21 Years Later: Revisiting Wayne Gretzky's Trade to the LA Kings

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21 Years Later: Revisiting Wayne Gretzky's Trade to the LA Kings

On Aug. 9, 1988, the NHL made headlines across both the United States and Canada. The NHL’s greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, who at the age of 27 had just the Edmonton Oilers to their fourth Stanley Cup championship in five seasons, was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.

This was not just a monumental trade; it was a true piece of sports history forever to be entrenched in hockey legend and lore.

Despite playing in the remote outpost of Edmonton, Gretzky was the most recognizable face in the NHL.  His star power and talent seemed unmatched. He was breaking long standing scoring records with each game and season he played.

As flashy as he was on the ice, Gretzky was just the opposite off it. He appeared humble, reserved, and possessed a solid respect for those who came before him in the NHL.

And because of all this, he was forever labeled “The Great One.”

People who didn’t follow hockey knew who Wayne Gretzky was.  Replicas of his No. 99 Edmonton Oilers jersey were available nationwide in the United States at a time when hockey jerseys weren’t normally found in retail stores.

There was a Wayne Gretzky hockey doll, something of cross between a Barbie doll and an old-school G.I. Joe action figure.  In 1983, Canada issued a Wayne Gretzky dollar coin, which was actual legal tender at the time.

He was the perfect superstar; easy to hype and readily exploited.

With him in their control, the NHL possessed their greatest marketing weapon in years—which is exactly why the league needed to get him out of Edmonton.

There are two camps surrounding Gretzky’s trade to L.A.  Even today, 21 years after the deal, there are debates regarding who asked for it and why it actually transpired.

For his own part, Gretzky maintains that he had nothing to do with the trade. Despite the fact that he had just married Janet Jones, then a rising Hollywood actress just a month prior to the trade to Los Angeles, Gretzky claimed to have not wanted to leave Edmonton.

Born and raised in Canada, Gretzky wanted to finish his career right where he started it. But if we’re to believe Gretzky’s take, the Oilers ignored their star money maker’s wishes and sent him packing to sunny California.

The Edmonton Oilers owner at the time, Peter Pocklington, told a different tale. 

He claimed that he often received trade offers for Gretzky but always rejected them, knowing full well who Gretzky was and what he meant to the franchise.  Pocklington claimed that Gretzky approached him with the L.A. trade offer.

Pocklington, assuming Gretzky’s days in Edmonton were numbered due to the automatic free agency clause in every NHL players’ contract (that wouldn’t kick in for four more years, when Gretzky was 31 years old), bent to his star’s wishes if nothing else than to ensure the team got something out of Gretzky’s inevitable departure.

As he told Canada’s CBC television, “My first love is to the team, not Wayne Gretzky.”

Pocklington claimed that some twenty minutes prior to the press conference announcing the deal, he pulled Gretzky aside, giving him a final opportunity to back out of it before it was too late.

But Gretzky was determined to go to L.A.

However, rumors abound that Pocklington was cash strapped at the time from other bad financial decisions (in fact, he would sell the Oilers in 1998, file bankruptcy in 2008, and be arrested by the FBI for bankruptcy fraud in 2009) and needed to deal Gretzky—not for the three players or three first round draft picks that were included, but for the $15 million in cash attached to the transaction.

It’s hard to know who to believe. Both sides sounded as if they were attempting a certain amount of damage control regarding the situation.

Gretzky didn’t want to soil his squeaky clean reputation and be made the heavy, demanding an exit out of Canada for the bright lights of Hollywood that came attached to his new starlet wife.

Pocklington couldn’t afford to infuriate his fan base and admit to shipping off not just the Oilers’ top player, but perhaps the greatest player the game had ever seen, for a few extra bucks.  And not to the likes of the Winnipeg Jets (another Canadian team seeking Gretzky at the time) mind you, but to an American team, no less.

Both sides had a lot riding on the deal—some of it fear—as the trade pissed off a lot of Canadian citizens. Their national game had just lost its greatest home-grown hero.  It went so far as New Democratic Party House Leader Nelson Riis attempting to force the Canadian government to step in and stop the trade (to no avail).

But Canada’s loss was clearly the NHL’s gain.  It was perhaps the most significant moment in the NHL’s past twenty years.

Arguably, Gretzky’s trade was more important to the NHL than the 2004-05 owners’ lockout. In fact, the modern day history of the NHL can almost be written as the pre- and post-Gretzky trade era. 

Why?

I believe that the NHL as a collective purposefully brokered the deal that took Gretzky from his homeland and sent him to the second biggest market in the U.S. in an attempt to milk The Great One for all he was worth.

To back that idea, let’s take a moment and examine some of the statements made during the announcement of Gretzky’s trade to L.A.

Gretzky wept openly during the ceremony, and between tears, managed to utter the following comment, “For the benefit of Wayne Gretzky, my new wife and our expected child in the new year, I thought it was beneficial to all involved if they let me play with the Kings.”

Who was the “they” Gretzky spoke of?  Were “they” the Oilers organization? Who, if we’re to believe Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington, didn’t want to trade away his superstar?

Or was the “they” in question actually the NHL itself, knowing full well what Gretzky the superstar meant league-wide?

As the Oilers’ general manager and head coach Glen Sather said as he, too, wept at the press conference:

“I don't want to try and philosophize on what happened. We tried to do what was good for Wayne, the Oilers and the NHL. We all would like to be proud of what we do for a living...I know we'll adjust."

What an odd comment. What did matter if the deal was “good for the NHL?” No other trade in any other league is made for the “good of the league,” but rather the benefit of the franchises involved. 

And what exactly wasn’t Sather “proud” of? Were his tears an admission of guilt, signifying that he felt dirty over being a part of the deal? That he had little control over the trade, since he admitted he was doing “what was good for the NHL?”

Was an unseen hand behind the scenes orchestrating the events of that day?

Because the truth of the situation was, Gretzky in Edmonton did next to nothing for the NHL.  Edmonton might as well have been Siberia as far as the U.S. media was concerned.

Gretzky was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime talent that the league desperately needed to capitalize upon.  By the time of Gretzky’s trade to L.A., the league knew they couldn’t lose this opportunity.

To have him go from Edmonton to Winnipeg or Detroit (which allegedly also made an offer for Gretzky) would not have succeeded in further opening up the NHL to new fans.  Even landing in New York City wouldn’t have converted many new fans to the game, as New England was already one of the few hockey hot spots in the U.S.

But Los Angeles was different.

In 1988, the NHL didn’t exist south of St. Louis with the sole exception of Los Angeles. 

If Gretzky could succeed there, the NHL could open itself up to the “Sun Belt” with its millions of potential fans residing in the southern half of the United States that were up to that point seemingly uninterested in hockey and largely ignored by the league.

If the league was thinking that way, then they found three willing participants to make the deal work for not just the principals involved, but for everyone in the NHL.

Pocklington was reportedly in need of cash, and he got it with a quick influx of $15 million in the deal. 

Los Angeles Kings’ owner Bruce McNall, a coin dealer turned millionaire (and later turned jailbird), wanted a big-name star to help bolster the team’s sagging attendance. With Gretzky on the roster, McNall ushered in a highly profitable hockey renaissance in Los Angeles.

The newly married Gretzky wanted to be with his bride, the city of Edmonton be damned. Plus, it couldn’t have bothered The Great One that the deal included a 10% share in the ownership of the Kings.

(If that wasn’t allowed by NHL by-laws, Gretzky was to receive a $5 million bonus, as well as a percentage of the Kings’ gate receipts.)

So despite all of the public finger pointing and the tears shed, financially everyone made out in spades on the deal.

As history has shown, Gretzky’s arrival in L.A. did more than just line the pockets of these three individuals. It completely opened up the league to a new throng of fans.

Gretzky’s time in Los Angeles did exactly what the NHL had presumably hoped for—open up the southern half of the United States for hockey.

Not since baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved westward to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, had a league forced the relocation of its teams to open up new markets as much as the NHL had.

Canada saw the loss of two teams—the Winnipeg Jets and the Quebec Nordiques—which left the Great White North for greener pastures in Phoenix (in 1996) and Colorado (in 1995), respectively.

One would think a move in the opposite direction, such as the Atlanta Flames relocation to Calgary in 1980, would make more sense. You go where the hockey fans are.

Apparently, such thoughts are foolish, as America’s two biggest hockey hot spots (Minnesota and New England) also saw teams abandon their hard-core fans for unusual choices.

The Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993 and the Hartford Whalers became the (Raleigh, North) Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.

Absurd on the surface, these franchise moves strategically dotted the southern U.S. with hockey teams.

The NHL has done more than just relocate teams to warm weather climates. The league has also expanded to welcome in new franchises, a majority of which reside south of the Mason-Dixon line.

One of the first was the San Jose Sharks, the entry of which in 1991 was a direct result of Gretzky’s monstrous success in Los Angeles.  Two years later, So-Cal welcomed The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

All of this expansion and relocation came on the heels of Gretzky’s arrival in the United States.

Within 20 years, the NHL went from consisting of 21 teams—seven of which (or 33 percent) called Canada home—to 30 teams, of which only six (or 20 percent) play in Canada.

Meanwhile, a full third of the current NHL teams (a total of 10)—Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Carolina (Raleigh), Dallas, Florida (Miami), Phoenix, and Atlanta—play in the southern half of the United States.

This is a complete shift in the NHL’s fan base.

It’s as if the MLB suddenly abandoned its fans in the United States in favor of adding more Canadian teams, while at the same time ignoring the recent failure of the Montreal Expos.

It doesn’t quite make sense.  Yet all of it happened because on this date, Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.

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