MARC CIAMPA, a native of St. Albert, Alberta, Canada is the staff sports writer for Renaissance Online Magazine. A student at the University of Alberta, Ciampa is the public relations coordinator for the St. Albert Saints and writes a weekly article in the Edmonton Sun on junior hockey during the winter. During the summer he runs the official Calgary Cannons website.
The Great One Bows Out
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was 1988 in the Smythe Division Finals. The game was tied 4-4 and in overtime. The Edmonton Oilers were leading my beloved Calgary Flames 1-0 in the series and another victory would mean the Flames would be heading into Edmonton down two games in a series many thought Calgary would win and many more thought would be a classic.
It wasn't to be, thanks to one man - Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers were shorthanded as Mark Messier was in the penalty box at the time. The Great One picked up a pass from teammate Jari Kurri with about ten minutes to go in the first overtime period, streaked down the left side and, just before he reached the faceoff circle shot the puck over the left shoulder of Mike Vernon. Top Corner. Game Over.
When asked to reflect back on that day, Vernon laughed. "Oh, (bleep) him," he said. "Yeah, I've seen him score some. He could catch it in the curve and let 'er go, as they say."
It is a goal that Gretzky to this day proclaims his greatest ever, and with good reason. The Oilers stole the momentum from the series that day and went on to defeat the Calgary Flames - who had just finished a remarkable season in which they captured their first ever President's Trophy as the top team in the league overall - in four straight. After the sweep, they added insult to injury by cruising to the Stanley Cup Finals and won what would turn out to be Gretzky's last ever Stanley Cup in what would turn out to be his last year as an Oiler.
Calgary Flames captain that year Lanny McDonald described what it was like to watch that puck go in from a Flames fan's perspective. "Deflating wasn't the word for it," he said. "You know how, when the air goes out of a balloon? It was like he sucked the breath out of every person in the building. Even though you continually told yourself, 'it's not over,' when someone of his caliber is on the other side, it certainly makes life a little more difficult."
Back then as a Flames fan I hated Gretzky. He was the cause of most of my team's troubles. In 1984 the Flames came within one game of advancing to the third round but it was Gretzky's Oilers who would win that one game and go on to their first-ever Stanley Cup. In 1986 he did everything within his power to defeat the Flames - he lead his team with an amazing 13 points in seven games - but the Flames won that series thanks in part to Oilers defenseman Steve Smith banking the puck off of the back of Grant Fuhr's leg and depositing it into his own net in the dying minutes of the third period. It would turn out to be the series winning goal and the only time Calgary has ever beaten the Edmonton Oilers in the post-season. To this day that thrill of beating Wayne Gretzky is the greatest feeling I've ever had as a Flames fan, and that includes the club's 1989 Stanley Cup triumph over the Montreal Canadiens.
Calgary fans used to hate Gretzky. Whenever he'd touch the puck at the Saddledome in Calgary fans would chant "whiner, whiner." To this day I regret that I spent so much time hating the guy and not enough time watching him as the greatest player to ever play the game's career unfolded right before my eyes.
The thing that made Gretzky so special was not only the way he played on the ice, but the way he carried himself off it as well. Even when those same Calgary Flames fans who spent the past three hours calling him "whiner" asked for an autograph following a game, he would not leave until every single one of them was signed. He was also more than courteous to the media. When the Oilers put a ban on Calgary media interviewing Gretzky during the '86 series, he would arrange to meet Flames play-by-play man Peter Maher in private so Maher could get his sound bites for Flames Radio QR 77 before the game. There were even instances when Gretzky would run out of sticks from giving away so many of them.
During Wayne Gretzky's final appearance at the Saddledome in Calgary this past February where he broke so many hearts in the years gone by, the fans saluted The Great One. In the game's final two or three minutes the fans gave him a standing ovation and chanted "Gretzky Gretzky." Perhaps sensing that he would retire at the conclusion of the season at that point, Gretzky broke into tears on the players' bench. Gretzky later stated that it was only the third time he'd found himself reduced to tears during a game - the others being the dying seconds of both the 1981 Canada Cup and the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.
The tribute was a classy move by Flames fans. It showed that while they were still obviously upset that his incredible play in the 1980s probably cost their team several Stanley Cups, they were appreciative that the best player to ever play the game carried himself with as much class as he did.
Wayne Gretzky, you will be missed by every player and fan who ever watched the game on TV, saw a game live or played the sport.
Even Mike Vernon.
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