Great send-off for Great One

Hockey's final check is a warm embrace

April 19, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- It's funny how cheers can be different.

The 18,200 fans packed into Madison Square Garden last evening to say farewell to the greatest hockey player of all time didn't cheer wildly, as they would for a Stanley Cup champion. Instead, they were on their feet, applauding with respect and passion, sending out a heartfelt embrace to Wayne Gretzky, who had just completed the final game of his career.

The banner hanging across the upper deck told the tale.

"Thank you, Wayne. 99 Forever."

Nearly everywhere in the Garden, there were fans with awe on their faces or tears in their eyes. Fathers held small children over the glass for a last look at Gretzky on ice. The Great One skated slowly, gracefully round and round the rink. First one hand, then the other waving goodbye.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, who had played the role of Gretzky's last opponent and recorded a 2-1 victory on an overtime goal by Jaromir Jagr, pounded their sticks on the ice in appreciation of a legendary man and his career. His teammates hugged him and eventually skated with him, at his insistence, applauding him with every stride.

"The reception from the fans, I was savoring it," Gretzky said nearly an hour after the game, still dressed in his uniform. "I got emotional. I said to a good friend earlier that this is not a passing on, but a moving on. I'm going to miss the game. It's going to kill me not to play. But time does something to you, and it's time for me to go. I'm mentally ready and my body is physically ready to go."

He said the last play in yesterday's game might have been the most fitting end he could have imagined for his career. He said that people talk all the time about passing the torch and that to have an exceptional, young player such as Jagr score the game-winner couldn't have been more right.

"He apologized to me after he scored," said Gretzky, laughing. "He said, `I didn't mean to do that.' I told him, `That's what I used to say.' And then I told him he had caught the torch. He's the best young player in the game."

Gretzky's wife, Janet, stood near the tunnel to the locker room watching her husband make his final curtain calls and said she was glad there were so many cameras recording the event.

"It's very emotional, and it seems like it's going too fast," she said. "It's kind of surreal."

For 20 years, Wayne Gretzky set up his office in that confined space directly behind the net. From there, he dictated the game, using sleight of hand, exceptional vision, grace and unmatched skills. Yesterday, the No. 99, Gretzky's number, was painted on the ice behind each goal on the Garden's ice, and Gretzky set up shop there in the first period during a wonderful series of plays that brought back memories.

In the first period, he executed a spin-a-rama followed by a cross-ice backhand pass that eluded three Penguins and landed square on the blade of Niklas Sundstrom's stick. But Sundstrom mishandled the puck.

On the very next series, Gretzky was back in his office, behind goalie Tom Barrasso, engineering more mayhem and again Sundstrom found the puck on his stick facing a partially open net. And again he couldn't get the shot off.

"I felt bad for the Pittsburgh Penguins because they were playing for their hockey lives [in the playoffs], and no one wanted to hit me," said Gretzky. "And I felt bad for my teammates, because it was so hard. My team was trying so hard. Niklas is a great young player, and he was so nervous and trying so hard for me that he just couldn't make the play."

Gretzky, however, did make one. With 30 seconds to go in the second period, he passed the puck from near the blue line to Mathieu Schneider, who in turn found Brian Leetch, to tie the game 1-1.

It would be the last point of Gretzky's career. Assist number 1,963. Point number 2,857, in game number 1,487. Records all, just part of a legacy that includes a record 61 records.

"When I went to bed last night and when I walked in here today, my main thoughts were `I want to play as good as I can.' And I think I played OK," Gretzky said. "My dad always told me if you prepared your best and did your best, it didn't matter what anyone else said, that that effort was all you could ask for.

"My dad was a blue-collar man who worked 8 to 5 every day, never missed a day of work and never made more than $35,000 a year but put it all into his kids and family. I told him I get all the accolades, all the glory, but really, truly, he deserves it, not me."

Fans began assembling outside the Garden before 8 a.m. yesterday, hoping to catch a glimpse of Gretzky when he arrived, or perhaps scalp a ticket. Television trucks parked bumper-to-bumper and city police began setting up crowd barriers to keep everyone in check. Inside, members of the Rangers public relations staff readied nearly 500 media credentials for pickup.

It was like Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

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