Smith recently revealed that head coach, Colin Campbell wasn’t thrilled with the idea of signing Wayne. Thankfully Smith couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have Gretzky playing at MSG. The Great one told reporters at the presser that this was his last stop. In the end he kept his word.

Great Memories

Wayne did not disappoint Rangers fans in his first season in New York. He scored 25 goals and 97 points in 82 games to lead the Blueshirts in scoring. Matter of fact, he led the team all three years he was here (90 pts, 62 pts). Of course his first season reunited with Messier led to a magical run in the playoffs that was highlighted with a hat-trick against Florida. Sadly with no Alexei Kovalev and mounting injuries they could not overcome the powerhouse Flyers led by Eric Lindros.

The Great Goodbye

The 1998-99 season started like any other for the Rangers as they continued to struggle since the departure of Mark Messier in the summer of 97. As the season grew late there were rumblings that Wayne was considering retirement. That started a long farewell tour and road arena after road arena were giving him standing ovations. It wasn’t until after his last road game in Ottawa that Gretzky did indeed reveal he would retire. His last game would be against the Penguins at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers final game.

Even though I knew it was coming I was heartbroken. I loved Wayne. No! Scratch that. I STILL love Wayne. He played the game with such passion and joy and was a link to my earliest days as a fan. Days when I was a kid and where every pack of hockey cards I ever bought I would pray to find a Ranger or Wayne Gretzky in it. He still means that much to me and it will never change.

The game itself was surreal. Everytime he touched the puck the fans roared and sung his praises. There was just a weird feeling in the air that the game really didn’t matter and it was all about thanking and witnessing the last game of the greatest player in history. When the Rangers lost in OT, the moment fans really wanted to see took place and that was Wayne taking his final victory lap on the ice. Every wave touched fans not only at MSG but across the hockey world.

Lasting Image of Greatness

So 99 played his final hockey game of his career in 1999. Pretty fitting if you ask me. In the end, the lasting image of Wayne Gretzky hanging up his skate in his locker imprinted on me forever. When I saw that Gretzky’s official memorabilia site was selling it, the $700 price tag was irrelevant. Hey, I was in my late 20’s with no kids or a mortgage yet. So you could’ve bet your sweet ass I was going to own it. Today it hangs over the mantle above my fireplace in my den, to me its priceless. And if I am being honest, every time I look at it I sigh a little. Thank you Wayne! Forever.