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.
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.
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.