The phrase "50 goals in 50 games" refers to the act of scoring 50 goals within the first 50 games of a National Hockey League (NHL) season. Scoring fifty goals in fifty (or fewer) games in the NHL is a rare achievement.
The NHL defines "50 goals in 50 games" to mean that a player scores 50 goals in the team's first 50 games of the season, not the player's first 50 (which could differ for health or disciplinary reasons). This feat has been achieved eight times by five different players.
Maurice Richard of the Montreal Canadiens was the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals in one season. He achieved the target on March 18, 1945, in the 50th (and final) game of the 1944-45 season, the league's twenty-eighth, on goalie Harvey Bennett of the Boston Bruins.
Besides Richard's 50-in-50 feat, he also led the NHL in goals on four other occasions and was the league's first career 500-goal scorer. Richard never managed to equal his personal best of 50 goals before retiring in 1960, even though the NHL extended its schedule to 60 games in 1946-47 and 70 in 1949-50. In recognition of his achievements, the NHL created an annual award in 1999, the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy, which was donated by the Montreal Canadiens, to be presented to the top goal-scorer in the league.
It would take another sixteen years before another player, Bernie Geoffrion, managed to score 50 goals in a single season, also while playing for Montreal. When Bobby Hull finally managed to break the season record with 54 goals in 1966, fans of the then-retired Canadiens legend, noting that Hull was playing in a 70-game schedule, demanded that the NHL continue to recognize Richard's record (similar to what Major League Baseball initially did with Babe Ruth's single-season home run record after Roger Maris broke it under similar circumstances a few years previously). Hull's fans countered that Richard had achieved his record during World War II (during which many NHLers enlisted in the military -- Richard, who was notoriously prone to injury throughout his career, was deemed unfit for service) and argued that Richard's failure to match the record in peacetime, with the caliber of the NHL not similarly hindered even though he played in eleven 70-game seasons, compromised any right he might have to special consideration for the record on account of the shorter wartime schedule.
The NHL awarded Hull the record, while at the same time recognizing Richard as the first, and to that point only, player to score 50 goals in 50 games, firmly establishing the achievement into NHL lore. The next player to equal Richard's feat of 50 goals in 50 games would do so nearly 36 years later.
Many thought it would be impossible to duplicate 50 in 50. Then, in the 1980-81 season, Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders became only the second player to score 50 goals in 50 games. The hockey press promoted this heavily, as Bossy was in an unofficial competition with Charlie Simmer of the Los Angeles Kings (see below) to see who could be the first to accomplish the 50-in-50 milestone since Richard. Both players played their fiftieth game on January 24, 1981: Simmer started the day with 46 goals and Bossy 48. Simmer scored a hat trick against Boston, giving him 49 goals in 50 games, just missing the mark. Making his game against the Quebec Nordiques, particularly dramatic, Bossy was scoreless for much of the game but beat goaltender Ron Grahame twice within the last five minutes of the game. Richard was on hand to congratulate Bossy for this achievement. Bossy finished the season with 68 goals in 79 games played.
Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers demolished the "50 in 50" mark less than a full year after Bossy tied Richard. In Gretzky's 38th game, he scored four goals, giving him 45 on the season. In his very next game, on December 30, 1981, he scored five goals against the Philadelphia Flyers, the fifth being an empty-net goal with three seconds left in the game, to give him the record of 50 goals in 39 games. He had 50 goals before any other player had scored even 30, and finished with an NHL-record 92 goals on the season, having participated in all 80 of Edmonton's games.
Gretzky went on to score 50 goals within 50 games twice more in his career. In 1983-84, he scored his 50th goal in the team's 42nd game, on January 7, 1984, and scored 87 goals in 74 games that season. Gretzky's 50th goal was an empty-net goal that put the Oilers up 5-3 in a win over the Hartford Whalers at home. It was also Gretzky's third goal of the game, completing a hat trick.
In 1984-85, he scored his 50th in the team's 49th game, ending the season with 73 goals in 80 games. Gretzky's 50th goal came on January 26, 1985 (his 24th birthday), on the first of three goals he scored in a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, beating goaltender Denis Herron. It was the third time Gretzky scored 50 goals within 50 games, and the third time his 50/50 goal was part of a hat trick.
Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins was the next player to score 50 goals in 50 or fewer games, achieving the feat on January 20, 1989. Lemieux's 50th goal came in game 46 of the team's schedule against the Winnipeg Jets and goaltender Eldon Reddick, which was Lemieux's 44th game of the season. He finished the season with 85 goals in 76 games.
Brett Hull scored 50 goals in 50 games or fewer twice in his career for the St. Louis Blues. Hull first did it in the 1990-91 season when he scored his 50th goal, and second of the game, against rookie goalie Dave Gagnon of the Detroit Red Wings on January 25, 1991, in the Blues' 49th game. Hull finished the season with 86 goals in 78 games played.
His second time, the most recent season the feat was achieved, was during the subsequent 1991-92 season. On January 28, 1992, Hull scored his 50th goal against goalie Kelly Hrudey in game number 50, a 3-3 tie in Los Angeles. He ended the season with 70 goals in 73 games.
The following players scored fifty goals in or before their 50th game in a single season, but do not officially qualify for 50-in-50 status because the NHL requires a player to have scored his 50th goal in or prior to his team's 50th game.
Bobby Hull (1974-75), while playing for the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association became the first player since Montreal's Maurice Richard to score 50 goals in 50 games. Hull had 47 goals through 49 games and had a hat trick to reach 50 goals in 50 games. He finished with 77 goals in 78 games, which was major league hockey's new single-season record for most goals scored at the time (Phil Esposito of the NHL Boston Bruins had scored 76 in 78 games in 1970-71, though he only scored his 50th goal in his 58th game).
Anders Hedberg (1976-77), also playing for the Winnipeg Jets, broke the record established 32 seasons earlier by Richard and matched in 1974-75 by Hull. He scored 51 goals in 49 games, becoming the first player in the history of major league hockey to score 50 goals in fewer than 50 games. He finished with 70 goals in 68 games.
As the NHL did not consider any WHA records when the leagues merged in 1979, Hull's and Hedberg's feats were not recognized by the NHL.