On October 22, 1997, Janet Jones, the wife of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, was knocked out by a dislodged Plexiglas pane during a game between the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The game began with Wayne Gretzky on the verge of history. It ended with his wife leaving the Madison Square Garden in an ambulance.
Gretzky entered the Rangers’ contest against the visiting Blackhawks with 1,849 career assists in the NHL. That total was one less than Hall of Famer Gordie Howe’s 1,850 points. At the time, Howe’s career points haul was second all-time to Gretzky’s 2,714. This meant that if Gretzky pulled off a single assist, he could top the league’s all-time points table on assists alone (in hockey, goals and assists are worth one point apiece in individual stats).
However, Chicago blanked New York 1-0 and so Gretzky didn’t even have a chance to tie Howe. The game’s lone goal came 4 minutes, 21 seconds into the second period via Eric Daze, who darted through the Ranger defense’s right side and deflected a pass from Brent Sutter past the glove hand of goalie Mike Richter.
Daze’s goal was disputed by the Rangers, who felt the right winger was offside prior to scoring. Television replays seemed to support New York’s claim as Sutter paused at the blue line before sending the puck over to Daze. Unfortunately for the Rangers, the video judge wasn’t allowed to review offside plays in 1997. Video reviews had been involved with NHL games since 1991, but offside disputes remained off limits until 2015.
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And so the score was 1-0 Blackhawks when New York’s Ulf Samuelsson checked Chicago’s Sergei Krivokrasov into the boards opposite the benches in the neutral zone, sending a heavy pane of Plexiglas into the stands. Glass surrounding hockey rinks usually shatters into harmless pieces, but this time the pane dislodged as one full piece.
The glass’ targets that night were two women: one unidentified and the other Gretzky’s wife of nine years and movie actress Janet Jones. The pane collided with Jones’ head, knocking her unconscious and cutting her lower lip. She spent four or five minutes out cold as first-aid personnel worked to remedy the situation. Images on the live television broadcast showed medical staff surrounding the unconscious Jones as blood streamed from her mouth.
Gretzky, who was not on the ice when the glass popped out of its partitions, hopped over the boards from the bench and skated across to check on his wife. After receiving word from Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay that Jones was receiving proper care, he returned to his teammates. According to Joe Lapointe of The New York Times, Gretzky wore an “anguished look” on his face once back on the bench.
10 minutes after the glass fell, Jones was carried away from the stands on a stretcher and taken via ambulance to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. Krivokrasov claimed that both Jones and the unidentified woman were both unconscious when they left the rink. The Plexigas’ other victim reportedly complained of neck pain but ultimately did not go to the hospital.
The fact that Jones was even sitting down by the boards was apparently a stroke of misfortune: She hadn’t even been near the ice until the third period, when her friend asked Jones to join her.
“We’d given our seats to a friend of mine who was in town,” Gretzky said a day after the game, discussing the seats he and his wife paid $675 per game for. “She just happened to be there. It’s one of those things.”
Once the injured women were taken away and the boards repaired, play resumed with 6:18 remaining. Gretzky decided to stay back with his team and played one full shift before the final buzzer.
Despite Gretzky’s best efforts—reports say he spent all night dumping unused scoring chances in front of linemates—the Rangers couldn’t muster a rally in the closing moments and the Blackhawks went home with the 1-0 win.
I’m sure it looked worse than it was. […] Thank God my kids weren’t there. That’s all I can say, because I think they would have had a rougher time with it.
On the Plexiglas incident
After the game was over, police escorted Gretzky to the hospital. He stayed by Jones’ side until 3 am, then left to return home to their kids. Samuelsson and several other Rangers players also visited Jones in the hospital.
The incident resulted in a light concussion for Jones and required several stitches on her lower lip. She was discharged in the morning following a CT scan and X-ray that both showed no abnormalities.
Gretzky and their youngest son took Jones home at 7 am. She was apparently well enough to go to the Ranger’s game the next evening (a 4-3 win over Tampa Bay), but choose watching at home via television to avoid the press.
Gretzky faced heavy backlash for opting to stay on the ice for the game’s final 6 minutes and 18 seconds. Besides fans ranting against Gretzky’s choice, opinion pieces ran critiquing his actions—Frank Brown of the New York Daily news wrote that Gretzky reacted to the “freakish sequence with freakish behavior.” The New York Times suggested that his move “raised eyebrows”. Even the early internet hopped on the bandwagon—an informal poll run by CBS SportsLine found that 70-percent of women objected to Gretzky remaining in the game.
While the public scrutinized Gretzky’s decision, Jones had his back. She told the Daily News a couple of days after the incident: “I definitely think Wayne shouldn’t take any flak for that, because he couldn’t be a better husband and father. I trust his judgement.”
Gretzky went without an assist against Tampa Bay, but would dish two apples against Anaheim four days after the Plexiglas incident, giving him 1,851 career assists and sending him past Gordie Howe’s 1,850 total points on assists alone. The Great One would finish his 20-year NHL career in 1999 with 894 goals and 1,963 assists for 2,857 points. All three marks remain league records.
Jones and Gretzky returned to the papers the next February by headlining Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue”. Besides the hockey pair, the 1998 edition of the beachwear magazine featured six other “hot couples” from pro sports. Getzky wore a black suit for their shoot, while Jones donned a Chanel swimsuit.
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The couple also saw the spotlight in February 2005, when Jones’ name was attached to an illegal gambling ring during Gretzky’s tenure as the Phoenix Coyotes head coach. While Jones allegedly placed bets on football games, she was never charged in the case (the ring’s two co-runners were: current Coyotes head coach and then-assistant Rick Tocchet and a New Jersey state trooper). Gretzky himself was never implicated as having placed bets with the ring.
In July 2019, Jones and Gretzky celebrated 31 years of marriage. The couple have five children, all born between 1988 and 2003.
As for the teams involved the night of the incident, both missed out on the 1998 playoffs after finishing fifth in their respective divisions. The Rangers limped to a 25-39-18 mark in the Atlantic Division, while the Blackhawks wound up 30-39-13 in the Central.
It’s tough to put it out of my mind. It was one of those can’t-win situations when I got out there. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone back out. There really wasn’t a lot for me to do at that time. Kevin Stevens’s wife was with her. We knew at that point that she was going to be okay.
On why he continued playing after his wife was knocked out
Video of the incident is up on YouTube. While it contains broadcast footage, the uploaded video appears to actually be part of some Swedish program:
There are a few worthwhile images worth sharing. The first is an image of Gretzky on the bench after the incident. You can get a semi-decent look at Gretzky’s “anguished” face. The photo appeared in the Daily News:
Next is an image of Jones while unconscious. This photo is probably the best available online of the situation around Jones:
The glass just gave in. She must have got hit pretty hard. I wanted to see if I could help her. The doctors got there quickly. She got a lot of help.
The New York Rangers player whose check triggered the Plexiglas spill
- With 6:18 remaining in a game between the New York Rangers and the Chicago Blackhawks, Wayne Gretzky’s wife Janet Jones was knocked unconscious by a pane of Plexiglas that became dislodged when a player checked an opponent into the boards.
- Jones ultimately suffered a light concussion and required several stitches on her lower lip. Gretzky was criticized by the media and fans for continuing to play in the game.
- The Rangers lost the game 1-0 on a goal that possibly came from an offsides player.
- Calgary Herald, February 18, 1998 via Newspapers.com
- Daily News (New York), October 23, 1997 via Newspapers.com
- Daily News (New York), October 24, 1997 via Newspapers.com
- Daily News (New York), October 24, 1997 via Newspapers.com
- Daily News (New York), October 25, 1997 via Newspapers.com
- “Gretzky’s wife allegedly placed bets in gambling ring”, ESPN
- “NHL Points Leaders – All-Time – National Hockey League”, ESPN
- “Chicago Blackhawks at New York Rangers Box Score — October 22, 1997”, Hockey-Reference
- “Wayne Gretzky Stats”, Hockey-Reference
- “HOCKEY; Gretzky Defends Returning to Play After Wife Was Hurt”, The New York Times
- “HOCKEY; Gretzky’s Wife Hurt As Glass Breaks Out”, The New York Times
- “N.H.L.: LAST NIGHT; Great, Greater, Greatest, Gretzky”, The New York Times
- “Let’s Go to the Tape: How Other Sports Handle Video Review”, The New York Times
- “Tocchet’s NHL ban extended until at least next February”, The New York Times
- “NHL coach’s challenge rule may prove to be blessing and curse”, Sports Illustrated