Tuesday, 30 July 2013

A Gretzky Comeback?

Are we seeing Wayne Gretzky once again strap the skates on for some good hockey action? The answer, sadly, is no. This image was taken in 2012 during a Keyano College Foundation "One On One Banquet" where The Great One was the guest of honour. Keyano College, located in Fort McMurray, Alberta, had just received new hockey uniforms for their hockey team, and Wayne Gretzky was honoured by being one of the first people to wear the new uniforms. In seeing this photo, though, it got me thinking about all of the uniforms that Wayne Gretzky has worn throughout his professional career. He's clearly worn a number of interesting jerseys, but I want to focus on one specific team today: the Ninety-Nine All-Stars.

During the 1994-95 lockout, Wayne Gretzky assembled a pile of his friends to play against teams from around the world in order to stay in shape, raise some money for charity, and to promote the game of hockey worldwide. Gretzky recruited players he knew personally from teams he had played on, and even brought some family along for the fun. The Ninety-Nine All-Stars would play eight games during the lockout, but they wouldn't win all the games despite the immense talent they had on the ice.

Tending the nets were Grant Fuhr and Kelly Hrudey. Fuhr, at the time, was a member of the Buffalo Sabres where he had gone 13-12-3 in the previous season with a 3.68 GAA and an .883 save percentage. Not exactly stellar numbers, but Gretzky was hand-picking this squad. Hrudey was still a member of the Los Angeles Kings, and his numbers from the season before the tour weren't that spectacular either. Hrudey went 22-31-7 with a 3.68 GAA and an .897 save percentage. If nothing else, the similar goals-against-averages and save percentages showed that Gretzky probably didn't care too much about winning as much as having fun. Either way, those two men would be platooned in the blue ice for the eight games.

The blueliners included Paul Coffey, Rob Blake, Todd Gill, Charlie Huddy, Al MacInnis, and Marty McSorley. Coffey was a member of the Detroit Red Wings at the time, and he put up a fantastic 1993-94 season that saw him score 14 goals and 63 assists. Rob Blake was playing for the Los Angeles Kings at the time, and he also came off a stellar season to join the Ninety-Nine All-Stars. Blake scored 20 goals and 68 points for the Kings in '93-94, and was emerging as one of the better young defencemen in the game. Al MacInnis had been traded a few months earlier from the Calgary Flames to the St. Louis Blues when he got Gretzky's call. MacInnis also had an excellent '93-94 season to warrant his inclusion as he scored 28 goals and 82 points in his last season with the Flames. Clearly, these three men belonged on this "all-star" squad based on their '93-94 stats.

I have a harder time justifying the last three defencemen being there outside of the fact that they were friends of Wayne. Todd Gill was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time, and his 1993-94 season of four goals and 28 points isn't really all-star material. Charlie Huddy was a Los Angeles King at the time of the lockout, and his '93-94 season was nothing to be excited about as he posted just five goals and 18 points. Marty McSorley had been traded back to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh in Feburary, and his 1993-94 season was actually the best of these three men. McSorley scored seven goals and 31 points in being shuffled from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh and back to Los Angeles. Todd Gill was a solid defensive player, but certainly not one of the game's best. Huddy and McSorley proved that it was simply who you knew rather than how they played the game as their inclusions had Gretzky's fingerprints all over them.

The forwards contained some big names outside of The Great One. The list includes Sergei Fedorov, Doug Gilmour, Brett Hull, Russ Courtnall, Mark Messier, Steve Larmer, Jari Kurri, Pat Conacher, Kirk Muller, Tony Granato, Steve Yzerman, Rick Tocchet, and Warren Rychel. Clearly, there are some impressive, all-star calibre players on that list, so let's take a peek at how they may have been chosen.

Sergei Fedorov was a member of the Detroit Red Wings, and had an impressive '93-94 campaign in scoring 56 goals and 120 points to make his inclusion a no-brainer. Doug Gilmour was still a Maple Leaf in 1994-95, and he was coming off a season where he posted 27 goals and 111 points. Brett Hull was one of the most feared snipers on the planet in 1994, and his '93-94 season saw him put up 57 goals and 97 points. Mark Messier had just finished leading the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup, but had a respectable 26 goals and 84 points in '93-94. Steve Yzerman was leading the Detroit Red Wings to new heights as he began his transition to a defensive forward, but still posted 24 goals and 82 points. Even Russ Courtnall, playing with the Dallas Stars, was playing well as he scored 23 goals and 80 points. Obviously, this team had the scoring touch that could make them very dangerous.

The role players, as one may call them, were a varied bunch. No one knew it at the time, but Steve Larmer's career would be over after the 1994-95 season. However, his season previous with the New York Rangers saw him score 21 goals and 60 points as he filled a wing for the Ninety-Nine All-Stars. Jari Kurri's last solid season in the NHL came in 1993-94 with the Los Angeles Kings as he scored 31 goals and 77 points as he looked to rekindle the magic with Gretzky on the Ninety-Nine All-Stars. Rick Tocchet had been traded to Los Angeles in July of 1994, but his 1993-94 season with the Penguins wasn't as good as his previous seasons had been. Tocchet finished the campaign with just 14 goals and 40 points. Again, these wingers had shown the ability to score in the past, and Gretzky was hedging his bets that they would do the same on his all-star team.

And, of course, we get to the "Friends of Gretzky" section where the inclusion of these players is only by friendship with Wayne. Tony Granato of the Los Angeles Kings was included despite his 1993-94 season only bringing seven goals and 21 points. Pat Conacher had an excellent '93-94 season with the Los Angeles Kings as a defensive centerman, scoring 15 goals and 28 points. Warren Rychel was known more for his pugilistic abilities than his all-star scoring touch, but the Los Angeles King had ten goals and 19 points in his '93-94 season. These last three players, though, were the defensive unit that the Ninety-Nine All-Stars employed on most nights, and they were used almost exclusively in non-scoring roles.

Behind the bench were long-time NHL defenceman Doug Wilson and Wayne Gretzky's father, Walter Gretzky.

The first team that the Ninety-Nine All-Stars squared off against was the IHL's Detroit Vipers at the Palace of Auburn Hills on December 1, 1994. The three Red Wings - Yzerman, Fedorov, and Coffey - did not dress for this game due to the heated rivalry between Vipers owner Bill Davidson and Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch. Marty McSorley also missed the game as he was involved in the labor negotiations. The short-handed Ninety-Nine All-Stars were officially playing their first game since their '93-94 seasons ended, but they were welcomed by the 16,239 fans who showed up to watch some hockey. Proceeds from the game went to the NHLPA's former players' fund. The key in all of this? Gretzky and his band of merry men wore NHLPA jerseys and not their Ninety-Nine All-Stars jerseys!

Things started poorly for the Ninety-Nine All-Stars. Joe Day tipped in a Petr Sykora shot past Grant Fuhr to put the Vipers up 1-0, and they doubled the lead when Peter Ciavaglia undressed Al MacInnis at the blueline before burying a shot past Fuhr. The All-Stars would respond before the first period ended, though, when Mark Messier's shot was bobbled by Rick Knickle, ending up in the Vipers' net. Al MacInnis and Kirk Muller would give the Ninety-Nine All-Stars a 3-2 lead in the second period, but goals by Jason Woolley and Miroslav Satan one minute apart in the third period gave the Vipers the 4-3 win over the Ninety-Nine All-Stars.

It was off to Finland for a game against Jokerit on December 3, and the Ninety-Nine All-Stars jerseys would be revealed for the first time. The game was being billed in Finland as "the game of the century" between defending Finnish Elite League champion Jokerit and Gretzky's hand-picked all-stars, but the game itself looked more like an all-star game as there was very little contact and a lot of soft goals. The Ninety-Nine All-Stars would roll over Jokerit by a 7-1 score, but even Teemu Selanne made it clear that this game wasn't very intense.

"They were pretty tired," said Jokerit's Teemu Selanne. "But then again, nobody was out to kill anyone."

The one thing that stood out in this game? Check out the metallic helmets worn by Jokerit!

After that game, the Ninety-Nine All-Stars would battle Ilves Tampere of Tampere, Finland as their European tour continued. Playing on the back of consecutive nights, the Ninety-Nine All-Stars would fall in overtime to Ilves Tampere by a 4-3 score. Sami Ahlberg tied the score late in the third period, and then notched the winner 2:34 into overtime when he broke in with a teammate on Rob Blake on a two-on-one and ripped a slapshot past Kelly Hrudey. For the Ninety-Nine All-Stars' part, they did provide three highlight-reel goals from Gretzky, Tony Granato, and Steve Yzerman to keep the crowd into this game.

From Finland, the Ninety-Nine All-Stars moved into Norway for a one-game exhibition against Norway's best players on December 6, 1994. The Norwegian Spectrum All-Stars came out firing as they went up by a pair of goals in the first period, but it was nothing but Ninety-Nine All-Stars after that. The Ninety-Nine All-Stars would outscore the Norwegian Spectrum All-Stars 6-1 to take the game 6-3 at the final buzzer.

The Ninety-Nine All-Stars would enjoy a couple of days off between the Norwegian All-Star game and their next game against Djurgårdens IF in Sweden on December 9. The time off appeared to help the NHL stars as the Ninety-Nine All-Stars would hammer Swedish Elite League-leading Djurgårdens IF by a 9-3 score with Gretzky scoring his fourth goal in as many games. Perhaps the time off for the NHLers is the right answer?

The Ninety-Nine All-Stars would play another back-to-back as they battled Västra Frölunda HC on December 10, and overcame a slow start to defeat the home team by a 5-2 score. This game would end Gretzky's goal-scoring streak as he was held off the scoresheet as a goal-scorer. However, Tony Granato and Mark Messier both notched their fifth goals of the tour as they continued to play well.

The Ninety-Nine All-Stars would get a day off before facing off against Malmö IF. In my searches, I actually found a report from Sweden about this game! Now, I don't understand Swedish at all, but the highlights are in a universal language. Here's the video. If you want to skip directly to the highlights of the game, fast forward the video to the 4:36 mark.
If you watched all the highlights, you know that Malmö IF downed the Ninety-Nine All-Stars by a 6-5 score in overtime.

The final game of the Ninety-Nine All-Stars European tour would come against a team of Germany's best players in Frieburg, Germany on December 14. The Ninety-Nine All-Stars and German All-Stars would trade goals in a high-scoring game, but the Ninety-Nine All-Stars would prevail in an 8-5 victory. Of note, Mark Messier left this game early as he injured his back, but the injury was not significant.

The Ninety-Nine All-Stars compiled a 5-3 record in their eight games, and, to be honest, the problem was with the goaltending. While the team scored 43 goals in the eight games they played, they also gave up 28 goals. However, like most all-star teams, preventing goals is low on the list of things to accomplish, so I'd say the Ninety-Nine All-Stars did their job in lighting up scoreboards and keeping fans happy.

There is a rundown of the Ninety-Nine All-Stars and their European tour from 1994-95. It's just too bad that the Ninety-Nine All-Stars jerseys are so hard to come by in today's day and age. I'm almost entirely sure I'd pick one up if they were made once again.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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