"August 9, 1988: A day that lives in infamy for Canadian hockey fans as the day it was announced that Wayne Gretzky had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings. Twenty-five years later, we take a comprehensive look at the details surrounding the deal that shook the hockey world and an entire nation to its core."
Christine Simpson brings you a retrospective on the August 9th, 1988 Wayne Gretzky trade to Los Angeles that shocked a nation. Christine sits-down with the key priciples involved in the deal and how the dealing of Gretzky almost went elsewhere.
Our Q&A with the author of Gretzky’s Tears examines the most undersold aspect of the Gretzky sale, the greatest irony of the fallout, and why the game’s most influential conman makes one hell of an interview subject.
By Luke Fox
He told Mess he wouldn’t do it. Yet there he was, crying before a rapt Canadian television audience, many of who got all red-eyed and teary themselves as they watched the most impactful press conference in the country’s sports history.
Anchored by that unforgettable scene, Sportsnet’s Stephen Brunt authored Gretzky’s Tears: Hockey, America, and the Day Everything Changed (2009, Knopf). The veteran sports journalist considers it the most complete and best book he’s written.
“You have two narrative lines pointing into the press conference and a hundred of them spinning out from it. Everything comes out of that moment,” Brunt says. “If you turn on an NHL game in 2013, some element will have started there. It was a complete reset of the NHL in one day.”
Why tackle such a well-covered event 20 years later?
I’d done the Orr book, Searching for Bobby Orr (in 2006), and it seemed like a natural sequel. A lot of what’s in the Orr book, in addition to the biography, is the sea change in hockey that happened in the ’60s with the crazy expansion from six to 12 (teams) and the first agents and Alan Eagleson. Orr is the first modern hockey icon, the first guy packaged that way. You had the Howes and Richards, but he’s the first modern guy in hockey in terms of the way we think about that. The NHL went from an old-fashioned business that hadn’t changed in 40 years to something quite different within the course of a few years, and Orr was the face of that.
The next iteration is the expansion into non-hockey territory, the great leap from one team in L.A. into all these other places, and that’s the Gretzky trade. He’s the Next One; their careers almost touch. So that’s why the Gretzky book starts with Orr retiring.
I knew the ground had been well-covered, but I wanted to approach it the way I did the Orr story—as a business story and a cultural story. Everything we see in the NHL right now really springs from that singular moment of the trade.
What’s the closest comparison to The Trade, before or since, in sports history?
People can only be that naïve once. If Gretzky can be traded/sold… from a hockey-centric Canadian point of view, that’s the most shocking and worldview-altering event that could’ve happened. He was so much the best player in the game. He was so iconic. His identity was uber-Canadian, small town. He was the myth, like Orr was the myth. Winning Stanley Cups in a Canadian city. If that guy can be packaged and sold, anybody can be packaged and sold. Everybody gets a little more cynical and realistic the moment it happens. Nothing can be that shocking. Remember, a month later we had Ben Johnson (testing positive for steroids after winning the Olympic 100-metre dash). Those were the two most gut-wrenching events in Canadian sports history. The Gretzky one looks like business as usual in hindsight, and the Johnson one, we have a lot of layers on that one now too.
In both cases, from an emotional point of view, they were gutting. Canadians felt like the world had just ended. People reacted emotionally in a profound way. They’re very different, but in both cases, it was like people finding out there wasn’t a Santa Claus.
What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research?
Maybe how clear cut it really seemed to be in Gretzky’s own head that he was already of Los Angeles way before the trade happened. He was already spending so much time down there; he was comfortable there; he’d outgrown the fishbowl in Edmonton. You have that combined with the hard business realities facing (Oilers owner Peter) Pocklington and (Kings majority owner Bruce) McNall. Then on the outside you have this sympathetic Canadian response, much of it based on those tears at the press conference.
How real were those tears?
I think he was crying legitimately about the end of something. They were a great bunch of young guys on (the Oilers) who grew up together on a hockey team and did amazing things and played beautiful hockey and had a lot of crazy, not-necessarily-legal fun in Edmonton. It was more like how some people might cry when they graduate high school. It was the end of a phase of his life. But I don’t think he cried because he was being ripped from the soil of Canada and forced to go to this evil place, the United States. I think he was darn happy to go and understood that it worked for him professionally and personally.
Gretzky himself refused to be interviewed. That didn’t deter you or your publisher?
What he said basically was, “I’ve said everything I have to say about it, on the record or off.” I would’ve liked to have had him for the book, but I’ve interviewed Gretzky lots of times. This is a guy who has been in the public eye since he was 12. He’s got his answers down pat. You don’t tend to hear a lot surprising from Wayne Gretzky. The more interesting stuff is going to come from other people.
I did the Orr book without Orr, which was way harder. Gretzky’s family was good, and Mike Barnett, his agent at the time, was fantastic. Everybody else was extremely forthcoming. The only other guy that wouldn’t talk to me is Pocklington because he had his own book coming out (I’d Trade Him Again), the self-justification book that came out that same fall. Everybody else was cool.
Since its publication, are there any anecdotes or information that you wish you could go back and include?
Not really. I was secure in the fact I had the story, and I loved the characters. McNall is a character out of fiction. It’s funny, I’ve been watching some of the retrospective stuff, and what keeps getting undersold to me is that Bruce was a visionary and completely charming, but he’s a crook. He’s a flim-flam man. That part doesn’t seem to factor in – that he was essentially doing this with money he stole from people.
That’s because he’s a lovable crook.
He’s a totally lovable crook, but he’s a crook. One of the most important parts of the story is because he pulled this off and had a vision for the NHL that was revolutionary than everybody else’s, he looked like the future. People like me thought he was the future of sports. He gets it. They essentially handed him the league; they made him the chairman of the board of governors.
People always talk about the Bettman strategy of expansion. It wasn’t the Bettman strategy; it was the Bruce McNall strategy. Bettman was hired to enact it. The entire destiny of the league, because of this trade and the success in L.A., was handed over to a guy who ended up going to prison. To me, the most compelling character in the story is certainly not Wayne or Pocklington, who’s just a run-of-the-mill crook. It’s Bruce. You couldn’t invent Bruce McNall. He invented himself, his own back story, invented these ancient coins he could sell people for way more than they’re worth. He convinced bankers and all kinds of people. He’s the most fascinating guy I’ve written about in all of sport.
Gretzky may have been traded or sold eventually because Pocklington had his own issues, but were it not for the mind of Bruce McNall, things do not unfold the way they did. The greatest irony in history was the fact that Gretzky winded up in Phoenix, trying to save that franchise and coaching it and ended up being owed money. There’s no Phoenix Coyotes if this trade doesn’t happen. The Winnipeg Jets stay in Winnipeg.
Gretzky ends up dealing with the demon spawn of the trade—the Phoenix Coyotes. It was the perfect completion of the circle.
Is it a stretch to say if this trade doesn’t happen, then Gretzky’s still involved in the league?
Oh, yeah, the league shafted him in Phoenix. He’s still owed money and should be paid, and that’s why he has very little to do with the league these days. It’s not a sacrifice for him to go to L.A.: he makes more money, his wife’s happier, he has a better life there in a lot of ways. Again, he goes to Phoenix to make money too, but now he’s partially estranged from the NHL. Imagine any other sport where they would let that happen to a guy who is there No. 1 living icon.
When, if ever, does Gretzky return to the NHL?
When he’s made financially whole. And I don’t blame him. I’d do the same thing.
The other line of the story is the Canadian cultural line. The belief that hockey was a natural resource, and our longstanding relationship with the Americans, who represent the big rich guys down the road who we are fascinated by and dominated by, but we resent it in a lot of ways when they come and buy or rent our stuff.
And the free trade debate was a touchy subject right around that time.
That’s why Gretzky was brought up in the parliamentary debate on free trade, as if he were water or trees or gold or something, some kind of natural resource. It made us look romantic/naïve, which I guess we were.
This would be a totally different story if Vancouver traded for him. How close did the Canucks come to landing Gretzky?
Pocks needed $15 million (in U.S. funds), period. He needed cash, and there wasn’t anybody else out there who was just going to write him a cheque for $15 million. He had big problems in Alberta, and he needed dough to solve them, and there was only one guy willing to write that cheque. Of course, the one guy out there was stealing money, but he was quite willing to pass it along to Pocklington. That’s the difference between Bruce and everybody else. When Pocks put out a then-outrageous number, Bruce said, “Sure. Would you like a cheque or unmarked bills?” They put a few players around it to make it look like a hockey trade, but it was a straightforward transaction.
Which interviewee or subject area proved most difficult when it came to obtaining information?
Hmmm… The guys who were involved in it were quite happy to talk about it because it was a good memory for most of them. Glen Sather is a strong personality; he still had axes to grind. But McNall — it’s better than talking about other stuff for him; better than talking about life in the joint. Mike Barnett loved talking about it. It was a profound moment for everybody, and they all had their own take. Nobody was hiding anything, but there were different interpretations.
If Gretzky is the sequel to Orr, will there be a Sidney Crosby book to round out a trilogy?
I’ve thought about it, and I haven’t found a way to make it interesting enough for me. I thought once the league started to retreat back to Canada, that was (the story). But with Sid’s career being derailed with concussions… I have no idea what the story is with him. For all of us, he’s been so protected and packaged, I don’t know what the flesh and blood is. I’m sure it’s there; I just don’t know what it is. Maybe we have to wait for that story to play out, but when Atlanta went back to Winnipeg, I kinda thought, OK, this is the third leg.
While it may have felt like hockey sold its soul on the day Wayne Gretzky was traded to the L.A. Kings, the move helped grow the game and those benefits have been felt on both sides of the border.
By Michael Grange
The beauty of milestone anniversaries is they provide the opportunity for reflection. Viewed under the gentle glow of time rather than the glare of the moment it’s easier to see things as they really are, and find the best in things.
When Wayne Gretzky was traded it seemed impossible that it could be the start of something good for Canadian hockey.
Gretzky was Canadian hockey: a living, breathing parable. He wasn’t Bobby Orr, who honed his game on frozen rivers and lakes in the Ontario north or Gordie Howe who learned his on frozen farm ponds under the Western sky; but he was the small-town boy with the backyard rink, taught the game by a determined father.
That his greatest professional moments — and some of the greatest moments in all of hockey — came in Edmonton, a northern, prairie city where the best arena ice on the planet made the tale all the more perfect. The Oilers were everything to Edmonton and Gretzky was everything to the Oilers.
Gretzky sold to the Los Angeles Kings? What did hockey mean to Southern Californians? Hockey had sold its soul.
That’s how it felt then. Here was hockey’s greatest resource, the greatest player on the sports’ greatest team, going to play for the Kings, a franchise that had rendered Marcel Dionne an afterthought during his brilliant prime, played in a half-empty building and had failed to make a Stanley Cup final appearance in the previous twenty years.
But does it feel that way now?
When you have something precious there’s an understandable instinct to keep it close lest it be scarred by a cruel world, or melt to a puddle in the Southern California sun.
But if something is truly special the right thing to do is to share it with the world so everyone can see what you hold so dearly and why.
And while the fact that Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was broke and desperately in need of Kings-owner Bruce McNall’s $15-million in cash is hardly the most elegant reason, those circumstance have been a gift to hockey and in turn a gift for Canadian hockey fans.
Gretzky went forth and hockey players multiplied. The centre of popular culture was forced to pay attention to a game that was once the preserve of Northern Ontario mining towns and prairie farm fields and became the coolest game on earth.
California got introduced to hockey and a significant slice of them discovered they really, really liked it.
“It’s been fantastic for the growth of USA Hockey. We’ve been able to attract better and better athletes and part of that is because we’re able to draw players from places like California and Texas,” executive director of USA Hockey Jim Johannson said. “A lot of them come from inline hockey and then they move to the ice. They tend to be very good skaters with great hands and they’re multi-sport athletes because of the climate there; they’re immersed in other sports too.
“Two years ago five of the final 28 players in consideration for the (gold medal-winning) world junior team were Californians,” Johannson added. “You figure that team was mostly 1992 and 1993 birth years and you do the math — they were getting introduced to the game during the peak of the Gretzky era in LA, so it’s been pretty remarkable.”
The numbers are pretty staggering. In 1987-88 USA hockey had 186,511 registered players across the United States; that has more than doubled, to 510,279 in the 25 years since the trade, or an increase of 174 per cent.
Statistics weren’t collected on a state-by-state basis until 2002-03 season at which point there were 18,660 registered players in California. A decade later there were 24,126 playing, a jump of 29 per cent.
Most significantly the fastest growth has come at the U8 age group where participation is up almost 50 per cent over the past decade, suggesting that parents who grew up during the Gretzky era are doing the same for their children as Walter did for Wayne: get them on skates early.
At the elite level, California-based teams sponsored by the Kings, the Anaheim Dunks and San Jose Sharks are fixtures among the top-10 teams at every age group in all of the United States, making room for teams of surfer kids among the best that traditional hotbeds such as Massachusetts and Minnesota produce.
It’s a development that can be traced directly back to Gretzky arriving in Southern California. It has meant that hockey has been able to spread its wings, breaking out if its regional, climate-based strongholds.
Gretzky leaving Canada was a loss, but it was hockey’s gain. And isn’t what is good for hockey good for Canada?
The Trade’s impact stretched far beyond the Gretzky household or the stunned citizens of Edmonton.
By Luke Fox
“We invest in sports and put weight on certain historic events. The day Michael Jordan retired or… take your pick. But mostly nothing changes. Mostly it’s business as usual and it’s part of a larger story arc,” says Stephen Brunt, author of Gretzky’s Tears, the definitive book on The Trade. “This is one of those very, very rare sports moments where something shifted in that business and a little bit in the culture.”
We take a look at how 99’s move south impacted not only the game of hockey and L.A. sports, but altered the NHL at large and influenced everything from the Canadian Football League to Saturday-morning cartoon viewing.
1. Tripled the number of NHL teams in California.
After Wayne Gretzky joined L.A. in 1988, the San Jose Sharks (1991) and Anaheim Mighty Ducks (1993) joined in relatively quick succession. The Trade has been credited with contributing to the NHL’s Sun Belt expansion in the States. Florida landed two clubs, the Lightning in ’92 and the Panthers ’93; Minnesota’s North Stars chopped off their first name and dropped south to Dallas in ’93; and Phoenix acquired the Winnipeg Jets franchise in ’96.
2. Instantly solidified his legendary status in Edmonton.
Rare that a living player — an active one, still in his prime no less — playing for the opposition has a statue erected at a visitor’s arena. Such was the case with Gretzky, whose image was bronzed and sculpted by John Weaver and placed outside Northlands Coliseum in 1989. The man who turned defencemen into statues became one himself at age 28.
3. Increased attendance, both in terms of volume and star power, at Kings games.
The year Gretzky debuted in L.A., the Kings put an average of 3,208 new fans in the seats per game. Times that by 40, and it equals big dollars. By his third season, the Kings were selling out every home contest. With the NBA’s L.A. Lakers enduring a post-Showtime dry spell, hockey took over as the sport to watch live. “Every major movie star in town wanted tickets. I’ve got President (Ronald) Reagan calling for tickets. Tom Cruise would come a lot. So would Sly Stallone. John Candy was sort of our mascot at the time and he became almost part of the team,” majority owner Bruce McNall told The Hockey News. “Tom Hanks was great. He used to send me a note – ‘Congratulations on the win, from your biggest fan in section 111, Tom Hanks.’ He’d buy his own tickets.”
4. Provided hockey with a television presence on Saturday mornings as well as Saturday nights:
5. Ushered a hockey transaction into parliament.
The Gretzky trade coincided with the free-trade debate, and there was a sense that losing Gretzky to L.A. would be akin to being robbed of a natural resource. NDP house leader Nelson Riis requested the federal government block the trade.
6. Increased Paulina Gretzky’s Instagram following big time.
Would the outgoing eldest daughter of the Great One have a social-media presence if she grew up in Edmonton? Sure. Would she have as much cause to wear swimwear and short-shorts — images of which, at the very least, deserve a second assist in helping her exceed 195,000 Instagram followers — if she grew up in the NHL’s northernmost outpost? Unlikely.
7. Gave hockey analysts the world over a new benchmark for stirring trade-block speculation.
Whenever an elite player is the subject of trade rumours, you can bet some talk-show jockey is trotting out the phrase, “Well, if Wayne Gretzky can be traded…” It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché that symbolizes something grander: a lost romanticism of a player’s ties to his team, a country to its mythological hero.
8. Spoiled Jimmy Carson’s housewarming plans.
According to an interview with The Hockey News, prior to the 1988 off-season McNall told Jimmy Carson, “You guys are going to be here a long time. I want you to go buy a house, I want to renegotiate your contract…. By the way, call my wife (Jane, an interior decorator) and she can help you outfit the house.” Carson purchased a home, outfitted it and had preliminary contract renegotiations with McNall before finding out he was off to Edmonton.
9. Added a new wrinkle to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup curse.
Suppose The Trade didn’t exactly change the Leafs’ fate so much as perpetuate it. Gretzky scored the Game 6-winning overtime goal in the conference finals as well as a hat trick in Game 7, almost single-handedly ruining the Leafs’ best shot at reaching the Cup final in 1993. In the process, Gretzky gave L.A. its first Cup final berth.
10. Two words: Waikiki Hockey
11. Upped player salaries league-wide.
Undervalued at $1 million per season, Gretzky would not have been given a market-value raise had he remained in Edmonton. When the Kings tripled his annual on-ice earnings to $3 million per year, Gretzky’s pay bump triggered an increase in player salaries throughout the ’90s.
12. Begat Bettman… and all that entails.
Following the success of the Gretzky in L.A., the NHL made McNall chairman of the board of governors. McNall then headed up the hiring of the NBA’s Gary Bettman as commissioner (after David Stern turned the job down). “People always talk about the Bettman strategy of expansion. It wasn’t the Bettman strategy; it was the Bruce McNall strategy. Bettman was hired to enact it,” Brunt explains. “The entire destiny of the league, because of this trade and the success in L.A., was handed over to a guy who ended up going to prison.”
13. Resulted in the CFL’s most famous ownership group.
Gretzky’s relationship with McNall would spread beyond hockey. McNall and Gretzky teamed up with funnyman John Candy to purchase the Toronto Argonauts in 1991, and the team promptly won the Grey Cup.
14. Cut “Rocket” Ismail’s NFL career short.
By offering speedy Notre Dame receiver a mind-blowing $18.2-million, four-year deal to join the CFL, the Gretzky-McNall-Candy group (temporarily) lured Ismail away from the NFL until 1993. In two seasons with the Argos, the Rocket caught 100 balls for 1,951 yards and proved to be a punt-returning monster.
15. Shone spotlight on high-end card collecting.
Gretzky and McNall also combined their wallets to purchase successful racehorses and the T206 Honus Wagner, a.k.a. the most valuable baseball card in history. For $451,000 in 1991, the Kings’ kings bought the card from Jim Copeland; they later flipped it to Wal-Mart and Treat Entertainment for $500,000 four years later. The piece of cardboard, last sold for $2.8 million in 2007, is arguably worth more today than the Argos.
16. Started the ball rolling for Mark Messier’s ascendance as hockey’s ultimate captain.
As long as Gretzky was an Oiler, he would be captain. But with Wayne in L.A., Messier seized the ‘C’ and led the Oilers to a fifth Cup victory in 1990. After leading the Rangers to a Cup in 1994, Messier became the only man to captain two different pro clubs to championships and now has an NHL honour — the Mark Messier Leadership Award — named after him. “I don’t think any of us were thinking of looking to replace Wayne as captain,” Messier told sportsnet.ca. “We had Kevin Lowe and a lot of great players who could’ve filled the void.”
17. Provides a unique interpretation of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
On the surface, the smash single is about trying to pick up a woman giving off mixed signals. Listen deeper, however, and you hear Alan Thicke’s son’s confusion over his hockey-playing babysitter’s defection south of the 49th parallel.
18. Paved the way for this season’s outdoor game at Dodger Stadium.
The first hot-climate NHL outdoor game was a Gretzky-led affair, as 99’s Kings defeated the Rangers 5-2 in a preseason exhibition held in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Puck drop temperature: 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The Kings will play the Ducks on Jan. 25, 2014, at balmy Dodger Stadium, the day before Gretzky’s 53rd birthday.
19. Cursed the Vancouver Canucks?
The team besides the Kings that had the best shot at landing a for-sale Gretzky decided not to meet Oilers owner Peter Pocklington’s hefty price tag. Without the Great One, the Canucks have returned to the Cup final twice since The Trade, both times losing in Game 7.
20. Defined Jimmy Carson for life.
He could be known as the highest-scoring teenage NHL player ever, which he is, having notched 92 goals before his 20th birthday. He could be known for cramming an NHL-record 86 games played in an 84-game schedule, which he did in 1992-93 due to a midseason trade. Or as a brilliant sniper who racked up seven straight 20-goal seasons. But, no, Carson will forever be the Trivial Pursuit answer to “Who was traded for Wayne Gretzky?”
21. Led to Wayne Gretzky’s current un-involvement with the NHL.
The theory goes that because the NHL still owes Gretzky money after the Phoenix Coyotes went bankrupt in 2009, the Great One is waiting to get back involved in the league in any official capacity. Had Gretzky not proven himself as a catalyst for franchise success in L.A., would former Coyotes majority owner Steve Ellman encouraged Gretzky to come to Phoenix in a unique deal that gave him ownership shares and head coaching duties? Probably not.
“The league shafted him in Phoenix. He’s still owed money and should be paid, and that’s why he has very little to do with the league these days,” Brunt explains. “Imagine any other sport where they would let that happen to a guy who is there No. 1 living icon.”
22. Forced the leftover Oilers to show their guts.
“We were all very disappointed and mad and all the emotions you can imagine,” Messier said. “But the thing that resonated with us is that we had a big responsibility to each other as players to continue on. That responsibility continues on to the organization, even though we were mad at the owner, and to the fan base and the city. We had enough leadership and enough experience to galvanize together and say, ‘We just can’t quit. There are enough people counting on us.’ And, of course, we were able to win a championship two years later.”
23. Made future NHLers consider the Kings as a team worth joining.
With all due respect to Marcel Dionne, the Kings were not a club players clamoured to join for the on-ice experience prior to The Trade. “You talk to Drew Doughty,” Robitaille told The Hockey News, “he’ll tell you he wanted to play for the Kings because he’d seen and heard about Gretzky.”
24. Multiplied the number of hockey-loving kids in Cali.
“Kids who never would’ve had an opportunity to play hockey in the southern states now have rinks and youth programs. From a guy who’s been in hockey my whole life, how do you put a price tag on that?” Messier said. “The number of kids who have benefitted from Wayne going to L.A. is just incredible, and now we’re seeing kids getting drafted out of Anaheim and Long Beach and Culver City.” Four California kids were selected in the 2010 draft, for example, all of them products of the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club. The Ducks have contributed $12 million into their minor hockey program since 2007, the same year Anaheim won the Cup.
25. Gave easily influenced young boys of California every reason to hang this on their bedroom walls:
The Wayne Gretzky trade to the Los Angeles Kings changed both the Edmonton Oilers and the city of Edmonton in an irrevocable way.
By Mark Spector
The micro-cassette still sits in my desk drawer, though we’re not sure we still possess the micro-cassette recorder to play it on.
How could any self-respecting sportswriter, particularly one born and raised in Edmonton, part with that tiny cassette simply labelled: “The Trade.”
Full disclosure: It was not recorded live at the Molson House, the venue where Wayne Gretzky famously broke down, admitting, “I told Mess I wouldn’t do this.” No, I was a junior reporter at the Edmonton Journal, told to stay back at the office and work the phones.
So instead I called Walter Gretzky at the house in Brantford, as was my assignment, and informed him that his son had been traded to Los Angeles.
“You sure about that?” Walter said.
“I’d better be,” I thought, before saying, “Well, the press conference goes in a couple of hours.”
He might have known of the deal, but Walter played it like he’d never heard anything or the sort. “How could I be informing him about The Trade?” I thought. Then again, nothing went the way it was supposed to go that August day, a day that was a blur on so many levels.
Not because it was the most impactful trade possibly in the history of hockey, but more because it was pure heresy to trade the best player in the world.
Edmonton had won four Stanley Cups in the past five years; Gretzky was the best player on earth, the first-line centre on the previous summer’s Canada Cup. He’d won seven Art Ross Trophies in a row, and only lost the 1987-88 race by 19 points to Mario Lemieux, only because Gretzky played 13 less games than Mario. He had won the Hart Trophy eight straight times, where no one else had ever won it more than four straight times (Gordie Howe and Phil Esposito).
Gretzky was king. Why on earth would anyone want to make him a King?
It was the day that shook Edmonton’s sporting foundation, a moment that changed the course of the franchise abruptly. Within years the Oilers were an also-ran without a chance. Peter Pocklington sold Gretzky; Glen Sather recouped enough actual players to help win one last Cup in 1990, and by 1993, the Oilers fell off the edge of the earth.
No Gretzky, soon no Messier, no Kurri, no Fuhr… No chance. Outside of one fluky run in 2006, the franchise has never recovered.
But to understand the impact that Aug. 8, 1988 had on this city, you have to recall what 1988 was like. There was no Internet for the masses, no Twitter. Nobody had a cell phone yet, and in fact, as reporters dispatched for Molson House and the early afternoon news conference, I for one was still naïve enough to wonder if somehow it was all a hoax.
“It was back in an era where there wasn’t much technology, and the media wasn’t breaking all the stories. It was a pretty well kept coup, from what I remember,” said current Oilers GM Craig MacTavish, a third-line centre on that 1988 Oilers team.
“Quite a shocking time, for not just Edmontonians and the Edmonton Oilers players, but for the entire country.”
There wasn’t a person in Edmonton who didn’t think owner Peter Pocklington wasn’t capable of selling Gretzky at some point, as the Oilers longtime owner was The Grinch incarnate. Once considered a flashy entrepreneur, if you lived here, by 1988 you knew that Pocklington was forever being chased for unpaid debts, real or perceived.
He was ruthless in business, as the bitter, six-month long Gainers strike had proven. Peter Puck had the gall of 10 men, accepting a $55 million loan from the Alberta government of the day to help save Gainers, then walking away from the meat packing plant within three years.
But Gretzky was different.
No. 99 wasn’t Pocklington’s to sell, was he? Gretzky belonged to Edmonton where he’d shown up during the World Hockey Association days, and Sather had shrewdly shielded The Great One from the National Hockey League’s Draconian expansion draft.
There was just one other thing an Edmontonian could say that his city possessed that was better than anything anyone else had of the sort, and that was a stupid mall. Gretzky actually made Oilers fans the envy of nearly every hockey fan in the game, and the Oilers were a travelling road show that did for this smallish Northern Alberta city what no travel board could dream of.
Soon, he would be coming through town with a divisional rival, dressed in black and silver. And for every Oilers fan, it must have truly sucked.
“We really didn’t know how to react the first time we played against Wayne,” remembers MacTavish. “I remember Kevin (Lowe) … taking a vicious run at him, and that kind of set the tone on the mentality going forward, on how we were going to deal with (Gretzky).
“It was at that point I really felt from a player’s perspective that there was a separation between Wayne the friend and Wayne the L.A. King.”
Wayne Gretzky would not win another Stanley Cup after leaving Edmonton. Obviously, Edmonton would never have another player like No. 99.
It was, alas, a deal that hurt both sides.
What better way to break down one of the biggest trades in sporting history than looking at it by the numbers.
By Luke Fox
2 hours after the Oilers won the 1988 Stanley Cup, Gretzky reportedly learned from his father that the Oilers were trying to trade him.
4 months after the release of actress Janet Jones’ Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach that Jones and Gretzky got married.
24 days after Gretzky’s marriage to actress Janet Jones he was traded to Tinseltown.
27 Gretzky’s age at the time of the trade. 1975 year the Milwaukee Bucks sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the L.A. Lakers, and the last year a superstar even close to Gretzky’s magnitude had been traded in his prime.
21 NHL teams at the time of the trade. 30 NHL teams now, including two more in California (Anaheim, San Jose) and third in the American West (Arizona).
22 million dollars and 5 first-round draft choices, the Oilers’ reported asking price to the Vancouver Canucks for Gretzky.
15 million dollars included in the trade, the most important piece going the other way for ’88 Oilers owner Peter Pocklington.
25.9 million dollars, the value of $15 million (1988) today, factoring in inflation.
1 million dollars
Gretzky’s annual salary (roughly) at the time of the trade.
4 years left on the Great One’s undervalued deal at the time.
9 Stanley Cup rings, combined, on the fingers of the players the Oilers traded away.
8 Hart trophies Gretzky won as an Oiler.
1 Hart Trophy Gretzky won as a King.
11,667 average attendance at pre-Gretzky Kings games in 1987-88 (16,005 capacity).
14,875 average attendance at Kings games in 1988-89.
3 seasons of Gretzky hockey before the Kings sold out every game in 1991-92.
1,199 regular-season points, combined, Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski scored for the L.A. Kings.
281 of them scored by Krushelnyski and McSorley.
223 regular-season points, combined, Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas scored for the Edmonton Oilers.
6 games Gelinas played for the Oilers in 1988-89. 40 points Gelinas scored in 1990-91, his most productive campaign as an Oiler.
55 goals Carson scored for the Kings in 1987-88.
50 goals Carson scored in 84 games played for the Oilers in 1988 and ’89, before demanding a trade (to Detroit); among other reasons, Carson felt pressure to replace Gretzky.
1,177 career NHL points by Luc Robitaille, the player — over Carson — the Oilers originally requested in the trade
1993 year Carson returned to L.A. to play with Gretzky.
92 goals Carson scored as a teenager, an NHL record.
86 games played by Carson in 1992-93, a single-season record achieved during the year he returned to the Kings to play with Gretzky.
14 goals scored, total, by Carson in his second stint with L.A.
3 first-round draft picks the Oilers acquired in the Gretzky deal.
6 NHL games played by Jason Miller, the 1989 first-round pick acquired by the Oilers but traded to the Devils prior to the draft.
2 games played for the Oilers by 1991 first-rounder Martin Rucinsky, who was traded to Quebec for goalie Ron Tugnutt and prospect Brad Zavisha.
14 age of Whitney when he (along with brother Dean and future Oiler Ryan Smyth) severed as a stick boy for Gretzky’s ’80s-era Oilers.
$100 amount on a cheque received by young stick-boy Whitney in 1988 from Wayne Gretzky Enterprises (he never cashed it)
1 combined post-trade Stanley Cup won by Gretzky, Krushelnyski and McSorley (Krushelnyski as an assistant coach with the 1998 Detroit Red Wings).
1 Peter Pocklington burned in effigy outside Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum.
1 year after the trade a life-size bronze statue of Gretzky was erected outside Northlands Coliseum.
4 major motion pictures McSorley appeared in from 1995 to 1997: Do Me a Favor, Forget Paris, Bad Boys and Con Air.