The Oilers, to that point a dynasty in the making, began a slow descent from which they arguably have never completely recovered. The Kings, on the other hand, instantly became a league powerhouse, Gretzky's presence fostering league growth in the southern United States, sparking interest among celebrities and new fans alike. He even also pushed his Kings all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, where they might have won it all had they not run into an eventual Hall of Fame Canadiens goalie.
Gretzky said during during an appearance on the Spittin' Chiclets podcast that Nelson Skalbania was first on the NHL side (his dad, Walter, had told him of the rumour the night before) to tell the Great One he might be traded, calling the morning after the Oilers' 1988 Stanley Cup win over Boston, asking Gretzky if he wanted to be a part of the Vancouver Canucks, be paid a salary and own 25 per cent of the team. Gretzky, fresh off a Cup win celebration, told Skalbania he'd call him later.
However, once Gretzky and owner Peter Pocklington connected about the previously unthinkable reality of a trade, Gretzky was able to "control" the teams he might go to. As Gretzky said on Tuesday, it came down to the Kings, Rangers, Flyers and Red Wings. Once New York and Philly "kind of went away," according to Gretzky, it was between the Wings and Kings.
"We sat down and we decided I was going to Detroit," Gretzky said. "I remember sitting there, going, 'OK, this is great, I'm going to play in Detroit, I grew up a Red Wing fan, Gordie Howe, everything that goes with it.' And my dad called me and he said, 'Listen, I'll give you a little bit of advice.' I said, 'OK, what's that?' He said, 'There's only one Gordie Howe and Detroit's Detroit, you don't need to go there, why don't you do something different and go to L.A.?'
"So, everybody thought it was my wife (Janet) who steered the bus, but it was really my dad who said, 'There's only one Gordie Howe, you need to do something different.' So, that's really how I ended up in L.A."
And the course of hockey history would be forever changed. Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski were traded to the Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash and three first-round picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993.
"I'll tell you this about L.A.," Gretzky said. "This is true. When we went to L.A., I remember saying, 'OK, we've got to change the culture or ... what people think of our game.' And I got in a lot of trouble over this. I came out and said, 'We should ban fighting.' And the only reason I said it, at the time, that if you ran into people in California or Texas or Florida at that point in time, they'd say, 'Oh, I can't go to a hockey game. It's all fighting and brawls.' So, that was sort of the image. And so from my point of view, I was saying, 'We've got to change our image. It's an art to be a hockey player. It's an art to take a hit, it's an art to get hit. It's a physical game.' And so we started to preach that."