What Wayne Gretzky Learned From an Embarrassing 1982 Defeat

By Colin Fleming

Revisiting the Miracle on Manchester, 30 years later

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AP Images

If you've ever fallen into the habit of watching old sporting events in the middle of the night, maybe you've noticed that the sprites can start playing with your imagination. You know what the final score is going to be, and who wins and all that, but as the action unfolds, you start to think that there's no way the game is going to work out the way the history books say it does, and you're going to have a hell of a time convincing anyone the next day that you saw what you saw.

One game in particular is a favorite of those sprites: the Miracle on Manchester. There had never been a season in the history of sports to touch what the Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky did in 1981-82. He had already destroyed the NHL's scoring mark the year before, in his second campaign, with 164 points, but that was but an appetizer for what followed: a video game-like 212 points, with a gobsmacking 92 goals, in 80 games. This was Ruthian, and then some, with Gretzky finishing 65 points in front of the number two man in the league. No team had ever played the game like that '81-'82 edition of the Oilers, a squad that boasted six eventual Hall of Famers. Defenseman joined the rush as attackers, Gretzky rarely ventured into his own end, and the tempo was always full-bore, with players weaving around each other, a serpentine mass of hockey poetry.

The expectation, come the start of the playoffs, was that Gretzky and Co. were due to collect their first of many championships. A few cursory matters of business needed tending to, starting with an opening playoff series against the lowly Los Angeles Kings. Most great, pantheon-type teams have some crippling moment of shame that they need to put behind them, before establishing their dynasty, or some Olympus to surmount, but no one thought that Gretzky's Oilers would ever have to exorcise the memory of the 1982 LA Kings. The Kings won twenty-four games to the Oilers' 48 that season, and lost 41, finishing 48 points back in the standings. Their goalie, Mario Lessard, was, as hockey parlance goes, a "sieve," allowing 4.36 goals a game. Back then, the first round series was a best of five, and one of the jokes at the time was maybe the Oilers could win it in two. Suffice it to say, if pride comes before a fall, the Oilers may have deserved their collective face plant with the opening game, in which the Kings, having nothing to lose, decided to ditch playing defense altogether, hoping/praying to beat the Oilers at their own offense-obsessed game. The Oilers potted eight goals, but that scarcely mattered, given that the Kings tallied ten.

Natural order, at least, seemed to be restored when the series, tied up at 1-1, transitioned to The Forum, in LA, on Manchester Boulevard, on April 10. The Oilers held a 5-0 lead at the start of the third period, having flummoxed the Kings with their puck artistry. In the video, you can see Oilers coach/mastermind Glen Sather cracking up on the bench, and Gretzky's men are talking trash after every whistle. Teams, of course, do not blow 5-0 third period leads. The worst team does not blow a single 5-0 lead in an entire season. Many franchises have never blown a 5-0 lead in their history. You almost have to try to blow a 5-0 lead, if you're going to do it. So when the Kings get on the board, three minutes into the final frame—which produces little excitement in the Forum—you think, well, at least they weren't shut out. Moral victory. But less than three minutes later, they get another one, and Sather stops smiling. A fluke goal brings the Kings within two, and it is at this point that the crowd starts going crazy, and I start to think, around three in the morning, that there is no way this comeback can possibly be completed, despite what the official record says. It's too damn unlikely.

With less than five minutes to go, the Kings pull within one score, but it appears they will come no closer. The trees have halted their march upon the castle. Only ten seconds remain. But then it's miracle time. A mad scramble ensues in front of Oilers' goalie Grant Fuhr. The puck ricochets this way and that and somehow squirts through Fuhr, and there it is, flashing on the scoreboard: 5-5. We head to overtime, where Kings' rookie Daryl Evans ends it, and initiates what has to be the coolest celebration in NHL history, as he slides towards the Kings' end, his teammates piled atop him.

The '81-'82 Oilers would not recover. Not fully, anyway. They won game four to force a game five back in Edmonton. Both teams flew out on the same plane, adding another bizarre element to this oddity of a series. But the cocky Oilers were leaden on home ice, apparently terrified of whatever mojo the purple-clad Kings had going, and LA prevailed. It's an ignominious end to the greatest season a North American athlete had ever had. The next year, the Oilers would go further, advancing to the Cup finals, where they'd lose to the Islanders, before breaking through in '83'-84 and commencing their dynasty proper, one which would see them win five championships in seven years. Gretzky, in particular, played like he had a hellhound on his trail for the rest of the decade, and you get the sense that the ghost of that lowly Kings team was hovering just off-stage, the most unlikely of motivators, though the Oilers probably weren't especially keen to thank them.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/what-wayne-gretzky-learned-from-an-embarrassing-1982-defeat/255641/