Not every NHL team’s supporters can boast about having the greatest player in the history of the game join their ranks. Fortunately, for us fans of the Rangers, we had the privilege of seeing hockey’s legendary figure wear the iconic blue jersey, even if he wasn’t the same player he was a decade earlier.
Wayne Gretzky’s journey in the NHL took a surprising turn when he declined a lucrative three-year, $15 million contract with the St. Louis Blues. Instead, in July 1996, he opted for a two-year, $8 million deal with the New York Rangers, which also included performance-based incentives. This decision brought him back together with his old friend and former Edmonton Oilers teammate, Mark Messier.
For Gretzky, this meant a chance to play in the global spotlight of New York City, donning the iconic Rangers jersey. The 35-year-old superstar had spent his previous season with the Los Angeles Kings and the St. Louis Blues before making this move. While it was clear that Gretzky’s skills had diminished from his peak, he still remained an extraordinary playmaker. He may not have been scoring at a goal-per-game rate anymore, but in the season prior, he managed to accumulate over 100 points, with 23 goals and 79 assists, showcasing his enduring talent.
The reunion ofMessier and Gretzky, who had experienced their glory days in Edmonton, was a sentimental moment for fans. Despite the Rangers’ general manager’s commitment to making the team younger and better, adding Gretzky undeniably improved the team’s performance, even if it didn’t make them any younger.
Gretzky and Messier’s partnership led the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were defeated by Eric Lindros and the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. Gretzky played all 82 games, scoring 25 goals, and led the league in assists with 72. He was honored as a Second Team All-Star and concluded the season with 97 points.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at Gretzky’s first season on Broadway.