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40 Moments: Wayne Gretzky scores five goals to reach 50 in 39 games

In order to celebrate the Edmonton Oilers’ 40-year anniversary AND distract ourselves during this hockey-less nightmare, we’ll be re-living 40 amazing moments from Oilers history. Today, we have 

Wayne Gretzky’s NHL career was ultimately a 20-year assault of the league’s record books.

Beyond his trophy case — which consists of, among other things, four Stanley Cups, 10 Art Ross trophies, and nine Hart Trophies — Gretzky could fill a book with all the records he set during his time in the league. He has the most goals and assists and points of all time, the most goals and assists and points in a single season all-time, the longest point streak of all time, the most playoff points of all time, and many, many more records, including the most NHL records of all time.

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But, of all of Gretzky’s records, one stands out the most. That’s 50 in 39.

Not only is the feat insanely impressive, but there’s also an image attached to it that you can’t quite picture when thinking of Grekzy’s other records, which is what makes it so iconic. You can argue that the fact he has more assists than anybody else does points is the most impressive part of Gretzky’s career or point to his record amount of Hart or Ross trophies, but nothing else has the same in-the-moment factor that 50 in 39 does.

It all started in Boston in 1945. In the dying minutes of a 2-1 game in favour of the Bruins, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard ripped a puck past Harvey Bennett, giving him 50 on the season. The Canadiens would go on to win the game 4-2, but the real story was Richard becoming the first player ever to score 50 goals in an NHL season. It took him all 50 games, but The Rocket has established a new precedent for goal scoring.

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It took another 16 years before somebody else was able to reach The Rocket’s pedestal. Another legendary Hab, Bernie Geoffrion, became the second-ever player to record a 50-goal season, though he didn’t do it in 50 games as Richard did. A few years later, Bobby Hull would set a new record, scoring 54 goals in a season. But given the fact that Hull had the luxury of a 70-game schedule, it wasn’t recognized as the elite mark in goal scoring. That was still Richard’s 50 in 50.

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The Rocket’s record wouldn’t be touched until 1980-81. Half-way through the 1980-81 season, Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders and Charlie Simmer of the Los Angeles Kings were engaged in an unofficial race to accomplish the 50-in-50 feat. In his 50th game, Simmer scored a hat-trick putting him at 49 goals in 50 games. Shortly after, Bossy scored two goals in the dying minutes of a game against the Quebec Nordiques to reach 50 goals in 50 games.

Bossy would go on to finish the season with 68 goals, setting a new record and precedent for elite goal-scoring in the NHL. It wouldn’t last long.

The following season, Gretzky came out of the gates flying. He had already scored 51 goals in his rookie year and 55 goals in his sophomore campaign, winning the Hart Trophy both seasons, but, by his third tour of the league, Gretzky was ready to do something incredible.

Thanks to a four-goal game on Halloween against the Nordiques, Gretzky started the season with 13 goals in 13 games, putting Bossy and Richard’s elite accomplishment within his sights. But by mid-November, a stretch of 13 goals in eight games, giving him 31 goals in 26 games for the season, made it appear that even more was possible.

After a four-game goalless slump in December that left him at 31 goals in 30 games, Gretzky got himself back on track. He scored his 32nd against the Kings, his 33rd against Bossy and the Islanders, his 34th against Colorado, and his 35th against the Flames.

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It was at this point that Gretzky found another gear. He then scored a hat-trick against the North Stars, two goals against the Flames, and one against the Canucks, giving him 41 goals in 37 games. At this point, it was clear the record of 50 goals in 50 games was going to be beaten. The question was when? Just how hard would he shatter this legendary record?

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On Dec. 27, with the Oilers hosting the Kings, Gretzky exploded for another four-goal game in a commanding 10-3 victory. A few nights later, the Flyers rolled into town. Gretzky started things off quickly burying a couple of power-play goals in the first period. There was number 46 and number 47. In the second, he put number 48 into the back of the net, picking up the hat-trick. In the third, he scored number 49, giving him his second four-goal game in a row.

Finally, with the Oilers holding on to a 6-5 lead, Gretzky fired number 50 past a diving Bill Barber into the Flyers’ empty net. 50 goals in 50 games, the mark that had been reserved for only the best of the best, was now only a memory. Gretzky had not only broken that record, but he had also destroyed it. 50 goals in 39 games was the new plateau. It’s one that’ll very likely never be reached.

Gretzky would go on to put up an obscene 92 goals and 212 points that season, both of which were new single-season records by a mile. He was only 20 years old at the time, so this represented the first truly mind-blowing, seemingly-impossible feat he achieved in the NHL.

I think that’s partially why this one stands out, too. If there was anybody out there in 1981 who hadn’t bought into the hype of that skinny kid playing in Edmonton, well, this shut them up. It was after he took down 50 in 50 — something so important in hockey lore — in just 39 games that people really realized that this guy was going to shatter every single record out there.

But, above all, there’s the moment and the image attached to this one. The visual of Gretzky cutting to the middle of the ice and ripping a shot into the open net past the Flyers defender and getting mobbed by his teammates in the corner is one of the best in the sport’s history.

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