On July 21 in Rangers history: The Great One finally arrives

What happened on July 21 in the history of the New York Rangers

On this date in 1996, the greatest hockey player who ever lived signed to play for the New York Rangers.  Wayne Gretzky finally was going to play in the world’s media capital at the world’s most famous arena.   The 35-year-old signed a two year deal worth $10 million after playing the last season with the Los Angeles Kings and the St. Louis Blues.

The Rangers were getting a superstar with diminishing skills.  Gone were the days when he scored scored at a goal-a-game rate, but even as an aging star he had topped the 100 point mark, scoring 23 goals adding 79 assists for 102 points.  Gretzky remained the greatest playmaker in the NHL.

The signing reunited Mark Messier and Gretzky, teammates from their glory days in Edmonton.  Although General Manager Neil Smith had vowed to make the team younger and better, adding Gretzky didn’t make the team younger, but undeniably made them better.

Gretzky and Messier took the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost to Eric Lindros and the Flyers in five games. Gretzky played all 82 games and the league in assists with 72.  He was named a Second Team All-Star and finished with 97 points.

That run deep into the playoffs was the swan song for the Gretzky-Messier tandem as the captain left after the season to sign with the Vancouver Canucks.  In Gretzky’s last two seasons in New York, the Rangers missed the playoffs. It wasn’t for a lack of trying on Gretzky’s part as the led the NHL in assists with 67 in 1997-98 and again was a Second Team All-Star. This at the ripe old age of 37.

He finished his career the following season, winning the Lady Byng Trophy and leading the team in scoring. He didn’t announce his retirement plans until very late in the season, not wanting to go through a farewell tour.  His last game was at Madison Square Garden, an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  He didn’t score a goal, but fittingly notched an assist and he passed the torch of NHL greatness to Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr.

It was fitting that Ranger fans got to see Gretzky skate in a Ranger uniform and he showed flashes of his greatness through his three seasons in New York, but  with the team paying the price for mortgaging the future to win the 1994 Stanley Cup, he did not go out a winner.

Today’s birthdays

Only 17 NHL players have been born on July 21 with just one of them a Ranger.

Ron Scott was a goalie, born on this date in 1960 in Guelph, Ontario.  Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State University, He played 16 games for the Rangers over four seasons before playing one last season with Kings, signing with them as a free agent.  Scott played mostly in the minor leagues as he was behind goalies John Vanbiesbrouck, Bob Froese and  Glen Hanlon on the Rangers’ depth chart.