The Great L.A. Kings Heist of '88: How the Wayne Gretzky Trade Affected Edmonton

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The Great L.A. Kings Heist of '88: How the Wayne Gretzky Trade Affected Edmonton
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

If you've been keeping up with (or at least seeing the hype-advertising on ESPN) they are doing a "30 for 30" special commemorating the three decades the "Worldwide Leader in Sports" has been operating as part of their 30-year anniversary.

Thirty directors have each produced a one-hour special chronicling one significant sporting event in their lives that they wished to do more research on. The series debuted last week with "A King's Ransom: The Wayne Gretzky trade" by Peter Berg.

For those of you who watched it, like me, it was darn good and not just because I like hockey and was already biased into watching it.

I watched it because I wanted to understand how in the heck any market, much less a small market like the Edmonton Oilers, could trade undeniably the best player on the planet in the sport, ever—not just at the time, especially after already winning four, count 'em, four Stanley Cups, thereby proving his worth.

I also wanted to understand how, after winning four Cups in five years as the Oilers had, they could possibly justify the move or claim to have "economic pressures" that then owner Peter Pocklington did when he orchestrated the deal with Los Angeles.

I also found it ironic how the third smallest market at the time had the best player and how they were able to afford him, and his spectacular supporting cast for so long. To put it in a modern day perspective, it would be like Kobe Bryant suiting up for the Memphis Grizzlies, the Bills having Peyton Manning (and wondering how they were going to afford to keep him) or Albert Pujols a member of the Washington Nationals.

It just doesn't seem right and only in hockey would it be able to work, at least for as long as it did. For that I am appreciative.

Sure, any team that had Bryant, Manning, or Pujols would be an instant draw at the gate as the 1980s Oilers were averaging over 18,000 fans a game as the documentary mentions. Players would want to play with the best player, so its reasonable to believe that other talents would soon flock to play with Bryant, Manning, and Pujols, right?

Wrong.

In any other league, it would be those three that would be pressured, even forced, to seek employment in a bigger market since their owners wouldn't be able to afford to bring in other superstars to build around them. Like the Oilers in the NHL, it would only be a matter of time before that team was broken up as it becomes a numbers game.

"A Kings Ransom" described how the changing economic face of the NHL forced such a move. Gretzky will tell you that salaries were going up and he wanted to be paid what he thought he was worth. At this time there were guys making "a million dollars or close to it and we were making $300,000"

The 1980s Oilers teams had six future Hall-of-Famers: goaltender Grant Fuhr, center Gretzky, right wingers Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri, left winger Mark Messier, and defenseman Paul Coffey.

 

Why did the team succeed?

Look at the even distribution of talent on all sides of the puck.  They had no holes, they had the right coach, Glen Sather, a natural hockey man who is still in the business, and they were a team in the truest sense of the word. A real family unit.

All were clearly the top talents at their positions at the time. The fact that all not only played on the same team at the same time is remarkable but the fact that all were drafted (or obtained) by the Oilers as their original team and none came over as hired guns whose first NHL success was with another club and who simply wanted to leech off an already good team. These six grew up Oilers together at the height of their careers and each clearly benefited because of it.

Again, if it were possible, it would be like the NBA's 2010 Western Conference All-Stars playing not for a conference in the NBA All Star game, but for one franchise and that franchise would happen to be located in tiny Memphis, Tenn.  

Some of my first hockey memories were watching old ESPN Classic Campbell-Wales All-Star games often that felt like it essentially was the Edmonton Oilers vs. the Wales Conference at times. Fittingly, Memphis, like hockey in Edmonton in the NHL, is a basketball city so in theory it could work.

 

Infusion of impact Canadians lacking in today's NHL

Outside of the Finnish Kurri, the remaining five were native Canadians, as it should be in the NHL, especially Superstardom. This is precisely what the NHL lacks, a current Canadian superstar for the league and its fans to latch on to and rally around. The closest thing is Nova Scotian Sidney Crosby with his Thunder Bay Ontario teammate, Jordan Staal.

Appropriately these two are freakishly young and just beginning their Stanley Cup prowess having just won their first together. It will not only be interesting to see how long they can remain teammates in Pittsburgh, but whether the city can turn into anything short of the hockey haven that Canada is.

But in a perfect world these two would be playing in Edmonton or Calgary as the next generation of National pride and Native Sons playing at home. But since Pittsburgh ain't Canada, and ain't a traditional hockey market, it will have to do.

Heck, it could be worse. Each could be playing for the Nashville Predators or Tampa Bay Lightning and bringing a handful of Cups "home" there.

See, I am from the thought that hockey is basically the Canada's national sport, thus each team should always be competitive and legitimately vying for Cups. This is why each spring when the playoffs are played, not only do I cheer for traditional (read: Northern) markets to do well, but particularly Canadian ones, since why not bring the Cup home to a time-tested base where it belongs and to fans who truly appreciate it and will get the most out of it?

Additionally, when you live up in Calgary or Edmonton, what else is there to do in the long, cold winter months? If their teams' aren't competitive, it's all the more agonizing as it's the only show in town.

The film mentions the sad but expected reaction on Aug. 9, 1988 when "The Great One" was traded. One observer noted that "You grow up thinking the Mona Lisa is all yours and the next day it's gone." The media remarked that "Canada had lost its National Treasure" as there were some calls for Parliament to get involved and stop the deal.

Hatred toward Pockington erupted to the point that he not only got death threats, (had to be expected, sad as it is), but also his wife left town for several days following the trade on the basis of her safety as effigies of Pockington were burned in anger and protest.

 

Aug. 9, 1988 "The Trade of the Century"

In what was described as basically selling Wayne for "$15 million" was actually quite more than that. As ESPN's Scott Burnside explains it had a much greater effect. You can read all that in his article as the documentary also covered at the end. My article will analyze the pieces the Oilers got back.

First, Gretzky points out Pocklington was looking to trade him "for Martin Gelinas and Jimmy Carson and I said, Bruce [McNall] (former Kings owner) you gotta get me some help I can't play by myself."

While Gelinas was a flop in Edmonton, he did go on to have a long career with a number of different NHL franchises. Jimmy Carson however was no slouch as he was 20 years old and coming off a 107-point season for the lowly Kings. It's also not like he was a one-year wonder either as his only full season in Edmonton before forcing a trade to his hometown Red Wings, resulted in his last 100-point campaign.

What made the disgruntled Carson important though was what the Oilers received for him in the trade to Detroit—longtime veteran Adam Graves, left winger Petr Klima who had some very solid seasons in Canada, and winger Joe Murphy who also put up good numbers north of the border.

Also, it's not like everything came crashing down all at once as the 1990 Oilers would once again go on to win their fifth and final Stanley Cup with most original members of the core. At one point in "A Kings Ransom" Gretzky is asked by producer Berg on a driving range:

"How many Cups did you win in L.A?" and he says "None."

Then Berg asks, "And how many did you win in Edmonton?" to which Gretzky replies, "How many could I have won?"

Berg says again: "No, how many did you win?" Gretzky says four. When asked how many he could have won had the team stayed together he says: "Well the team was good enough, I don't know, maybe four..., four more."

Four more Cups?!

And you know what, he probably isn't that far off considering they did manage to win one more without him and they advanced to the Campbell Conference Finals (current Western Conference Finals) in 1991 and 1992 before losing out, suggesting had he still been there, the rest would have been a formality since that group won together.

This is especially more remarkable when you consider Fuhr and Anderson were traded in the same deal before the 1991 season or that captain Messier was traded in October of that same year as the dynasty officially broke up.

The bottom line is, Pocklington was fortunate enough to get five Cups out of the variations of this dynasty, four of which essentially as a collective unit, minus Coffey after 1986.

Edmonton on the other hand, was fortunate enough to get every last drop (no pun intended) of talent and wins out of these teams before the ultimate dismantling in '91. Be glad for what you were able to witness and be a part of for it was truly special.

Edmonton, if I could, I'd give you Lord Stanley's Cup every five years or so just to keep the cup in a market where it belongs and to make sure it not only survives, but thrives, but the fact is I can't. I can't bring back Hartford, Winnipeg, or Quebec either although I still hold out hope the Coyotes will move back to Manitoba where they belong and where they never should have left.

 

What it all means

In a league that has since grown from 21 teams to 30, and has lost pillar franchises in traditional bases of Winnipeg, Hartford, and Quebec City, the fact that Edmonton survived the trade backlash enough to not only recover, but to even have a team at all, is incredible.

When you consider how close the team came to moving to Houston after the 1998 season, before Pocklington eventually sold the them to a confederation of local Edmonton investors, it only further supports the notion that at least they have a team in the first place.

Next Monday, Oct. 19, when the Oilers are appropriately playing at home, appropriately against a fellow Canadian opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, remember where you were on this day.

More importantly, remember where you were 21 years ago on this date.

That's the first chance Edmontonians had to welcome back their Superstar after the great trade of '88.

 

Information gathered from The Hockey Database, ESPN's 30 for 30 Series, ESPN's Scott Burnside's article, "A Kings' Ransom" by Peter Berg, and the Edmonton Journal contributed to this article.

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