The details come back to Wayne Gretzky as if he just finished a shift at old Maple Leaf Gardens.
The passion is in his voice, the memories still glowing. To listen to him talk about his Game 7 performance in the 1993 Campbell Conference final is something akin to an artist reflecting on his masterpiece, brush stroke by brush stroke.
“I remember everything about that game like it was yesterday,” Gretzky said.
Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, Gretzky played the best game of his career, scoring a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs to launch the Kings into their first Stanley Cup Final.
It ended one of the best series in hockey history and represented the apex of the Gretzky era in Los Angeles that lifted California hockey into another stratosphere.
In an interview with The Times, Gretzky looks back on it a quarter of a century later.
It was a disjointed run-up to the playoffs for Gretzky. He sat out 39 games because of a herniated disk, his first abbreviated season with the Kings and, for the first time in his NHL career, he was not a finalist for a postseason award.
But, at 32, he was still Wayne Gretzky, and he forced Game 7 with his overtime goal in Game 6, a conversion of Luc Robitaille’s pass that whipped the Forum into a fervor. It was controversial: Gretzky high-sticked Toronto’s Doug Gilmour earlier in the game, a noncall that still infuriates Maple Leafs fans.
The Kings were one win from the Final. The thing was, an entire country was rooting against them.
“I know that the majority of people from Vancouver to Newfoundland probably, in their hearts, wanted to see the old ’60s final with Montreal and Toronto,” Gretzky said. “But most of my friends and family that were from that area were pulling for us and pulling for me, so we didn’t feel it internally, but we kind of knew it was out there.”
Montreal Canadiens forward Gilbert Dionne put it out there before the Kings-Maple Leafs series was done when he said of facing Toronto, “It’s going to be a big battle. We can’t wait.”
The Kings were the clear underdog: Their 39 victories were the third-fewest of any team in the playoffs and they started every series on the road. But something coagulated under coach Barry Melrose, and Gretzky cites an assist from two unlikely sources that helped them march back into Toronto.
“The ride became bigger and better,” Gretzky said. “When we got to that point in time, the organization allowed [actors] Alan Thicke and [John Candy] to follow us. Even though they’re huge Canadians, they kind of took a stance that they were cheering for us. We kind of felt that.”
Game 7 was on a Saturday night, with Canada on the verge of celebration. But the Kings carried poise.
“We were really relaxed,” goalie Kelly Hrudey said. “Eight or 10 of us went out the night before and had a nice steak dinner. Nobody spoke about what anybody’s plans were for the summer.”
If there was any nervousness before Game 7, forward Mike Donnelly recalled Candy, of all people, breaking the ice in the locker room.
“If I remember correctly, before the game John Candy came in and gave us a pep talk,” Donnelly said. “It was right around the time, normally, when Barry would speak. He said, ‘Well, boys, you know what’s at stake …’ He was kind of serious. We just started laughing. I think he just made us all relax a little bit more. We knew what the task was. We believed in our team. We felt good about ourselves. You’re going into an elimination game. You’ve got the best player in the world on your team.”
After the Kings eliminated the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks in the first two rounds, Gretzky said, “I think we were physically, mentally tired as a group,” but he credited Melrose and assistant coach Cap Raeder for managing the grind.
“They kept it as relatively loose as you could keep it throughout the playoffs,” Gretzky said. “You felt good with your group. … Barry was big on not practicing long. He was old fashioned. Barry’s big thing was he wanted to practice every day, but he didn’t practice long.”
As Gretzky recalls, the day after Game 6, the Kings had a 20-minute practice, then a brief morning skate before Game 7. He took the ice that morning.
“Certain arenas you want to get on the ice,” said Gretzky, who grew up an hour from the venue. “Maple Leaf Gardens is one of those arenas.”
At that time, a sentiment grew in the media that Gretzky was fading. He was pointless in Game 5. A Toronto columnist wrote that Gretzky looked as if he was skating with a piano on his back, and many thought that Gilmour, the Hart Trophy runner-up that year, was outplaying him.
“I remember Tony Granato coming up to me at the morning skate and saying, ‘The papers say it looks like 99 is slowing down,’ ” Donnelly said. “Tony kind of chuckled [and said], ‘We’re going to win for sure, tonight. You don’t want to get that guy mad.’ I’ll never forget that.”
The 15,720 fans packed into the Gardens booed Gretzky at the start, residue from the high-stick incident in Game 6. Gretzky silenced them 9 minutes 48 seconds in with a short-handed goal.
Jari Kurri intercepted the puck from Gilmour in Toronto’s end and passed it to Gretzky at neutral ice. Gretzky broke in on a two on one with Marty McSorley, whose pass Gretzky took off his right skate and snapped into an open net.
“That looks easy, but it’s not easy to do,” Robitaille said.
It was natural for Gretzky to send the initial pass to McSorley, but for McSorley to give it back?
“Marty was way better offensively than people give him credit for,” Gretzky said. “I’ve known him since he was 16, and he’s always been underrated offensively. From that point, it didn’t surprise me; ’93 was probably the best hockey he ever played in his life. Quite frankly, I was probably the only person in the building expecting him to pass. When we got to the bench, I would have yelled at him for not giving me the pass back.”
A heavyweight tilt was underway. Gretzky assisted on a Tomas Sandstrom goal late in the first period to make it 2-0, but Toronto tied it seven minutes into the second period. Fewer than three minutes later, Gretzky struck again. Toronto’s Peter Zezel fell near the boards on a rush. Rob Blake grabbed the puck and got it to Gretzky, who headed it up to Sandstrom.
Trailing the play, Gretzky took a backhand pass from Sandstrom down the right side. Toronto’s Kent Manderville went for the puck and missed as Robitaille tied up Bob Rouse in front of the net. Gretzky cut to the high slot and slapped it past the glove of Felix Potvin.
“It was a lucky play,” Gretzky said. “I think [Manderville] missed the puck and he missed it on the way to my stick.
“It calmed the game down, that third goal. It allowed our team, for a certain amount of time, to play the style that we wanted to play. We knew they were going to come back. [But] we were able to calm down. It was getting much chippier.”
Robitaille said it wasn’t just luck on that play.
“He had a way to cut across, but that whole series, they played him really tight,” Robitaille said. “But for some reason, he found a way. That’s a Wayne Gretzky goal … he’s had hundreds of those. And you just knew right then and there that it was something special.”
The Kings took a 4-3 lead on a rush play that flipped the game again. Alexei Zhitnik’s shot bounced off Rouse, to Donnelly, who put it into an open net from the right side at 16:09. Donnelly leapt into McSorley’s arms and the two fell down in a heap. It was Donnelly’s only shot on goal that night.
“I think I jumped about five feet in the air,” Donnelly said. “I landed on top of him. I said, ‘Marty, I’m sorry.’ He said, ‘It’s OK.’ ”
What happened next is pure Gretzky lore. Dave Ellett’s shot in the Kings’ end was blocked. Gretzky collected the puck at midice and began skating down the right side.
“[Dave] Taylor and [Pat] Conacher both got hammered on the boards,” Gretzky said. “They’re behind me. I knew there was two guys there and all I was thinking was I’ve got to get on my horse. Get to another gear and get wide on the defensemen.”
Todd Gill shadowed Gretzky as Gretzky circled around the net. Gretzky curled back and sent the puck toward Ellett. The defenseman stood sentry, facing away from the play, and the puck took a perfect hop off his right skate, past Potvin’s left side, into the net at 16:49, for a 5-3 Kings lead.
To this day, Gretzky says he didn’t know the puck would bounce like that.
“I’d like to [say yes], but no,” Gretzky said with a laugh. “To me it was my best goal of the series, because Toronto put pressure on us at 4-3. They always say just put it on net, never knowing what can happen, and that’s what happened. It hit it on the right side. All I remember was the jubilation in the corner.”
On the television replay, in one moment in the frame, it’s one on five: Gretzky and five Maple Leafs. A beat or two passed before anyone else in the building realized what had happened. Then, a gasp.
“The whole place went dead,” Robitaille said. “I think everybody knew that was it.”
Said Gretzky: “The goalie didn’t see it. The TV people were looking elsewhere. I had the best view of anybody … it was probably the harder shot of the three.”
Gretzky is next seen on the bench panting and smiling through his mouthguard. From his net, Hrudey caught a glimpse of him.
“Wayne sat on the bench, with both his hands clenched together,” Hrudey said. “He gave a fist-pumping gesture to his father. I was able to witness it. I don’t know if many other people saw it. I got emotional. I’m not going to say that I teared up, but I was on the verge.”
Ellett made it 5-4 with 67 seconds left. Gretzky, who estimates that he played about 23 minutes that night, was too gassed to go over the boards for the final minute.
“They scored late and that seemed to rattle the momentum and give them the energy,” Gretzky said. “I had played [most of the previous] five or six minutes. The coaches told me to go out and I said no. It was the only time in my career I said, ‘No. I’m tired. I can’t go.’ I’m probably spent. I’m probably not the right guy. The only time in my career. I can’t be out there for the tying goal.”
The dream crashed in the Final. The Kings couldn’t overcome McSorley’s illegal stick penalty in Game 2, nor could they win an overtime game and solve Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy. Montreal won the series in five games.
But, for a few hours in that small Gardens visitors’ locker room, made hot in late May, all was right. Gretzky accomplished what he intended upon his arrival in L.A. by putting the Kings in position to win the Cup.
On a personal level, considering the situation — Game 7 on the road with a ticket to the Final on the line — Gretzky still ranks it as his No. 1 performance.
“I’ve said it was the best game I ever played and I probably would continue to say that my best game was Game 7 in Toronto,” said Gretzky, who lives in Sherman Oaks.
Indeed, even as the Kings were on their way to losing the Final, late Times columnist Jim Murray confirmed that Gretzky’s Kings legacy was already cemented.
“Wayne Gretzky is half a hockey team all by himself,” Murray wrote. “Behind that choirboy exterior beats the heart of a train robber. The halo slips when he gets the puck.”
When he stepped off the ice that night in Toronto, Gretzky found his parents, Walter and Phyllis. Walter had suffered a brain aneurysm and “at that time, two years in, he didn’t know a whole lot around him,” Gretzky said. “[But] I knew he knew how much I loved to play in Toronto.”
Even today, Gretzky says, his 79-year-old father doesn’t recall much about Game 7.