I remember the feeling I had, like there was no way this just happened.
Wayne Gretzky. Traded. Wayne Gretzky? Traded? Traded? I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I am getting it again right now, just thinking of that day. August 9th, 1988.
I was in the family room of my in-laws’ house in Nepean, Ontario, when I heard the news. There were plenty of rumors floating around about the possibility that the Oilers could trade Wayne. It seemed so very unthinkable. There wasn't anything real about it. It just couldn't happen. Couldn't they trade a couple of other great players from that team? Wasn't there any other possibilities?
I was heading into my second season in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks. I had finally made it to the NHL after three years in the IHL and AHL.
I wasn't just a hockey fan anymore, in fact I wasn't just a minor league pro anymore. I had one full season under my belt and actually played against the Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky.
I had met and known Wayne from my second season of Major Junior A hockey in Belleville, as he co-owned the team. He skated with us as he was getting ready for the Oilers training camp.
He took several of us, including future first-round pick of Calgary's, Dan Quinn, out to dinners and social gatherings. We were also recruiting our first pick at the time, Pat Lafontaine. He was drafted by both us and the Laval Titans of the QMJHL.
It was such a great experience to be around him and see the way he handled himself at such a young age. He was Wayne Gretzky. He was the captain of the Edmonton Oilers and we all assumed he was going to win six to 10 Stanley Cups with them. Forever an Oiler. How would it not work out that way?
The Oilers, under the tutelage of Glen Sather and Ted Green, were an incredible group of players. They had speed, finesse, moxie, courage and grit when they needed it. They had that "killer instinct" and it all started and ended with Wayne. If he scored four goals and they were leading by three goals with three minutes to go, he wanted his fifth and put the dagger in even deeper.
Was this a trade? Was it a sell?
Wayne said in his "Ultimate Gretzky" DVD that it was a "weird time." I would say so.
He understood the business side of it. He knew that at the end of the 1988-89 season he would be 28 years old and an unrestricted free agent. He told the Oilers he wouldn't sign a deal until the season was over and he was just newly married to Janet. She was still in the prime of her acting career, so maybe they would end up in California at some point anyway? Who knew? Peter Pocklington and Kings new owner Bruce McNall knew, that is for sure!
It must have been something for Wayne.
Think about the sadness, emotion and heavy tears leaving Edmonton, the city that he really grew up in and adored. Think back to the press conference. Midway through, his very good friend and agent at the time, Mike Barnett, had to lean over his left shoulder and tell him to step away from the microphone so he could regain composure. It must have been the first time in a long time that Wayne wasn't in control of a situation. It wasn't a sign of weakness. It seemed it was a time and moment of just shear out-of-control emotion. He’d just won his fourth Stanley Cup. He was 27 years old. He was just traded ... and sold to a city that has never experienced winning in hockey before.
The plane ride must have been some gamut of emotions; the sadness of leaving the City of Champions to go to the bright lights and excitement of Los Angeles. It went from a funeral to a celebration as far as the LA fans were concerned, for sure.
I remember watching his first game as a King at home with the new black and silver sweaters. Gone were the Rogie Vachon and Marcel Dionne gold and purple.
The building is going crazy. Celebrities are everywhere. Bob Miller, the legendary voice of the Kings, makes the player introductions. When he gets to the last player he says, “Welcome Number 99, Wayne Gretzky...”
Wayne looks humble and modest, again, as always. The capacity crowd goes nuts. He skates to the Kings’ blueline and nods. The crowd gets louder. They have just met the real game of hockey. This was the beginning of a new generation of hockey fans. This was the start for many eight-year-old kids that needed a sport to latch onto. It was called ice hockey. It was called inline hockey. It was because of Wayne Gretzky and THE trade.
He scored on his first shot that night. It was against the Detroit Red Wings, his childhood team. The same team he tied Phil Esposito's record for goals in a season with his 76th at Detroit, and then broke the record the next game in Buffalo.
That was the night he met Goldie Hawn and Burt Reynolds. Little did Wayne know he was Hollywood before he actually went to Hollywood.
It was strange facing Wayne as a member of the Kings that season. He still had the Jofa helmet and the tucked in sweater. He still used the heavy Titan stick with very little curve. But he was in black and silver, not the blue and orange. There was a different look, but the same killer instinct.
The rink wasn't Northlands Coliseum. It was the LA Forum. Both looked similar on the outside, but the ice wasn't nearly as good on the inside. It was amazing what he accomplished on that LA ice, no doubt.
Wayne then came into Chicago Stadium with the Kings. I had to face him that first night. Normally, when the Kings came to town, it was just another game. It wasn't a rivalry. It wasn't the Norris Division. It was just the Kings in their purple jerseys. Not anymore.
There was such a buzz.
He gave them belief that they could win. You could sense it playing against them. It was just a matter of time and a matter of weeding out some players that were too used to losing. There was no way that he could accept that. He changed their whole mind-set.
He scored a goal against me that year in Chicago that still makes my head spin. You can see it in the “Ultimate Gretzky” DVD. He is skating in...looks like he wants to go quickly to his right, from his forehand to his backhand. He is in this cool black and silver...never mind...
I come out with the quick pokecheck...I have done this a hundred times...only to see him quickly change directions to stay on the forehand and slip it by me, as he darts to his left.
I have the picture in a workout room in my house. We recently had a little get together in Phoenix, and Wayne and Janet and the kids were all there. Someone at the party took the picture off the wall, went over to Wayne and asked him if this one went in on me, or not.
Wayne looked it over, leaned over to the kid and said - just loud enough for me to hear - "This is Panger's party, let’s not go there." And then he said – again just loud enough for me to hear - "I think that was the third of the night!" and lets out a huge laugh. It was perfect. He remembered the night.
It was roughly 19 years ago and he knew what happened. I was not surprised. He never ceases to amaze me.
He changed the game. He always thinks about the game.
We now have first-round picks in the NHL that are from California. They remember the day Wayne was traded to the Kings like it was yesterday. They will be NHL players because of him and his influence in the non-hockey markets. They are now called hockey markets. It’s pretty amazing stuff.
Wayne could have chosen any team he wanted when that trade went through. He could have gone to Detroit for one. But he knew that franchise was in good shape and it would be for a long time.
But in LA, he could change everything there. And he did.
They were the first team in LA to sell out their season tickets. They did so before the Rams, Dodgers and Lakers. Amazing.
All because of Wayne Douglas Gretzky. This season is a celebration. If not for that trade, where would hockey be in these so-called non-traditional hockey markets? There would be no Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay. None in Carolina. San Jose wouldn't be knocking on the door. Dallas wouldn't have won it’s in 1999. Anaheim? Not a chance if not for Wayne.
I was far too naive when Wayne was traded to LA. I didn't quite see the future of hockey. I never envisioned the sharp, aluminum shafted Easton stick. I certainly did not think of celebrities watching our great game, and not for a minute did I think he could carry the Kings to the Finals in only his fourth season there, only to lose to Montreal in five games.
What a great ride that was. These are phenomenal memories.
When you see Wayne Gretzky behind the bench of one of the NHL's most exciting young teams, the Phoenix Coyotes, think of what this trade meant for your hockey market, your memories as a kid and maybe your child's as well. Stand up and clap. No one could have done what Wayne did. Not in any sport.