The thing that is amazing about Mike Gartner is that he scored 708 goals in his 19 years in the NHL, 10 of them with the Washington Capitals. He was very predictable and should have been stopped. But he wasn’t.
Mike Gartner never won a Stanley Cup but when his name came up before the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee in his first year of eligibility, there were no words of dissent. Today in Toronto, Gartner will be enshrined along with defenseman Slava Fetisov, right wing Jari Kurri and center Dale Hawerchuk. Craig Patrick, longtime Pittsburgh Penguins general manager (and a Cap for 75 games in the very early years), enters the Hall in the builder’s category.
Players entering hockey’s Hall of Fame do so as individuals, not representing a team. But in the lithograph the Hall is displaying for today’s events, Gartner is streaking down the ice wearing a vintage Washington Capitals uniform, the jersey he wore for nearly 400 of the 708 goals he rang up before retiring at the end of the 1997-98 season.
“I felt like I could have played a couple more years but I really felt it was the right time for me to call it a career and walk away very content and happy with the way things went,” he said the other day from his Toronto office where he works for the NHL Players Association.
His career spanned the days of the World Hockey Association (one season as an underage junior with Cincinnati) to the days when the NHL had expanded to 30 teams, and now to the Hall of Fame.
“Jim Gregory (chairman of the selection committee) called me and told me I had been selected,” Gartner said. “Generally I’m not too emotional but I was choked up for about five seconds. I couldn’t even respond. I’m pretty charged up by it, it’s something I want to share with my family.”
The right wing basically had only two shooting angles from the top of the right circle after skating down the ice at a blistering pace, or faking that shot, skating down below the goal line, circling the net and tucking the puck in the left corner.
A guy with such a limited arsenal shouldn’t be tough to defend. But for nearly two decades he averaged a goal every other game for 1,432 games playing for five NHL teams. He assisted on another 627 scores to give him 1,335 points in his career.
Gartner, 42, was catchable if you had a healthy head start, that is. It was his speed that got him to the NHL in the first place, not his scoring ability, something that developed later. Four times he won the league’s fastest skating competition, doing it the first time years after he had been traded for allegedly losing a step.
Gartner and defenseman Larry Murphy were traded to Minnesota on March 7, 1989, for Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse, a move that left Gartner stunned for a long time.
“[Assistant coach] Terry Murray came toward me after talking to [head coach Bryan Murray] and I thought, ‘You got to be kidding, this is not happening.’ I was in shock. I was in shock for the rest of that season and a good part of the next summer. It’s pretty traumatic, the first trade. I thought I would play my whole career in Washington.”
He arrived in 1979 after the Caps picked him fourth overall in the draft; he rewarded the team with 397 goals and 789 points, both team records, in 758 games. But his record for goals by a Cap will fall in the very near future; Peter Bondra has 394.
“It doesn’t bother me in the least,” Gartner said. “Two things have to happen for someone to break a record like that. First, you have to play in one city for a long time, which is difficult these days. Secondly, you have to be very successful and Peter has done both. He’s been a very productive player and there aren’t many guys who have been more productive. He deserves that honor.”
He easily recalls the 1984-85 season in Washington when both he and Bobby Carpenter scored 50 goals and were known as the Gold Dust Twins. “When I wasn’t scoring, Bobby was. It seemed we couldn’t do anything wrong that year,” he said.
Gartner is one of the few nowadays who enter the Hall without owning a Stanley Cup ring. The closest he came was in 1993-94 when the New York Rangers traded him to Toronto and the Leafs went to the Western Conference finals. Even that was bittersweet; that was the year the Rangers won their only Cup since before World War II.
“Every player who has ever played would love to be a part of a Cup-winning team,” he said. “I realized over the course of my career how difficult it is for that to happen because it’s a team game, not an individual game. Ray Bourque had to go 22 years and wait until the final game he ever played before winning one, it’s that difficult. I would have loved to have been a part of one.”
He scored more than 30 goals yearly for 15 years, an NHL record, and that consistency more than anything else probably got him an invitation to today’s ceremony.