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Edmonton Oilers superstar Wayne Gretzky couldn't hold back the tears during a press conference to announce his being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The announcement was made in Edmonton, Aug. 9, 1988. (RAY GIGUERE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Edmonton Oilers superstar Wayne Gretzky couldn't hold back the tears during a press conference to announce his being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The announcement was made in Edmonton, Aug. 9, 1988. (RAY GIGUERE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Eric Duhatschek

Duhatschek: Gretzky and the deal that changed the game Add to ...

The Gretzky deal fundamentally and forever changed the perception of the NHL trade market. For years, there was a notion some players – because of their skill levels or their impact on the team or their ties to the community – were untouchable … so don’t even bother inquiring.

After Gretzky was shipped out, the view changed. At every subsequent NHL trading deadline, someone would venture: “If Wayne Gretzky can get traded …”

The unfinished thought was “… anyone can.”

It also spawned a new way of assessing player movement.

Nowadays, people speak reverentially about that rare and almost obsolete transaction known as a “hockey” deal. Prior to the Gretzky trade, virtually every NHL deal was a hockey deal. Teams swapped personnel and the assessments – who won and who lost – were usually measured by what subsequently occurred on the ice.

Now, with a salary cap that governs a team’s expenditures, the contract status of the players involved in a deal frequently trump what they might bring to a team on the ice.

Gretzky’s move to L.A. also helped fuel NHL salary escalation. McNall quickly made Gretzky the highest-paid player in the game – and that in turn started the ball rolling in terms of increasing player compensation across the board.

Gretzky and McNall were always at pains to point out that there was really only one agenda at work when the deal came together – to enhance the Kings’ fortunes in the L.A. market. However, over time, the move also provided the stimulus for further expansion to the U.S. Sunbelt as an unexpected byproduct.

San Jose received a team for the start of the 1991-92 NHL season. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim entered in 1993-94 as an expansion team, for which McNall received a $25-million (U.S.) payment from the Walt Disney Co. for invading his territory. The Florida Panthers joined that season, too, a year after the Tampa Bay Lightning gained entry.

A generation later, NHL expansion into non-traditional markets is seen by USA Hockey as the primary driving force behind the growth of the game at the grassroots level across the country. Suddenly, pro prospects were emerging from the most unlikely places – Dallas, Nashville, Southern California, in addition to the traditional strongholds such as Minnesota.

And it all unfolded because of a seed planted in 1985 by former Kings owner Jerry Buss, who first proposed the Gretzky deal to Pocklington right after the Oilers won their second Stanley Cup. Pocklington told Buss it was too soon to even think about trading Gretzky, but he didn’t rule it out completely either.

When McNall was first apprised of that conversation by Buss, when he was still just a minority shareholder in the team, he made it his mission to get the deal done.

The NHL rarely resonated in the U.S. the way it did in the aftermath of the Gretzky deal. Sports Illustrated posed Gretzky on the cover beside Magic Johnson, alongside a headline that said “Great Move Gretzky.” The deal drew comparisons to the 1919 sale of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. In Los Angeles, the closest parallel was a 1975 transaction in which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joined the Lakers in a trade from the Milwaukee Bucks.

After gaining an ownership stake in the Phoenix Coyotes following his playing career, Gretzky eventually came to understand – after the fact – how and why the deal came together as a business transaction.

For a time, the Kings did matter in their marketplace, where it became chic for celebrities to attend games. Actress Goldie Hawn was a regular almost from the start; her son, Wyatt Russell, would eventually develop such a love for the game that he played junior in the WHL. Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan sat with his wife, Nancy, up against the glass, secret service agents discreetly around him, during the Kings’ run to the 1993 Stanley Cup final.

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