On today’s date in 1996, Wayne Gretzky signed a two-year, $8 million contract with the New York Rangers to rejoin his long-time Oilers teammate Mark Messier.
Following a stint with the Edmonton Oilers from 1979-88, during which time he helped the team win four Stanley Cups, and the Los Angeles Kings from 1988-96, Gretzky then joined the St. Louis Blues in a trade for Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson plus two draft picks, which late became Peter Hogan and Matt Zultek.
“I weighed all my options and just said it makes perfect sense for me to become a St. Louis Blue,” Gretzky told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2017.
Upon his arrival in St. Louis, Gretzky – immediately named the team captain – caused an unprecedented uproar.
“Our first practice was at Burnaby 8 Rinks, and I could not believe the crowd outside and inside when we arrived,” Mike Caruso, senior vice president of public relations for the Blues, told the Post-Dispatch. “I thought I knew how big Wayne Gretzky was, but I had no idea how big he was. The crowds swarmed our bus as we tried to get off. It was like he was a Beatle. It was unreal.”
Gretzky scored 37 points in the remaining 31 games of the 1996 regular season and playoffs to end that season with 23 goals, 79 assists and 102 points.
That year, the Blues came within one game of the Western Conference Finals after pushing the favoured Detroit Red Wings to double-overtime in the seventh game of their semi-final series.
Despite the team’s perceived success, Gretzky’s anticipated scoring chemistry with winger Brett Hull “didn’t readily materialize,” according to the Post-Dispatch story. After an 8-3 loss in game two of the semi-finals, Blues coach Mike Keenan also publicly criticized “The Great One,” who later rejected a three-year contract extension worth $15 million.
During the offseason, Gretzky then signed with the Rangers, the team he would end his playing career with three years later.
In his first season with the Rangers, Gretzky helped his new team reach the Eastern Conference Finals but lost in five games to “a bigger, healthier, younger Flyers team,” according to a story published by The New York Times on May 26, 1997.
That offseason, Messier – the Rangers’ captain from 1991-97 – signed with the Vancouver Canucks, ending his brief reunion with Gretzky.
AN ALTERNATE REALITY
Gretzky eventually ended his professional playing career with the Rangers in 1999; however, things could have looked much different in the mid-1990s.
In 1996, when Gretzky was a free agent and looking for a new team – before St. Louis nabbed him – he nearly ended up in a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.
“At one point in time, we were close to Toronto. Cliff Fletcher (then the Leafs general manager) really dug in deep and tried to make it happen,” Gretzky told Sportsnet 590 The Fan in 2013.
“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 needed 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.”
2011 GRETZKY COINS
In 2011, the Royal Canadian Mint honoured Gretzky’s legacy with a series of collector coins.
The first issue was a $200 22-karat gold coin featuring a uniformed Gretzky blazing down the ice, sporting Canada’s maple leaf and his signature #99 jersey. His number is laser engraved on the coin, where it’s positioned beneath a cameo of his proud father, Walter. Limited to a mintage of 999, the coin sold for $1,299.99.
This same design was used for a $25 Fine silver coin, which displays Gretzky’s #99 with a colourful hologram. Limited to a mintage of 19,999, the coin sold for $99.99.
The third coin was a 25-cent gold-plated piece featuring Gretzky in the blue-and-orange Oilers colours—the team he led to four Stanley Cup victories in five years. 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 from these coins was donated to the Wayne Gretzky Foundation.