On the day that changed everything in the world of professional hockey, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 1988, word began to filter out early. The rumours that had been circulating all summer, that had started softly, then escalating, were true.
Unbelievably, the Edmonton Oilers had traded/sold the greatest player in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky, to the Los Angeles Kings.
All summer long, there had been vague hints something was in the works. Gretzky’s own source was his father, Walter, who told him soon after the Oilers had won their fourth Stanley Cup in five years that he might be on the move.
It all just seemed so preposterous. Could anyone really believe the Oilers would deconstruct a team in the middle of such a great run, with their best years, theoretically, still ahead of them?
The nucleus of the team – Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr – were all still in their 20s and showing no signs of fading away. Paul Coffey had moved on – to the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a contract dispute that gave a hint of what would eventually follow – but at the time, his departure seemed like a single blip on a glorious horizon.
Ultimately, the Gretzky transaction – because the term “trade” oversimplifies what actually took place – was about something entirely different, the business of sport, which would be forever changed after this seminal moment in time.
Oilers owner Peter Pocklington owed the Alberta Treasury Branches a pile of money and had a chance to monetize his chief hockey-playing asset. He subsequently wrote a book on the subject, sentimentally called: I’d Trade Him Again.
Kings owner Bruce McNall, meanwhile, was ambitiously trying to turn the team from NHL afterthought to major player on the local scene, and believed the only way to make hockey more relevant in L.A. was to sex it up with a marquee attraction. What greater marketing tool could there be than a squeaky-clean athlete who’d months earlier married a Hollywood starlet, Janet Jones, and by the way was completely rewriting the NHL record book?
Gretzky was caught in the middle – happy enough to play in Edmonton but eventually lured away by the prospect that there were larger worlds to conquer.
He had been on long-term contracts virtually from the moment he turned pro as a teenager in the WHA and as a result, was usually vastly underpaid vis a vis his peers. It is why he rejected Pocklington’s overtures to sign him to a further extension earlier that year.
Even if it wasn’t extensively discussed at the time, Gretzky understood if he wanted to his pay packet to reflect the fact he was the league’s premier player and box office attraction, it likely wasn’t going to occur if he stayed with the small-market Oilers.
This was still the NHL of president John (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”) Ziegler, a 21-team entity popular in small regional pockets of the United States, but largely an afterthought in the greater L.A. market that included the baseball Dodgers, basketball Lakers and Clippers, plus two NFL teams, the Rams and Raiders.
McNall had designs on changing that – and even if his actual wealth ultimately did not match his grandiose plans, he pulled off a deal that shook the NHL to its core.
Gretzky was sent to L.A. along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski. In exchange, the Oilers received Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, plus three first-round draft choices.
Measuring all the ripple effects from the Gretzky transaction a quarter-century later is problematic, because they branch off in so many different directions. Most of the early reaction was all visceral.
Nelson Riis, the New Democratic Party house leader, demanded the government block the trade. Pocklington’s effigy was burned outside Northlands Coliseum. Jones unfairly absorbed some of the collateral damage as well, variously described as a Yoko Ono or a Jezebel, on the grounds she pulled Gretzky away from Canada so she could carry on her acting career more easily.