In the summer of 1988, Wayne Gretzky was on top of the world. His Edmonton Oilers had just won their fourth Stanley Cup championship in five years and he won his second Conn Smythe Trophy by recording 43 points in 19 playoff games. At 27 years old, with a core group of future Hall of Famers surrounding him and already the holder of 49 NHL records, Gretzky was in his prime and it seemed the winning in Edmonton would go on forever.
Then came the day that will live in infamy in Edmonton and all across Canada. On August 9th, 1988, Gretzky was traded from the Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers received two players, three first round draft picks and $15 million cash, but there was no value that could match what Gretzky did on the ice and what he represented for Canada off the ice.
"The Trade," as it was later referred to, not only changed Gretzky’s career, it changed the futures of the Oilers and Kings. The trade had a trickle down effect that has impacted the NHL to this day.
From the Kings’ standpoint, Gretzky's coming to Los Angeles was the greatest thing to happen to their franchise. The day after the trade, the Kings’ phones were ringing off the hook for season tickets. With the greatest hockey player in the world playing in Los Angeles, celebrities in L.A. had another reason besides the Lakers to show up at the Great Western Forum.
For the NHL, the Kings’ success became proof that NHL hockey could work in the southern United States. In the decade after Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles, the league expanded to cities such as San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Nashville. Teams in Minnesota, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg relocated to Dallas, Carolina, Denver and Phoenix, respectively.
For Gretzky, despite the staggering numbers that he finished his career with, there is always the thought of how much more he could have achieved had he stayed in Edmonton. Although he was flanked with decent players in Los Angeles, including Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, he didn’t have the likes of Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey with him. Also, Gretzky never won another Stanley Cup, and with the team he left behind in Edmonton, there is little doubt he would have won at least one more.
As Gretzky said on that day 23 years ago, the game of hockey is bigger than one player, even the greatest player ever. The dynamic and look of the game changed because of one transaction. And that is why people still talk about the biggest trade in sports history all these years later.