It's among the most vivid scenes in hockey history and it didn't even happen on the ice.
Wayne Gretzky dabbing at his tears with a tissue, slumped over a mass of microphones at Molson House, the historic brewery site in Edmonton. Moments earlier, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington announced that the greatest player in hockey history was being traded to the Los Angeles Kings.
The Oilers handed Gretzky a prepared statement to read, but "The Great One" tossed it and instead spoke from his heart. The world was shocked, but the move had been years in the making.
Longtime Kings owner Jerry Buss repeatedly floated the idea of trading for Gretzky. But when 36-year-old businessman Bruce McNall purchased a 25 percent stake in the team in 1986, the Gretzky talk increased.
"When I bought the team, [Buss] told me, 'I've been trying to talk to Peter Pocklington about Gretzky.' We all kind of laughed. But the fact that he brought up the subject gave me a sense that I could actually make that call," McNall told NHL.com. "[Pocklington] would blow me off and say, 'Yeah, right.' I kept pushing it."
McNall acquired Buss' remaining shares in the Kings by the summer of 1988. But there was no indication the Gretzky trade talk would go from punch line to headline. After all, Gretzky had just earned his second Conn Smythe Trophy after leading the Oilers to a dominating 16-2 playoff record as they won the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in five seasons.
By the time the NHL Awards were held in Toronto, McNall had been pestering Pocklington for weeks about Gretzky. Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Hart Memorial Trophy as League MVP and the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, the first time in seven years Gretzky didn't take home both awards. But the night's enduring legacy may be McNall's latest offer.
"Bruce McNall leaned over and said, 'I'll give you $15 million, plus some players.' At that time, $15 million was $18.5 million Canadian," Pocklington told NHL.com. "I said, 'Let me think about it,' and called him a week later and said, 'I could live with that.'"
Gretzky had just married actress Janet Jones and was spending part of the summer living in the Hollywood home of actor Alan Thicke. Knowing that Gretzky was living in Los Angeles and certain he wouldn't re-sign with the Oilers when his contract expired, Pocklington accepted McNall's offer. There was just the matter of deciding which players would be involved.
"It was totally different. It was not like a regular deal," said Rogie Vachon, the former Kings goaltender who was serving as the team's general manager. "There was so much money involved. Obviously the two owners had to talk all the time. The GMs took a back seat a little bit."
For Oilers GM Glen Sather, taking a back seat was a voluntary move. From the moment he heard Gretzky was being traded, he refused to participate in negotiations. With Gretzky taking a proactive role, it was a unique situation in which owners and the game's greatest player dictated the terms.
Pocklington briefly explored other options, but despite rumors of teams inquiring about Gretzky, there was only one other team he contacted.
"I tried to reach [Detroit Red Wings owner] Mike Ilitch, because I knew Wayne would have loved to go to Detroit," Pocklington said. "But it was basically done so quickly, and that was it. There was never a bidding war. There probably should have been, looking back."
With a dollar figure agreed on, Gretzky demanded that defenseman Marty McSorley come with him to L.A. The Oilers, in turn, wanted one of the greatest players in Kings history.
"Wayne said to me, 'Make sure you get McSorley.' I worked that out pretty quickly, although Sather was not happy about the idea," McNall said. "Then they wanted [Luc] Robitaille and I said no."
The deal was announced Aug. 9, 1988, 12 weeks after the Oilers closed out a four-game sweep of the Boston Bruins in the Cup Final. Gretzky, McSorley and center Mike Krushelnyski went to the Kings in exchange for center Jimmy Carson, wing Martin Gelinas, first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993, and $15 million.
Moments before the Edmonton press conference, Pocklington and Sather pulled Gretzky aside and offered to call off the trade. Gretzky refused.
"My mistake was not going over to him and putting my arm around him and saying 'Wayne, it's OK, pal. If you want to call it off, let's do it,'" Pocklington said. "That's what I should have done."
Following the emotional press conference, Gretzky boarded a private flight back to Los Angeles. Later that day, he met the L.A. media at a hotel near the airport. For those in attendance, it was the first real indicator that hockey would never be the same.
"There were about 12 television stations there and I don't know how many photographers. It was obviously the biggest press conference the Kings ever had," longtime Kings broadcaster Bob Miller told NHL.com. "The sound of the cameras going off, my wife said it sounded like machine gun fire."
Overnight, the Kings' ticket office was forced to hire people to accommodate all the requests. The team went from averaging 11,667 fans per game the season before to selling out every game in 1991-92, becoming the first Los Angeles-based team to sell out every home game.
President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, purchased ice-level seats, as did a number of famous actors. When Michael Ovitz, the founder of Creative Artists Agency and arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood, requested four ice-level seats, the team had to be inventive.
"He said, 'You've got to get them, I'll do anything.' We found some folks who owned the seats. I said, 'We'll give you four second-row seats for free for life if I can get these seats back,'" McNall said. "They agreed to it and I billed Mike Ovitz for the seats he was buying plus all their seats for life. I never before had invoiced someone for that kind of money and got such a big thank you."
California was reveling in Gretzky-mania, but Canada was mourning the loss of an icon.
Pocklington immediately became the sworn enemy of Edmontonians everywhere and some Canadian members of Parliament proposed legislation that would stop the trade. With the Oilers in damage control, the team's phone lines were jammed with angry fans, a number of whom threatened to cancel their season tickets.
"[Fans] were pretty [upset], believe me. It was no fun. A lot of death threats. It bothered my family more than me," said Pocklington, who sold the team in 1998 after taking on millions of dollars in debt. "At that time, we were a small Canadian city. We didn't have the revenues from television. The only revenues we got were at the gate. A small Canadian city can't charge people $300 a seat."
Edmonton would come to terms with the trade and the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1990. And with Gretzky turning hockey into a favorite sport among warm-weather fans, the game would never be the same.
"It opened up a whole new door for him [Gretzky] and his wife. It did great things for everybody," Pocklington said. "It did great things for the Gretzkys, it did great things for the NHL."
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