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"Exploring the Potential Impact: What If Wayne Gretzky Never Left the Edmonton Oilers?"

The Great One

The crisp Edmonton air crackled with anticipation, thicker than the smog of a million celebratory cigars. It was 1989, and Wayne Gretzky, still draped in the white, blue, and orange uniform of the Edmonton Oilers, led his team onto the ice for their sixth Stanley Cup Final in seven years. Across the center line stood their arch-nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins, captained by the young Mario Lemieux, a rivalry that had taken the NHL to its highest level. 

Amidst the rumors that the Edmonton franchise was having financial troubles and willing to part with the country’s greatest hockey player, the team had become an NHL dynasty, twice winning back-to-back championships with only a Divisional Finals loss to their Alberta cousins the Calgary Flames sandwiched in between.  

Although desperate for money due to his lack of business success elsewhere, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington would find an alternative financial source rather than give into trading the NHL’s move valuable commodity.

Rather than moving The Great One for a two-year wonder in Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, a trio of draft picks, and $15 million the trade to the Los Angeles Kings never happened. Pocklington’s loyalty outweighed his personal gain. The Oilers dynasty, instead of fracturing, grew stronger. Mark Messier, fueled by loyalty and competition, elevated his game, becoming Gretzky's perfect compliment. Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr, and the rest of the core remained, their hunger for glory never fading.

Capturing four Stanley Cups in five years cemented Edmonton as the undisputed hockey capital of the universe. Gretzky, his records shattering like champagne flutes after a toast, transcended mere athlete status. He became an icon, a symbol of Canadian unity, his name being mentioned in the same conversation as other sports legends, like Babe Ruth, Magic Johnson, Gordie Howe, Pele, and Jim Brown without feeling out of place.

Although the core of the Oilers dynasty was in their mid to late 20s, the amount of mileage that they had put on their tires, playing into five straight Stanley Cup Finals, plus three additional playoff runs had taken a toll.  

With a 23-year-old Lemieux standing across the ice, alongside Rob Brown, a young winger who had a breakout season, former Oilers defenseman Paul Coffey, who knew everything about his previous teammates, and newly acquired netminder Tom Barrasso, the 1989 Finals would be one for the ages.  

Game 1 would prove to be a chess match as the two maestros conducted their respective teams to numerous scoring opportunities, but it would be both Fuhr and Barrasso who stole the show, standing tall between the pipes. With the game knotted at two, the first two overtime periods proved to be nothing more than an extra forty-minute stalemate. As the clock crept closer to midnight, Gretzky laced a logic-defying, no-look pass that found the blade of Messier’s stick, tipping it past Barrasso to send Northlands Coliseum into a fever. 

The series became a dance between the two titans, the established and the up-and-comers. Each nailbiting game would be filled with next-to-impossible plays, dazzling stickhandling, and highlight reel-worthy goaltending. The Penguins returned home to the Civic Arena with the series tied and obtained possession of a 2-1 series lead with a Game 3 victory. 

Game 4 in Pittsburgh, saw the series hanging in the balance. With the score knotted at three in the final period, Gretzky found himself alone in the neutral zone, going one-on-one with Coffey, his former teammate and one of the best defensemen in the league. With a deceptive deke, Coffey would go sprawling, leaving The Great One to unleash a laser beam past Barrasso, sending the Oilers bench and traveling fans into a frenzy. 

With the momentum shifting and the Oilers fueled by another legendary Gretzky performance, Edmonton’s experience and composure helped to capture a second straight victory in Game 5. 

Seen as the heir apparent to Gretzky’s crown and the torchbearer for the next generation, “Super Mario”, driven by his desire to prove himself against his idol, responded with a dazzling Game 6 performance to push the series to the most exciting event in sports, a Game 7. 

The back-and-forth battle had hockey fans on the edge of their seat, regardless of where their dedication. Both Gretzky and Lemieux showcased their talents throughout the game, with their dazzling skill and fierce determination.  Late in the third period, the puck found its way to Messier’s stick at center ice. Powering his way into the Penguins zone, the Oilers locker room leader shifted himself past a backpedaling defender, firing a laserbeam of a wrist shot through the air, past the outstretched glove of Barrasso into the top corner of the net. 

Exhausted and elated, the Oilers withstood a Penguins final effort before the bench emptied, mobbing each other on the ice. With a mix of joy, relief, and fatigue, Gretzky had silenced the doubters and proved that he was worth every penny that Pocklington managed to squeeze out. 

As the teams lined up for the traditional post-series congratulations, a quiet moment between the two future Hall-of-Famers took place at center ice. While Gretzky had captured the Cup, the torch was all but passed, leaving the future of the game in great hands. 

Although the Oilers had defied the odds by winning yet another championship, it would come at a cost. Looking to step out from Gretzky’s massive shadow, Messier followed the money to become a member of the New York Rangers.  Leaving the remainder of the core, worn and weary, began to disband. Kurri would soon move to California to play for the Los Angeles Kings. Glenn Anderson and Fuhr headed east to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gretzky, ever loyal, stayed on, a lone soldier fighting a losing battle.

The years that followed were bittersweet. Individual brilliance couldn't mask the team's decline. Playoff appearances became sporadic, each ending in a heartbreaking defeat. Gretzky, his hair streaked with silver, continued to rack up points, but the joy was gone, replaced by a melancholic yearning for what could have been.

Finally, in 1999, at the age of 38, Gretzky hung up his skates. The cheers were deafening, mixed with tears. He wasn't just retiring; an era was ending. Edmonton, without its guiding light, entered a period of darkness. Years of struggling seasons followed, the Stanley Cup became a faded memory. Fans in the “City of Champions” would have to wait until 2015 when they attached their hopes of another Stanley Cup parade to another 19-year-old phenom who would quickly become the NHL’s torchbearer. 

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