Mike Brophy

How Wayne Gretzky's worst defeat fuelled his greatest season

In September 1981, a 20-year-old Wayne Gretzky repaired to a secluded Florida condo to reckon with what he called "the worst experience I've ever had in hockey." There, he made a decision that would result in an unimaginable assault on hockey's record book.

'81 Canada Cup thrashing led to game-changing decision

A permed Wayne Gretzky, right, and Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur were linemates at the 1981 Canada Cup, which would become a turning point in the Great One's career. (Ian MacAlpine/Canadian Press)

The following is excerpted from Unbreakable: 50 Goals in 39 Games by Mike Brophy and Todd Denault. Copyright © 2016 by Mike Brophy and Todd Denault. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

In late September 1981, Wayne Gretzky took to a secluded Florida condo for five days with a couple of close friends. Barely anyone, including his parents, knew he was there, and he preferred it that way.

He was 20 years old and, in the opinion of many, the best hockey player in the world. And yet inside that darkened and isolated condo, he struggled to come to terms with what he would later refer to as "far and away the worst experience I've ever had in hockey."

Two years earlier, many within the hockey establishment had predicted that the small-in-stature, waifish-looking Gretzky would struggle with the transition from the WHA to the NHL — considered by most to be a league with bigger, stronger, and more talented players.

Instead, Gretzky thrived in his first NHL season in 1979-80, tying Marcel Dionne for the league lead in points at 137 (Dionne was awarded the scoring title because he had more goals) and becoming the youngest player to ever score 50 goals in a season. At the end of that first year, he was awarded the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player.

Gretzky won the scoring title in 1980–81, and again received the Hart Trophy, but his accomplishments didn't end there. His 164 points that season set a new league record (surpassing Phil Esposito's 152, set in 1970–71), as did his 109 assists (breaking Bobby Orr's mark of 102, also set in 1970–71).

No player in hockey history had enjoyed such a start to his professional career. And yet there were critics like Stan Fischler, who dubbed Gretzky "Mr. Waynderful" in the pages of The Hockey News, who suggested that the combined offensive and defensive skills of the New York Islanders' Bryan Trottier made him a more valuable player. On his Hamilton-based television show, Dick Beddoes, formerly of the Globe and Mail newspaper, repeatedly bashed Gretzky by openly questioning whether he could have achieved any of his scoring feats in the old six-team NHL.

The accolades and criticism served to heighten the drama surrounding the 1981 Canada Cup. This star-studded tournament, a best-on-best affair involving the world's top six hockey nations, represented Gretzky's first experience playing at such a high, international level, and as such the pressure on him, and on Team Canada as a whole, was intense.

'They should have sent me to Siberia'

Maurice (Rocket) Richard, right, presented Gretzky with a wood carving in March of 1982, toward the end of Gretzky's record-setting 92-goal season. Today, the NHL's award for the top goal-scorer each year is named after Richard, the first man to score 50 goals in a single season. He did it in 50 games in 1944-45, while Gretzky needed only 39 to reach the mark in 1981-82. (Bill Grimshaw/Canadian Press)

In the beginning, everything went according to script, as Canada pummelled Finland in their first game of the tournament, 9–0, with Gretzky, playing on a line with Guy Lafleur and Gilbert Perreault, scoring two goals and adding an assist. The next game was more of the same as Gretzky had two goals and two assists in Canada's 8–3 win over the United States.

Canada's third game of the tournament told a different story, however, as Gretzky was held off the score sheet in the team's 4–4 tie with Czechoslovakia. That lacklustre performance merely set the stage for what came next: a hard-fought, nasty encounter with Sweden that saw Canada emerge with a 4–3 win.

But they paid a terrible price in the process, as Perreault suffered a broken ankle, prematurely putting an end to his participation in the tournament, while Gretzky took a hard slash to the elbow that later had him admitting that he'd "never been hurt that badly before in a hockey game."

With Perreault out, Marcel Dionne was elevated to Gretzky's line, and in Canada's next game, their last of the round-robin, against the Soviet Union, the newly formed trio of Gretzky, Lafleur, and Dionne combined for eight points in the 7–3 Canada win. A 4–1 win over the United States in the semifinal round set up the one-game final that everyone had hoped for: Canada and the Soviet Union, to be held within the confines of the historic Montreal Forum.

The first half of this much-anticipated clash lived up to its billing, as Canada enjoyed the better of the play but was repeatedly stymied by Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who almost singlehandedly kept the score tied at one.

And then the roof caved in on Canada, with two Soviet goals late in the second period giving the visitors a 3–1 lead. Five more for the Soviets in the third period resulted in an embarrassing 8–1 loss for Team Canada.

No player took the loss harder than Gretzky, who led all the players in the tournament with 12 points. Despite his prowess on the score sheet, he later confessed, half-jokingly, "I played so badly [in the 1981 Canada Cup that] they should have sent me to Siberia."

A new approach

Gretzky quietly hopped a flight to Florida and spent the next five days sequestered inside a condo, where he tried to make sense of what had happened during the Canada Cup, along with doing some intense self-analysis.

"Not only had I let down my country, but I'd started people asking all those stupid questions about me again," he wrote in his autobiography a decade later. "Yeah, he can score against the Winnipegs of the world, but what happens to him in the big games? I knew I'd spend the 1981–82 season trying to prove that my Canada Cup series was a fluke… instead of the other way around."

Having accomplished more than anyone else ever had in his first two NHL seasons, Gretzky could have been forgiven had he decided not to tinker with his game, but inside that isolated Florida condo he came to the startling conclusion that he had to change his style of play.

"I'd been passing 90 per cent of the time," he later declared. "I was too predictable. Every time I'd come down the line, they'd play me to pass, not shoot. The pass was getting too tough and the shot too easy to pass up. Now I decided to shoot more."

Less than a month later, at the onset of the 1981–82 NHL season, Gretzky put his new, overhauled approach to the test.

By the time of his 39th game of that season, played in Edmonton on December 30, 1981, against the Philadelphia Flyers, he had rewritten the record book in a way no one could have imagined.

Mike Brophy, co-author of "Unbreakable: 50 Goals in 39 Games", will chat with CBC's Anson Henry on Friday at 1 P.M. ET. Watch live and join in the conversation by visiting www.facebook.com/HockeyNightInCanada/


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