Wayne Gretzky's blockbuster trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 did what many thought was impossible: It ignited the popularity of hockey in Southern California. Just more than a quarter-century later, Gretzky and the NHL are about to bear witness to another impossible feat—an outdoor hockey game at Los Angeles' hallowed Dodger Stadium.
The Jan. 25 matchup between the Kings and Anaheim Ducks was just one of many subjects broached with The Great One when he sat down for an exclusive interview with CNN's Rachel Nichols.
Gretzky's appearance at Dodger Stadium, along with Vin Scully and many other Los Angeles legends, will mark the first time in four years that the all-time leading goal scorer will appear at an NHL event. In December, the league agreed to pay Gretzky money he was owed from his days as an owner of the Phoenix Coyotes.
But despite the contentious relationship, he made clear he wanted to be a part of the historic event—one that was totally unthinkable when he arrived in California more than two decades ago:
Yeah, I gotta be really honest. I didn’t see this coming in 1988. As a matter of fact, we were more of a sense of survival in ’88. We wanted to build a good hockey club. And we knew if we built a good organization, that this was a wonderful sports city. And with the Dodgers here and the Lakers here, that there was going to be room for the LA Kings and the sport of hockey.
He was traded from Edmonton not long after bringing a Stanley Cup to the Oilers, and the deal is still arguably the most discussed and most controversial in NHL history. ESPN's 30 for 30 series produced a documentary specifically on the mechanisms of the deal and its repercussions.
Gretzky's teary-eyed press conference announcing the deal was a noteworthy moment in and of itself. He never had quite the level of team success in Los Angeles as in Edmonton, as he failed to win a Stanley Cup title in his seven-plus seasons with the Kings. But although he still holds Edmonton close to his heart, he has settled in Los Angeles and takes pride in the ground he's helped forge for the sport:
You know what. The journey and the excitement that I’ve had also being in California and being part of the LA Kings and being part of the NHL and having an opportunity to play in this city and to raise my children and raise my family here, I love it, I enjoy it.
Some believe that without Gretzky, hockey would never have taken off on the West Coast, as it's a sport predominantly played by kids in cold-weather cities. Los Angeles, Phoenix and other warm-weather cities need indoor rinks to teach kids how to play, which limits the talent pool and thus the interest from young kids.
Even Gretzky admits to Nichols that he even has a bit of trouble getting his kids involved with the game:
You know, they watch it with me. I watch a lot of hockey. I don’t go to a lot of games. I probably go to, you know, nine or 10 games a year. But I watch games every day and every night. So, we talk a lot about it. But, you know, listen, you know, they’re in California.
Trevor Gretzky, Wayne's son, has even found his own success in another sport: baseball. Selected in the seventh round of the 2011 MLB draft, Trevor has hit .288 over his two years of minor league ball.
Still, the Gretzky name carries its most cache in hockey circles. John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, credits Gretzky's presence as the overarching reason that the league is able to host a game at Dodger Stadium, per the Los Angeles Times' Helene Elliott.
He has become synonymous with the Los Angeles hockey scene in ways that no one could have dreamed 26 years ago, and now NHL players are going to be lacing up right next to a volleyball court. Literally.
Even in retirement, The Great One continues to pull off the unthinkable.
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