Wayne Gretzky put his wares on display for a sellout crowd of 18,130 at Capital Centre last night. He gave the fans their money's worth, scoring two goals and an assist as the Edmonton Oilers beat the Washington Capitals, 4-1. Still, he was booed.
Conversely, when referee Andy Van Hellemond left because of back spasms, he received loud, genuine applause.
Part of the reason for the adverse reaction to Gretzky undoubtedly was frustration, as an unexpected Pittsburgh victory combined with this result dropped Washington nine points behind the Penguins in the playoff race. Part also was Gretzky's verbal and stick-waving objection to some hits by the Capitals.
At one point, Washington's Dennis Maruk exchanged heated words with Gretzky as the two skated toward their respective benches. Concurrently, the two coaches, Edmonton's Glen Sather and Washington's Bryan Murray, screamed at each other.
"He (Sather) yapped at our guys all night," Murray said. "Things like 'You turkeys, you dogs, minor leaguers.' I told him to talk to his players and stop talking to mine. He said, 'You minor leaguer, Murray,' and a few things like that. I guess when you're on the top of the heap, you can show your lack of class, but maybe some day he'll get it rubbed back at him."
"I wouldn't say that to a guy like that," Sather said. "We had a little conversation about Gretzky. I thought he (Murray) was going to throw a water bottle at me and if he had, he would have been thrown out and his team would have lost its composure. I hoped he'd throw it, but he didn't."
Van Hellemond departed after just 5 minutes 37 seconds, forcing linesman Gord Broseker to take over, while still calling lines with Paul Flaherty. It was a difficult job, but Broseker maintained control and called most of the things that should have been called, including a violation by Edmonton's Lee Fogolin, who dislodged the net with Washington pressing and the Oilers ahead, 2-1.
It was during that penalty that Gretzky skated down the right side and made an outstanding one-handed pass to Jari Kurri, who raced behind the backpedaling Washington point men to score on a breakaway.
It was Gretzky's 99th assist and his empty-net goal that concluded the scoring was No. 82, with 14 games remaining. Gretzky has now scored at least one point in 22 straight games, a streak topped only by Guy Lafleur, who has done it in 28- and 23-game stretches.
The Oilers, although outshot by 36-27, received outstanding goaltending from rookie Grant Fuhr, who earned his 23rd victory against three losses and 11 ties.
Maruk's modest 10-game point streak was shattered and he noted the frustrations in describing l'affaire Gretzky.
"The game was frustrating, which happens to a lot of people against him," Maruk said. "I don't play against him much, but when I get a chance to hit him, I'll hit him. It helps to key against him. Sather talks a lot and when we hit Gretzky, he didn't like it. But the game is hockey and one individual has the right to hit another individual."
Washington's goal was produced by Bengt Gustafsson, a late starter who played despite a cracked rib suffered in Thursday's 9-1 victory over St. Louis. The goal came while Fogolin served a penalty for slashing Maruk. Greg Theberge carried over the Edmonton blueline, whirled and fed Gustafsson, who hit a 45-footer down the middle at 5:38 of the second period.
Gretzky tied it 100 seconds later. Washington's Gaetan Duchesne tried to clear his zone and Dave Lumley deflected his pass to Gretzky, who hit a 35-footer in the slot.
Mark Messier's 42nd goal at 4:15 of the third period put the Oilers ahead to stay. He came up the ice just as teammate Dave Hunter left the penalty box, but ignored Hunter and instead fired a high 40-footer that sailed under the crossbar.
The No. 1 star was voted to Fuhr, but it probably should have gone to Broseker, a 31-year-old Baltimore native in his eighth year as an NHL linesman. It was the second time in February he was forced into emergency referee duty, having replaced Dave Newell with 8:38 left in Winnipeg.
"It was quite a thrill for me and I enjoyed it," Broseker said. "I worked hard. There's a lot of difference skating, compared to a linesman. The speed of the game was really quick. I know I probably missed a few, but I think I got all the flagrant ones. The players and coaches know I'm not a ref and for the most part they stuck to hockey."
Van Hellemond lay with his back on the floor and his feet up on the bench in the officials' dressing room, trying to reduce the pain. He has had back trouble before and he was taking no chances this time.
"I wanted to go on, but I couldn't," he said. "When I was hurt last time, I tried to go on and I wound up missing six weeks. The muscles puffed up and made it a lot worse. It's like whiplash, except it's in the lower back."
Of the applause, obviously aimed his way in respect as the sport's best official, Van Hellemond said, "It's very thoughtful and very nice. But to be truthful, I was in so much pain, I didn't really notice it."