On February 24, 1982, Wayne Gretzky scores his 77th goal, breaking a record held by Phil Esposito of 76 goals in a single season that was previously thought unbeatable by many fans.
A hockey prodigy, Gretzky, an Ontario native, turned pro at 17 and joined the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association (WHA). The Racers traded Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers, who became part of the National Hockey League (NHL) after the WHA folded in 1979, and Gretzky quickly established himself as a dominant force in the league. During his first full season with the Oilers, 1979-1980, he won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, an award he would receive a record nine times in his career. Also that year, Gretzky became the youngest NHL player to score 50 goals in a single season.
The following season, Gretzky, nicknamed “The Great One,” won the first of seven consecutive scoring titles with a then-record 164 points. That year, he also broke Phil Esposito’s record of 152 points as well as Bobby Orr’s record of 102 assists in one season. On February 24, 1982, in a game against the Buffalo Sabres, Gretzky scored his 77th goal of the season and crushed Phil Esposito’s record, set during the 1970-1971 season. Esposito was there for the event, during which Gretzky also scored his 78th and 79th goals, and afterward presented The Great One with the game puck.
Gretzky continued to set records during his years with the Oilers, in addition to helping them win the Stanley Cup four times, in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988.
In July 1988, Gretzky married American actress Janet Jones, with 700 guests in attendance, at what was labeled “Canada’s Royal Wedding.” In August of that same year, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, in need of cash, traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. The trade was a blow to many Canadian hockey fans, some of whom asked their government to intervene and block the trade. Fans were critical of Pocklington, as well as Gretzky’s new wife, who they believed wanted to be in Los Angeles to further her acting career.
Gretzky’s years with the Kings generated lots of excitement and helped to popularize hockey in the United States, although he never won a Stanley Cup with the team. He went on to play for the St. Louis Blues during the 1995-1996 season and then spent the last three years of his career with the New York Rangers. When Gretzy retired in 1999, after 20 seasons in the NHL, he was widely considered the greatest player in the history of hockey. In February 2000, the NHL retired his jersey number–the famed 99.