Pre-Gretzky, the Kings finished seventh in the 10-team Clarence Campbell Conference in 1987-88, ahead of only the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota North Stars. The Oilers, meanwhile, were the second-place team in the regular season (99 points, six behind the conference-leading Calgary Flames, who’d assembled a quality team as well).
With Gretzky in the lineup the next year, the Kings developed with uncharacteristic quickness into a 91-point NHL team, second in the conference behind the runaway leader Calgary at 117. As luck would have it, they met the 84-point Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. L.A. fell behind down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series but roared back to win three in a row and eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions.
After such an emotional series, the Kings letdown in the next round was palpable – and they fell fast and hard, in four games to the Flames, who won the one-and-only Stanley Cup in their history in 1988-89.
Edmonton rebounded to win a Stanley Cup without Gretzky in 1990, with Gelinas playing a key support role, while the Kings fell well back – a mediocre 34-39-7 in the regular season. But then Gretzky helped the Kings get to the Stanley Cup final in 1993, where they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. It was began to unravel for Gretzky in L.A. soon after – a trade to St. Louis, a move to New York and, eventually, he retired as the most productive player in NHL history.
In Kings Ransom, Peter Berg’s documentary for the ESPN 30 on 30 series, the director asked Gretzky how many more Stanley Cup championships he might have won had he stayed in Edmonton. Gretzky hypothesized another four. Berg asked him: Does he think about that?
“All the time,” Gretzky answered. “That was one of the things I gave up when I was traded.”
It is a quaint notion to consider – what might have happened had Gretzky taken Pocklington up on an offer he made to kill the deal at the 11th hour, or just before the press conference at Molson House.
Would he have stayed forever, or just a few years longer? The prospect of the Oilers dynasty running up against the exceptional Pittsburgh Penguins teams in the early 1990s, when Mario Lemieux was pushing hard as the dominant player in the game, might have been something to see.
But still in all, it worked out in the end – for Gretzky, personally and professionally, and for the NHL as well.
Just don’t tell that to the fans in Edmonton, who lost a chance to watch the Oilers perhaps extend the last great league dynasty.