On today’s date in 1996, Wayne Gretzky signed with the New York Rangers, the team he would end his playing career with three years later on April 18.
After enjoying very successful stints with both the Edmonton Oilers (1979-88) and Los Angeles Kings (1988-96), Gretzky joined the St. Louis Blues after he was traded for Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson, and two draft picks, which would later become Peter Hogan and Matt Zultek.
Unhappy in Los Angeles, Gretzky began pushing for a trade, with the Rangers and Blues vying for his services, the latter of which met his salary demands.
Upon arrival in St. Louis in February 1996, Gretzky was named team captain, scoring 37 points in the remaining 31 games of the regular season and playoffs. The Blues came within one game of the Conference Finals; however, the anticipated chemistry with winger Brett Hull never materialized, and coach Mike Keenan publicly criticized The Great One, who later rejected a three-year deal worth $15 million with the team.
On July 21, Gretzky signed with the Rangers as a free agent, rejoining longtime Oilers teammate Mark Messier for a two-year $8 million contract. He eventually ended his professional playing career with the Rangers, where he played until 1999, helping the team reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997.
However, things could have looking much different in the mid-1990s.
In 2013, Sportsnet reported when Gretzky was a free agent and looking for a new team to play for – before St. Louis eventually nabbed him – he nearly ended up in a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.
“At one point in time we were close to Toronto. Cliff Fletcher [the Leafs GM at the time] really dug in deep and tried to make it happen,” Gretzky told Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “Timing is everything, and unfortunately at that time they were trying to raise money to move out of Maple Leaf Gardens and move into a new arena, a new facility, and the ownership just felt at that time they need to concentrate and put more of their resources into building an arena than to sign me. And that’s business and that’s what happens, but I thought I was close to signing in Toronto. I thought it was going to happen; unfortunately it didn’t.”
In 2011, the Royal Canadian Mint honoured Gretzky’s legacy with a series of NCLT coins.
The first was a $200 22-karat gold coin featuring a uniformed Gretzky blazing down the ice, sporting Canada’s maple leaf and his signature no. 99 jersey. His iconic number is laser engraved on the coin, where it’s positioned beneath a cameo of his proud father. Limited to a mintage of only 999 coins, the coin sold for $1,299.99.
This same design was used for a $25 Fine silver coin, which displays Gretzky’s no. 99 with a colourful hologram. Limited to total mintage of 19,999 pieces, the coin sold for $99.99 CAD.
The third coin was a 25-cent gold-plated coin featuring The Great One in the blue and orange colours of the team he led to four Stanley Cup victories in only five years – the Edmonton Oilers. The copper-plated steel coin, finished with a layer of gold, was packaged in a holder detailing Gretzky’s prolific career statistics.
A portion of the sales was donated to the Wayne Gretzky Foundation, whose mission is to provide less-fortunate youth with the opportunity to experience the sport of hockey.