The Trade: How L.A.'s Reception of Gretzky Doomed the NHL

Thomas WilderContributor IApril 22, 2009

1989:  Center Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kings at the Forum in Inglewood, California. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule  /Allsport

The NHL is expected to be walloped by the recession this year, bringing even more misfortune to the once-great, presently struggling league. Every hockey fan remembers the excruciating lockout of 2004-2005 and the subsequent fallout, but the canceled season certainly didn’t represent the beginning of the NHL’s demise.

Rather, the lockout was the culmination of a chain reaction that began on August 9th, 1988, the day the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.

Gretzky was at the peak of his career at the time of the trade, having just won his fourth Stanley Cup in the past five seasons. In addition, the NHL was enjoying skyrocketing popularity thanks to Gretzky’s unprecedented offensive prowess. It seemed as though the NHL had found its winning formula.

“The Trade,” as it would come to be known, changed everything. The Kings flourished in Gretzky’s first season, even upsetting the Oilers in a first round playoff match up. Southern California was hooked by the star forward’s dominance, and the arena was soon packed with throngs of curious spectators riding the wave of interest in the sport—hockey tourists, if you will.

Of the countless missteps taken by the NHL during the crucial, horrifically mishandled time frame from The Trade to The Lockout, the most shocking is the league’s interpretation of the popularity growth in Los Angeles as a budding fan base for the franchise. The presupposed “hockey fever” was instead, rather transparently, a collective fascination with Gretzky himself—an iconic, world-famous athlete at the peak of his greatness.

Unfortunately, the NHL selfishly viewed the sudden warm-weather popularity as a call to action; an encouraging harbinger for league expansion.

Within 12 years of The Trade, a whopping nine brand-new NHL franchises had sprouted up in the unlikeliest of markets. Tampa Bay, Nashville, Atlanta, San Jose and Sunrise, FL now played host to professional ice hockey teams. No matter that many of the new cities’ residents had never even seen ice before.

Even more idiotic was the league’s decision to relocate four more teams away from already passionate fan bases: the Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota North Stars, Hartford Whalers, and Quebec Nordiques were hijacked to the uncultivated cities of Phoenix, Dallas, Raleigh, and Denver during the expansion period. Since then, the teams in Dallas, Carolina, and Colorado have experienced Stanley Cup victories, further frustrating their estranged fans.

Now, over 20 years after The Trade, the consequences of the NHL’s gross mishandling of a golden opportunity are palpable. Its television rights are currently licensed to a little-known channel called Versus. There hasn’t been a Canadian-based Stanley Cup winner since 1993. Of the past four Cups, three went to expansion teams with arenas full of apathetic spectators. Hell, an entire franchise was created out of a Disney movie. Even Gretzky has been reduced to coaching the expansion Phoenix Coyotes in front of lackluster desert crowds.

One thing is certain: If the NHL wants to regain its long-lost glory and appeal to true hockey fans, it needs to cut the uninteresting expansion teams. Saying goodbye to franchises like the Blue Jackets, Thrashers, Predators, Hurricanes, Lightning, Coyotes, Ducks, Panthers and Sharks would be a long-overdue step in the right direction for the self-destructive NHL.

Additionally, trimming the league to 21 teams would raise the concentration of talent on every other team, leading to a higher level of play in front of more impassioned fans. The NHL completely mismanaged the Gretzky era. Now, with young superstars such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin taking the league by storm, the NHL has a golden opportunity for redemption.