Every year on April 18, I can't help but remember that it's the anniversary of Wayne Gretzky's final NHL game. For some reason, the date is ingrained in my memory more than the birthdays of some friends and family members (sorry).
On April 18, 1999, I was completing my first season as the New York Rangers beat writer for The Record in New Jersey and was at Madison Square Garden for one of the biggest stories I would ever cover. Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer and hockey's greatest ambassador (he still is), announced two days earlier that this game against the Pittsburgh Penguins would be his last.
On April 15, Gretzky played in what would turn out to be his final game in his native Canada, a 2-2 tie against the Ottawa Senators. That game, more than the one at the Garden, was special because of the spontaneity of the emotions with the fans chanting "One more year," Gretzky being named the first, second and third star, and, after he had returned to the visiting locker room, the crowd continuing to cheer and chant until he came back out for two curtain calls.
The afternoon at the Garden felt more scripted but also is memorable. The pregame ceremony included visiting dignitaries such as former Penguins center Mario Lemieux, already a Hockey Hall of Famer who would come out of retirement less than two years later; Glen Sather, who was general manager of the Edmonton Oilers and became Rangers GM less than 14 months later; and Mark Messier, the former Rangers captain who was with the Vancouver Canucks at the time but returned to New York after Sather took over.
Commissioner Gary Bettman declared that no other NHL player would wear No. 99 after Gretzky took off his jersey that day. Then they played the game.
Gretzky got an assist on a power-play goal in the second period by Brian Leetch for the 2,857th and final point of his 20-season NHL career. Jaromir Jagr scored in overtime to give the Penguins a 2-1 victory, which seemed fitting as Gretzky passed the torch to the best player in the game at that time.
Jagr led the League with 127 points and won the Hart Trophy that season. Now 45 and still playing, he ranks second behind Gretzky with 1,914 NHL points.
Afterward, there were tears and more curtain calls with Gretzky waving while he skated around the ice and the crowd chanted his name. Always accommodating to the media, Gretzky even waved to the press box. At least that's the way I saw it.
One of Gretzky's many unexplainable skills was his ability to often be dressed in his suit and waiting for the media when the locker room opened after a game. Some of us used to joke that he must have worn his suit under his equipment to be dressed so quickly.
That wasn't the case on April 18, 1999. After Gretzky took off his skates, he went to his news conference wearing his jersey and hockey pants.
"Probably, subconsciously, I don't want to take it off," he said of his uniform. "I'm not going to put it on ever again."
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