Wayne Gretzky Signs with the New York Rangers

Gretzky rejected a three-year deal worth $15 million with the Blues, and on July 22, he signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent, rejoining longtime Oilers teammate Mark Messier for a two-year $8 million (plus incentives) contract.

Gretzky ended his professional career with the New York Rangers, where he played his final three seasons and helped the team reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997. The Rangers were defeated in the conference finals by the Philadelphia Flyers, despite Gretzky leading the Rangers in the playoffs with 10 goals and 10 assists. For the first time in his NHL career, Gretzky was not named captain, although he briefly wore the captain's 'C' in 1998 when captain Brian Leetch was injured and out of the lineup. After the 1996–97 season, Mark Messier signed a free agent contract with the Vancouver Canucks, ending the brief reunion of Messier and Gretzky after just one season.

He played just five months with the Blues before signing as a free agent with the New York Rangers on July 21, 1996. Following three seasons with the Rangers, Gretzky retired from the NHL, playing his last game on April 18, 1999.

After last season ended in a second consecutive second-round exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Neil Smith said his next Rangers team would be remodeled. The 1996-97 Rangers would be younger, the president and general manager of the team said, and their league-leading payroll would be reduced.

When asked about the possibility of signing Wayne Gretzky as a free agent, Smith said he would entertain the notion but he said he did not expect to be in the vanguard of a bidding war.

Smith made these statements through May and June. That was then, this is now, and much has changed -- with the Rangers getting older, more expensive and, possibly, better.

The reason is Gretzky, who is expected to be presented as the newest older Ranger this afternoon in a news conference in the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

The 35-year-old star is expected to sign a two-year contract for about $10 million.

He will rejoin the Ranger captain Mark Messier, his teammate when they were teen-agers with Edmonton in the late 1970's.

Together, they helped the Oilers build a dynasty that earned five Stanley Cup championships from 1983-84 through 1989-90.

In addition to bolstering the Rangers, the presence of Gretzky in Manhattan will help the National Hockey League's profile while in a growth mode. Although ticket sales are not a problem for the Rangers, the news media exposure of the sport lags here behind baseball, football and basketball.

The name Gretzky and the nickname the Great One are familiar to even the most casual sports fans. His deeds in New York, successful or not, will be difficult to ignore.

The Rangers will be the fourth N.H.L. team for Gretzky, who was traded to Los Angeles in 1988 and moved to St. Louis in the second half of the 1995-96 season.

His skills have diminished from the level of his extraordinary prime, when he won the Hart trophy nine times as most valuable player in the league and scored as many as 92 goals and 215 points in different single seasons.

But Gretzky can still pass the puck to create plays, and he still scores more goals than many. His 102 points last season included 79 assists. His point total was 12th best in the league, one place ahead of Messier, who was tied for 13th, with 99 points.

With the 35-year-old Messier presumably continuing as first-line center for the Rangers, Gretzky will probably assume second-line duties at the position, limiting his ice time and the demand on his physical resources during the 82-game regular season.

This arrangement would also better distribute the leadership load from Messier, who has carried a disproportionate amount of it on his broad shoulders for his five New York seasons, which included the 1994 Stanley Cup championship.

Although Gretzky and Messier will not play together as Rangers until the regular season begins in October, they will be teammates this summer for Team Canada, which will play in the World Cup hockey tournament that begins in late August.

The Canadian team will gather in Whistler, British Columbia, for training camp Aug. 15. That team will also include Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur of the Devils.

Gretzky's arrival in New York also creates many questions on the Rangers' roster, which may be juggled further through trades.

One question involves his potential linemates.

A logical left wing for Gretzky would be Luc Robitaille, who joined the Rangers last season in a trade with Pittsburgh and scored only 23 goals after averaging 46 for the first nine seasons of his career.

Part of Robitaille's problem was the lack of a full-time center alongside him who could consistently create scoring opportunities that best utilize Robitaille's finishing skills. However, Gretzky and Robitaille played together for six seasons in Los Angeles and it is well known that their relationship was not always positive for that team.

Other questions involve two free agents who finished last season with the Rangers, right wing Jari Kurri and defenseman Kevin Lowe. Both were also members of the Edmonton dynasty, alongside Gretzky and Messier.