What's Worked and What Hasn't in the Post-Gretzky NHL Expansion
At the risk of embellishing quarter-century hyperbole, Aug. 9, 1988 really did shake hockey to its core.
Not only was there emotional impact on fans in Edmonton (agony) and Los Angeles (ecstasy) and a significant change to street cred possessed by the Oilers (diminished) and Kings (enhanced), but the trade of Wayne Gretzky simultaneously broadened any territorial horizons previously imagined by the suit-wearing power players at NHL HQ in New York.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently commented on the 25th anniversary of the trade to the The Globe and Mail.
“I remember thinking at the time that that demonstrated a huge step forward for hockey and its credibility,” recalled Bettman, who was an NBA corporate minion at the time. “It was obviously something that, in the annals of sports, was one of those seminal events that gets a tremendous amount of attention because of its import and impact.”
In fact, by the time Bettman went from hardwood lackey to ice rink czar five years later, the chain of events triggered by the Alberta-to-California swap had already begun.
Click through to recall some of the memorable timeline moments as we saw them.
1991: Hockey by the Bay
The Oakland/California Golden Seals hadn’t exactly been a marquee NHL franchise during their relatively brief lifespan from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, but the area was still on league radar during the downtime and sprung back to on-ice life in 1991—three years after the trade.
Truth be told, chances are good that hockey would have made its way back to Northern California whether Gretzky had moved to the Golden State or not, but his immediate success with the Kings down the coast made the creation of the Sharks a significantly less risky maneuver.
A generation later, hockey is still thriving in San Jose, with the only real negative being the failure to bring home a Stanley Cup.
1992: Hockey by the Gulf
Though Phil Esposito is far better known for a 76-goal season and championship success in Boston, he also played a significant role in bringing hockey to a far less logical place—Tampa, Fla.
“Espo” championed the effort that led to the area receiving a conditional franchise in 1990—two years after the trade—and the word became official another year later when the NHL Board of Governors signed off, making Esposito the president and general manager of the new “Lightning.”
While Esposito’s behind-the-scenes work began before August of 1988, chances seem less likely than they’d been in San Jose that the league would have found its way to a section of Florida with little connection other than a host of transplanted northerners.
Overall, while enthusiasm has surged and waned during corresponding peaks and valleys in the standings, the Lightning did earn historical validation with a 2004 Stanley Cup.
Also joining, or rejoining, the fray in 1992 were the Ottawa Senators, an expansion franchise bearing the name of one of the league's mainstays of the early years.
1993: Hello Anaheim and Miami; Goodbye Minnesota
Expansion fever continued into 1993, when the league welcomed its third and fourth new teams since the Gretzky trade—one just down the road in California, and the other across the country in another coastal sunshine haven.
Corresponding with those additions was the subtraction of the NHL franchise in Minnesota to move it to warmer climes in Dallas, where the word “North” was dropped in favor of just the “Stars.”
The Florida Panthers were immediately successful and made a quick run to the Stanley Cup Final in year three of their existence, while the then-Mighty Ducks struggled to direct attention more on the on-ice product and less on the cartoonish nickname and merchandise. Dallas brought a championship to Texas in 1999 and has remained a stalwart franchise for the subsequent decade-plus.
The word “Mighty” was dropped from the Anaheim ID before the 2006-07 season, which, ironically, ended with the franchise’s first Cup. Meanwhile, the Panthers have foundered toward the league’s bottom since the initial surge while struggling to recapture the novelty enthusiasm.
1995-97: Farewell WHA, We Hardly Knew Ye
The interior of the 1990s was less about expanding the NHL brand to new territories and more about reshaping it from one geographical template to another.
As it turned out, the victims of that quest for a new look were three of four remnants of the old World Hockey Association—the “rebel league” that had battled for a place on the hockey dial throughout the 1970s. In fact, only the Edmonton Oilers survived the WHA purge.
The Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996 and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997, as gleaming cities with sparkling buildings played the roles of magnets.
The Avalanche was a second and instantly more successful entity in Denver than the long-forgotten Colorado Rockies (ultimately the New Jersey Devils) had been in the 1970s, while the sport still faces the same long-standing struggles for traction in both Phoenix and Raleigh.
The good news: The Hurricanes won a championship in 2006 and Winnipeg got a team back in 2011 when a subsequent expansion franchise—the Atlanta Thrashers—became the second team to ditch Georgia for Canada, as the Flames had done a generation prior.
1998-99: Hockey Goes Dixie
Another dose of bringing hockey to the drawl-speaking masses came later in the 1990s, when the powers-that-be targeted Nashville and (re-targeted) Atlanta with the Predators and Thrashers, respectively.
Nashville’s arrival was actually a third-time lucky scenario, after an initially failed bid to relocate the New Jersey Devils and then another misfire when trying to bring in the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. The Predators had an arena in place as well, which got them on the ice a year ahead of the Thrashers.
While Nashville has been solidly successful for much of its league existence, the same cannot be said of Atlanta, which was a 1970s loser with the since-relocated Flames. Consistent losses both on and off the ice led to a second exodus from the Peach State, with the NHL making it official in mid-2011.
The Jets played Atlanta’s Southeast Division schedule before a league realignment that takes effect this fall.
2000: The Midwest League
A new century, a new decade and two new cities arrived in 2000, including one that righted what amounted to a successful wrong from the 1990s.
The Minnesota Wild bear little physical resemblance to what used to be the Minnesota North Stars, but they are strategically placed in the same hockey-crazed area that has generated averaged seasonal attendance above 18,000 for all but one of 12 years since the rebirth.
And while the return still hasn’t yielded the state’s first title, it’s been an unqualified success by any other measure.
Hockey in Columbus has been less of a slam dunk in its 12-year run, which began with the Blue Jackets in the upper tier of attendance at 17,000-plus per night. The midway point of the 2000s saw a drop into the lower half of league rates, and the team drew an average crowd of 14,564 last season, good for only 28th in a 30-team league.
2006: Duck and Cover
As mentioned earlier, it was an initial struggle for the Anaheim franchise to claim validity while it brandished the likeness of a Disney-ish cartoon on the front of the sweater.
An ownership change hastened a new identity and new look for the 2006-07 season, which, aided by a convenient trade for All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger, yielded instant credibility in the form of the state’s first Stanley Cup.
2011: Exit, Stage Manitoba
If the NHL ever deems it necessary to make a third attempt to station a franchise in Atlanta, it’ll more than likely be in a decade where anyone recalling the first two tries has long since perished.
The Atlanta Flames were a 1972 arrival along with the New York Islanders, but their stay wasn’t nearly as long and not nearly as cluttered by all those championship banners. In fact, the Flames won precisely zero postseason series in six tries before packing their collective bag and heading for Calgary, Alberta at the close of the 1979-80 schedule.
The Calgary incarnation is hardly a twin of its Atlanta forefather, but it does look back at the early days by using the flaming A logo on uniforms to denote assistant captains.
When it comes to the league’s second try in Georgia—in form of the Atlanta Thrashers—the NHL could only dream of the success enjoyed by the Flames.
The Thrashers made the playoffs for their one and only time following the 2006-07 season, but bowed out via a four-game sweep at the skates of the New York Rangers. The final four seasons carried consistently mediocre win percentages of 41.4, 42.6, 42.6 and 41.4, and the Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets when the franchise purchase was made official on June 21, 2011.