Special to ESPN.com
After all, Gretzky had delivered a Cup load of thrills to the city of Edmonton, game after game, year after year, including the exhilaration of four Stanley Cups. He had turned the Oilers into the NHL's most dominant team. Then, in perhaps the most shocking trade in sports history, Gretzky was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9, 1988.
So when Gretzky skated into Edmonton on the evening of Oct. 15, 1989, one point shy of Gordie Howe's all-time scoring mark, the stage was set for an emotional night.
There is an electrifying buzz amidst the sellout crowd of 17,503 at Northlands Coliseum, many of whom had passed a statue of Gretzky as they had entered the building.
The fans desperately want to see the 28-year-old Gretzky tie and break Howe's record of 1,850 points, set 29 years earlier when Howe passed Maurice "Rocket" Richard on Jan. 16, 1960.
The Oilers, on the other hand, do not want to see the record fall in their arena, not under their watch. So the Oilers' coaching staff goes to great lengths to stifle Gretzky. They stick three players on Gretzky -- Esa Tikkanen to shadow him, Kevin Lowe to check him every time he touches the puck, and Peter Ericksson to harass and hound.
Even with three players pestering and badgering him every shift, the league's greatest offensive weapon still finds a way to tie the record, only 4:32 into the game. Just inside the blue line, Gretzky fires a crisp pass to defenseman Tom Laidlaw in the slot. Laidlaw perfectly feeds the puck into the left crease, where Bernie Nicholls, all alone at the left post, knocks it in for a 1-0 lead.
The crowd goes berserk as the PA announcer blares that the assist goes to Gretzky, and that he is now tied with Howe as the league's all-time No. 1 scorer.
The game evolves into a tight, riveting match as the Oilers grab several leads, only to have the Kings to come back and tie it at 2-2 and then 3-3. By the time the third period begins, Gretzky, still tied with Howe, is beaten up and exhausted.
The Oilers seize the lead yet again, 4-3, and with 1:46 left in regulation, Kings coach Tom Webster calls timeout. He wants to rest Gretzky; it's clear he needs a breather. But he desperately wants to stay out on the ice to try to tie the score.
"Gretz was dizzy," Webster would tell the media later. "He got rapped a couple of times, but he wanted to continue and I'm not about to argue with him. When you have a player with his talent who wants the ice time, I'm going to let him have it."
There's just 1:10 remaining when Webster pulls goalie Mario Gosselin in favor of an extra shooter. As Gosselin skates toward the bench following an icing call against Edmonton with 1:01 left, the sellout crowd of 17,503 begins chanting, "Gretzky! Gretzky!"
On the ice for three uninterrupted minutes, Gretzky is on the shift with Nicholls, Dave Taylor and Luc Robitaille, and defensemen Steve Duchesne and Larry Robinson. The Kings gain control of the puck and rush up ice. Duchesne passes the puck to Taylor. Both Tikkanen and Lowe get faked by the shifty Gretzky, who wheels past them. The puck caroms off Taylor's leg and deflects toward the front of the net. Gretzky is now stationed to the left of the crease. The puck falls toward Gretzky's stick. He seizes it with his adept stickhandling, wraps it on his stick, and flips it backhanded toward goalie Bill Ranford.
"I went behind the net to be the outlet," Gretzky would say later. "I don't usually go out front, but something told me to do it. Then the puck came to me off Dave's foot and I put it up."
The puck floats past Ranford for the record breaker, tying the score, 4-4. The celebration is on. "My initial reaction was, 'Hey, we've tied it.' Then it struck me, 'Wow, that's the record breaker,'" Gretzky would later say.
Drama? Suspense? It's as if it was meant to happen on this night, in this city, in front of these fans. Gretzky raises his stick in jubilation and begins dancing. He then hops into the arms of Robinson as the rest of the Kings pour off the bench to congratulate him. Photographers and league officials swarm onto the ice.
The Edmonton fans give Gretzky a three-minute standing ovation while teammates -- current and past -- mob him. Mark Messier, who had celebrated so many memorable moments with Gretzky during their four Stanley Cup runs, reaches out to shake his hand during the ceremony. But Gretzky grabs him instead and hugs him in on of the night's most touching moments.
"We both started to get a little choked up," Gretzky would say. "He was excited for me, but down deep he was upset that we tied the game. He would have been happier for me if they were winning."
Even though the Oilers were determined to prevent Gretzky from getting the record, they still prepared for a ceremony to commemorate the record-breaker. No one, after all, knows Gretzky like the Oilers.
As the ceremony begins, a red carpet is rolled out and out of the stands steps Howe, Gretzky's father, Walter, Gretzky's wife, Janet, and Kings owner Bruce McNall, the man who orchestrated the historic trade that brought Gretzky to Los Angeles.
The Oilers present Gretzky with a gold bracelet set with diamonds weighing 1.851 carats with the inscription on the back: "A great man is made up of qualities that meet or make great occasions. Presented in friendship by the Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club 1989-90."
Choked up, Gretzky says, "An award like this takes a lot of teamwork. Both teams that are here today are part of this record." The Edmonton fans love the fact that he amassed 1,669 of his points with the Oilers.
After the 15-minute celebration, the game resumes, tied, 4-4, and minutes later it goes into overtime, where Gretzky, defying imagination, punctuates his golden evening by skating out from behind the net, popping out from around the left post again and backhanding the puck into the net for the game-winning goal, 3:24 into overtime.