Always one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, Michael Alfred Gartner used his blazing speed and a hard, accurate shot to become one of the most consistent scorer's in league history, most of his 19 seasons of which were spent outside hockey's limelight.
Mike Gartner was born on October 29, 1959 in Canada's capital city, Ottawa, Ontario. However, it was at a very young age when his father, Alf, moved the family to Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. It was here, at the Dixie Arena, where Mike learned to skate. Throughout his minor hockey years with the Mississauga Reps organization, he came under the tutelage of coaches who understood the value of learning the basics, and it was here that Mike developed his skating. He played midget in Barrie as a member of the Co-Op's, capturing the Canadian National Wrigley Midget Championship and gaining his first international experience at age 15 during an exhibition tour in Moscow.
The following season Gartner was back in Toronto joining the Tier II, Junior 'A' Young Nationals squad. It was with the Nats that he realized his potential for making a living out of the sport he loved. After a single season of Tier II hockey, Gartner was on to Niagara Falls for two seasons of major junior with the Flyers in the OHA. Despite playing for a losing club, Gartner recorded 74 goals and 165 points in both seasons and was named to the First All-Star Team. He was also chosen to represent Canada at the 1978 World Junior championships, scoring six points during a bronze medal finish.
Ready to turn pro, but at 18 underage for the NHL, Gartner was wooed by the WHA's Cincinnati Stingers. He signed a four-year contract, beginning with the 1978-79 season. Proving the critics wrong, the speedy right-winger recorded 52 points and was runner-up to Wayne Gretzky for Rookie-of-the-Year honours. Following the season's conclusion, the WHA and NHL merged and Gartner's ultimate dream became reality.
Gartner was drafted 4th overall during the 1979 Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals. He made an instant impact on his new club, leading the team in both goals (36) and points (68). Over the next eight seasons, Gartner never scored fewer than 35 goals, hitting the magical 50-goal mark during the 1984-85 season. He led the Capitals in scoring on four occasions, and prior to his trade to Minnesota in 1989 he had tied or set 12 team records including career goals (397) and points (789), all of which he accomplished on a team that missed the playoffs three times and bowed out in the first round three other times.
The poor playoff performances by the Capitals enabled Gartner to become an experienced member of Canada's National Team. Always answering the call when asked, Gartner suited up for the 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1993 World Championship squads. Additionally, he was named to the Canada Cup clubs in 1984 and 1987, narrowly missing a third tournament as the final cut in 1981. Combined with his World Junior bronze medal, Gartner won two gold and three bronze medals in international competition, scoring a total of 19 goals and 29 points.
After two short half-season stints with the North Stars, Gartner was traded to the New York Rangers in March 1990 where over the next three seasons he continued his goal scoring consistency with totals of 49, 40 and 45. He had now recorded 30-or-more goals in 14 consecutive seasons, a new NHL mark. During his stint in the Big Apple, Gartner became just the 16th player to reach the 500-goal mark, 6th to reach 600 goals and 33rd player to hit the 1,000-point milestone.
Prior to the 1994 trade deadline, Gartner was dealt to his boyhood home, Toronto. Continuing his record-setting streak with a 34-goal season, he was again disappointed as the Maple Leafs were ousted in the Stanley Cup semi-finals. Playing two more seasons for the Maple Leafs, Gartner was named as a Commissioner's Selection to the 1996 All-Star Game team. This marked his seventh and final appearance, which included an MVP performance of four goals and an assist in 1993. It was during the annual Skill's Competition, however, that he excelled. Gartner captured the "Fastest Skater Competition" each of the three years he entered, including 1996, at age 36. During the 1985-86 season, Gartner once said, "I have a God-given ability to skate. I haven't really worked on my legs at all during my career." He continued to prove his ability until his retirement in 1998.
During the 1996 off-season, Gartner was dealt to the Phoenix Coyotes where he finished his career two seasons later. In 1997-98, he became just the fifth player to reach the 700-goal plateau, a remarkable feat for perhaps the most consistent and unnoticed scorer the game has ever seen. Along with his consecutive 30-or-more goal seasons record of 15 straight years (a streak broken only by the labour troubles in 1994-95), Gartner also holds the NHL record for most 30-or-more goal seasons in a career with 17. He retired with the second most goals for a right-winger, fifth most overall with 708. He also retired ranked fifth all-time in assists by a right-winger with 627, fourth all-time in points by a right-winger with 1,335 and seventh on the all-time games played list with 1,335.
Gartner was respected on ice and off. A devoted Christian, he spent countless hours at youth hockey camps and prepared himself for life after hockey, serving as a key member of the National Hockey League Players' Association Negotiating Committee during both labour disputes in the 1990's and as NHLPA President during the latter part of the decade. Following his retirement on August 26, 1998, he decided to spend his time in the Toronto area, coaching and working with the NHLPA's Goals & Dreams Foundation, a testament to his abilities as a communicator and educator in both hockey and life.