was traded from the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers
to the Los Angeles Kings
. The trade not only changed the fortunes of the Kings, a team that had finished 18th in the then 21-team NHL in 1987-88, but was the driving force for National Hockey League expansion into the sun belt and the growth of the game at the grassroots level in “non-traditional” hockey markets.
The NHL’s Communications Department has assembled a comprehensive package that looks back 20 years to one of the biggest trades in League history. Included in the package is: a transcript of an interview that the League did with Gretzky; transcripts of interviews conducted with Luc Robitaille (who was a member of the Kings at the time) and Craig Simpson (a member of the Oilers at the time who was the first player to learn of the trade); a detailed timeline of the events that led to the trade; some facts and figures that attempt to measure the impact that the trade had on hockey at all levels, plus some notable quotes from individuals around the time of the trade.
Wayne Gretzky Interview
When you think back to the trade 20 years ago, what goes through your mind? "What a whirlwind it was. Although it sort of all transpired in 24 hours, I went from being the Stanley Cup champion in Edmonton to playing in Los Angeles. It probably had been behind the scenes going on for three or four months; it was just one of those things that, at the end of the day, as I've always said, I miss the friends and people that I knew in Edmonton, but it was a great opportunity for me, it opened up a lot of doors in going to California."
Take us back to that last moment on the ice as an Oiler – the team picture as Stanley Cup Champions and then the ensuing days. "The team picture itself was really ironic because what had happened in the past; and I was really lucky to have been on four championship teams, but for the previous three, the ice was kind of helter-skelter and you really couldn't move and it really became almost not fun. So, going to into the last game, we really talked to security about keeping people off the ice and let the players enjoy that time and be able to share with each other and share it with the fans. So, the picture itself really happened because we were just out there alone. I remember the old pictures of the 60's from Montreal and Toronto and I was like 'This is something special to have'. I didn't hear about anything (regarding a possible trade) until that next morning, after we won the Cup. I was approached by somebody who said, ‘There's an opportunity here for you to be traded to Vancouver,’ and I about fell off my chair and that's when I first heard about it."
In that post Stanley Cup celebration, did you know something was up? "Well, what happened was I had one more year on my contract and I would have been an unrestricted free agent. I made it clear to Peter (Pocklington) and Glen (Sather), mostly Peter, that I was going to finish the year out and I had good reason as to why I wanted to finish the year out. I really had no intentions at that point in time of leaving and stiffing the Edmonton Oilers, but I wanted to get paid fair market value. I felt like I owed it to myself to do it, and I felt like (I) really owed it to my teammates. At that point in time there were guys making a million dollars plus and we were making $250 - $300,000 and I just thought, from a business point of view, that I needed to take that step. As I've said to people, I understand now why Peter made his decision and he made a business decision, too, and I totally understand that."
How involved were you? “What had happened was: Peter had given permission basically to talk to whoever I wanted to. And at the point in time, I said, ‘Look, if I'm moving, the only two places I want to go to would be Los Angeles or Detroit’ and Peter said, ‘Fine,’ and that’s how I got involved. My favorite team as a kid was Detroit. My dad wanted me to go to Detroit but my gut was telling me there was a huge challenge in Los Angeles and I just really felt like it was the right thing to do in my heart, that's all, gut feel And I wound up in LA."
When you saw Bruce McNall, how much was business vs. hockey? "It was a combination of both. Peter made a good business decision. He didn't want to take the chance of me not re-signing the next year; so he was going to get as many assets as he could, including money. So, it was a good deal for Peter. As far as Bruce was concerned, he felt that, ‘If I can get this player, I'm going to give them anything they want, basically,’ other than that he was steadfast that Luc Robitaille wasn't going to be apart of it. So, it was one of those deals that was good for both sides."
What was it like to walk up on stage at the press conference in Edmonton? "Well, it was difficult because, leading up to that part, I kind of accepted the fact that something was going to happen. But when it actually did happen, I was probably in shock. So, walking in there, Glen pulled me aside, sat with me for a good hour and tried to convince me and telling me that if we wanted to block the deal he could block the deal right then and there and it would end. I spent a good hour talking to him and a had a good chat and I just felt, from both sides' point of view it was the right thing to do, to keep moving forward. Unfortunately, the people that suffered the most were probably the fans. It was a great opportunity for me and something that I went on to really enjoy being a part of. And the Oilers ended up winning and getting enough players that they went on to win another Stanley Cup. And I think that's when people started to get over the whole thing. But my 10 years in Edmonton - it's still home for me, it's still family, it's still fond memories."
When did you tell Mark Messier (about the trade)? "The morning of the press conference. The only person who knew was Craig Simpson - he was staying with me. We planned this vacation together. I knew it was coming down and so the day he arrived I had to tell him that it was probably going to happen in the next 24 hours. So, he knew and when it officially happened, I talked to Mark and Kevin (Lowe) and it was tough. What was more difficult was when I did get traded, the first day I was at training camp, I remember that night calling friends and saying, ‘I didn't know what I did; I went from one of the greatest hockey teams in history to a team that was 20th out of 21 last year and there was a big difference in talent. And I don't mean that with any disrespect to the players that were there. But you go from Messier, Anderson, Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Kevin Lowe and that was a big eye opener for me."
Tell us what the plane trip was like going to LA that day. "It was really hard because, going in, obviously I had some doubts; is this the right thing to do; why am I doing this etc, etc. And then after I went through the whirlwind of being there and everyone doing the best they could for that particular time, and then it was sort of like this coming out of a rainstorm. Sort of when you're walking on the street and it's raining and all of a sudden you're walking on a beautiful sunny day and that's basically how it felt. It was sort of a black cloud over me and then when I got to LA that night it was like a sunny night so, it was a tough day."
You spoke in LA with your heart at the same time ensuring that you did not hurt anybody back home in Edmonton. "Because it is home for me; it always will be. It's a tough thing to go through. You know I've said this many times, when you play in Edmonton you look around the arena and you see the same people in section 14 and row 10 and they become like friends almost. So, I spent 10 good years there and I like to think that I played hard every night and it was very enjoyable. They treated me with nothing but respect and I like to think I played hard every night. It was difficult leaving and I always say that. Still to this day I love going back there and visiting friends. I still have great friends from those years."
What sense of satisfaction do you have that when you moved to LA it changed the game? "I was lucky. I was part of it. I knew it was part of my responsibility and I worked hard at it. I was lucky enough to have guys like Kelly Hrudey and Luc Robitaille and Marty McSorley and they understood that too and they accepted that role. And then, lets face it, I got a little bit lucky in that Mr. Gund was a huge hockey fan, put a team at that time in San Francisco and that seemed to help and then Michael Eisner said, ‘Well, this looks fun for me, I'm going to put a team in Anaheim’ and Bruce McNall had the brains to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to let them in for a little bit of a discount.’ So all of those things went together and then, Steve Yzerman's emergence in Detroit, what Brett Hull did in St. Louis and then what Mike Modano did in Dallas and what Mark Messier was doing in New York, so it was kind of a timing thing and I was just one piece of that and it all seemed to come together at the same time."
There wouldn't have been teams in Anaheim and San Jose without you. "Well I don't know, you never know. Definitely, myself and the Kings helped do that but I'm not sure. Who knows?"
|"You take minor hockey kids in California now or Arizona, they can compete against the top kids in Canada. We have people that love the game. The game's come a long, long way in the Southwest." - Gretzky on the popularity growth of hockey on the West Coast
Could you sense the growth of the game in LA? “You know what? I remember the first week I was in LA and I was going by these tennis courts and I stopped the car and said to a friend, ‘You know, if we were in Canada, kids would be playing ball hockey, or inline hockey here and it would be amazing.’ And this guy said, ‘Well, this is California.’ A year later there was a sign on the fence that said ‘no inline hockey allowed’ and I was like, ‘We've come a long way.’ You take minor hockey kids in California now or Arizona, they can compete against the top kids in Canada -- 10-11 year old kids, they're very good. You don't have as many, but we are getting to that point. We have some great young talent down there. We have people that love the game. The game's come a long, long way in the Southwest."
With the growth of the game in California, you've got to look back and be satisfied. "Oh I'm ecstatic about it. It’s one of my great thrills that kids want to play ice hockey in California and Arizona and Texas. I think it's very positive for our sport. I tell parents all the time, ‘Let your sons and daughters play inline hockey until they're 8-9-10 and if they still enjoy the game its not going to hurt them when they jump into ice hockey.’ So, hockey's come a long way."
At your press conference, you said that the trade would be something that was not only good for Wayne Gretzky, but good for the LA Kings and the game of hockey. Did you really believe the trade was good for you, LA and hockey? "I was hoping. I knew I would make the best of everything but I was hoping it would be successful for LA. The first exhibition game I played there, we drew 10,000 people and again, I thought, ‘Well, what have I gotten myself into?’ But by that second year when we were selling out every night, it was pretty good."
When did you realize you were no longer an Oiler? "Not until probably the very first playoff game at the end of that first year. I still had a following and a feeling for them and I'm sure they did with me and until we played that first playoff game, that's when you really realized you were the enemy."
And then you scored the empty net goal in Game 7 to beat them. "We were lucky to beat them. We were down 3 games to 2. I don't think Edmonton played a good Game 6, we beat them 4 to 1, I believe, and then came home for Game 7, that we won. But that’s really neither here nor there because that probably jumped-started that team to the next level and they went on to win a championship two years later."
Could you measure your legacy in the U.S. and Canada? "You know I let other people try to measure that. I just know I played as hard as I could every night."
If you could change anything about Aug 9, 1988, what would it be? "I didn't like my blue shirt."