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Even Gretzky wasn't immune to wheelin' and dealin'

by Phil Coffey
Throughout the course of its history, the NHL has seen trades of every conceivable shape and size. There have been trades of players, draft picks, cash and the ever nebulous "future considerations."

Players have laughed, cried and shrugged their shoulders when told of a trade. So too, have the fans. Trades are part and parcel of the professional sports game. No one is immune.

In the past, stars like Phil Esposito and Brad Park were swapped for one another, setting up a quandary for fans who had grown to detest their bitter rivals. Frank Mahovlich went from Toronto to Montreal. Mark Messier went from Edmonton to New York. Paul Coffey from Edmonton to Pittsburgh, Darryl Sittler from Toronto to Philadelphia. Ray Bourque from Boston to Colorado. Rob Blake from Los Angeles to Colorado, Eric Lindros from Philadelphia to New York.

Heck, retired forward Brent Ashton was swapped all over the map. Ashton began his career in Vancouver in 1979 and was sent to Winnipeg in 1981 and the Jets traded him to the Colorado Rockies on the same day. He transferred to New Jersey when Colorado relocated in 1982 and the Devils traded him to Minnesota in 1983. He was then dealt to Quebec in 1984 and the Nordiques dispatched him to Detroit in 1987. The Red Wings, in turn, sent him back to Winnipeg in 1988 and the Jets shipped him to Boston in 1991. The last time he was traded was in 1993 when the Bruins dealt him to Calgary.

As you can see, no one is immune. Not even Wayne Gretzky. The Gretzky trade warrants a refresher look because of its magnitude. Here was the sport's greatest star on the move weeks after winning a championship to a rich, but untapped market.

The date was Aug. 9, 1988 and it proved once and for all that trades can affect anyone. That summer day, not long after Edmonton Oilers had won the Stanley Cup, ended an NHL era, while also ushering in a very important period for the NHL.

"The tearful end to one of the most spectacular chapters in hockey history was authored in Edmonton yesterday, fittingly with one of the greatest trades involving one of the greatest players," wrote Scott Morrison in the Toronto Sun.

The cold, hard facts read as follows: Edmonton Oilers trade centers Wayne Gretzky and Mike Krushelnyski and defenseman Marty McSorley to the Los Angeles Kings for forwards Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993, and $15 million.

The facts may have been cold and hard, but the response sure wasn't. In Edmonton and throughout Canada the trade was met with derision as the city and country's favorite son was headed to the United States. In Los Angeles, the response was pure Hollywood, a glittery press conference that attracted score of celebrities.

Yes, things had changed.

"For the benefit of Wayne Gretzky, my new wife and our expected child in the new year, I thought it was beneficial to all involved if they let me play with the Kings," Gretzky said at a tearful farewell in Edmonton. "It's disappointing having to leave Edmonton, but there comes a time when ..."

"I don't want to try and philosophize on what happened," said Glen Sather, the Oilers' general manager at the time. "We tried to do what was good for Wayne, the Oilers and the NHL. We all would like to be proud of what we do for a living ... I know we'll adjust."

Call Sather a prophet in this regard because everyone did adjust. The Oilers went on to win another Stanley Cup without Gretzky before the remaining cogs in that dynasty -- Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, etc -- also were traded. Gretzky, too, would play elsewhere. He was traded a second time, to the St. Louis Blues, but only played a portion of a season there before signing with the New York Rangers as a free agent, finishing his career on Broadway.

What Gretzky accomplished after leaving Edmonton cemented his reputation as "The Great One". His journey south of the border sparked great interest in the NHL and today, Gretzky's fingerprints can be found in Phoenix -- where he is the Coyotes' coach -- Anaheim, San Jose, Florida, Dallas and Nashville.

"I remember that first summer, I spent every day going to hockey clinics and doing interviews trying to sell the game," Gretzky told the Los Angeles Daily News. "It didn't happen overnight, and a lot of people put in a lot of hours. The one thing I worried about was being a $15 million bust."

Gretzky was hardly a bust. While the Kings didn't win a Stanley Cup during his tenure, they did reach the 1993 Stanley Cup Final and Gretzky went on to finish his career as the NHL's all-time leading scorer and to own dozens of League records and trophies.

Trades are made for many reasons. The Gretzky trade was a perfect example. Former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington's other business interests were struggling and he needed to lighten his salary burden. Bruce McNall, then the Kings owner, wanted to make a splash and put the Kings at the center of the sports map in Los Angeles.

For teams on the cusp of a rebuilding program it often makes sense to trade a star player for a package of prospects and draft picks. For teams on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup, a timely move can make all the difference in the world. Back in 1994, the New York Rangers were wheeling and dealing at a feverish pitch at the trade deadline, picking up veterans like Craig MacTavish, Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan in an effort to get over the top. They did.

Then there are trades made to shake up a lethargic roster. Those can happen at almost anytime.

Still another reason to make a deal is to get out of a bad situation. After drafting Eric Lindros in the 1991 Entry Draft, the Quebec Nordiques appeared to have made a serious miscalculation because Lindros insisted he wouldn't sign in Quebec. At the next draft, the Nordiques traded Lindros -- to two teams. Both the Philadelphia Flyers and Rangers thought they had a trade in place for Lindros, forcing an arbitrator to make a ruling, which eventually went in the Flyers' favor. As a result, Lindros came to Philadelphia in 1992 and Mike Ricci, Peter Forsberg, Chris Simon, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Ron Hextall, two first round draft picks and cash were sent to the Nordiques.

In many respects the Philadelphia-Quebec trade had a sports-talk radio element to it. You know the kinds of calls that come in advocating a team acquire the other team's superstar for a gaggle of players from your own team. While they make for great talk and speculation, deals like the Lindros trade don't happen as much anymore as teams are sticking to their financial bottom lines more and more, making it hard to acquire millions and millions of payroll.

"(Wayne) Gretzky got traded, so everybody goes through it, different rumors. You just play."
-- Calgary's Jarome Iginla

"Why is it hard to make a trade?" Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke once said in response to a reporter's question. "It's real simple. You know how in real estate, they say it's all about location, location, location? Well, in the NHL right now, it's all about budget, budget, budget."

And now, the salary cap plays a large role in deciding which trades can be made and which can be left as grist in the rumor mill.
Which makes it a far different world than the one former Colorado Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix enjoyed. Lacroix was one of the League's most adept wheeler-dealers.

"It's tough to tango right now, to find a partner in trade," said Lacroix, who has made bold moves for players like Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Theo Fleury and Darius Kasparaitis in the past. "The tango partners are not around as much. It's like I have bad breath. They have walked away from the dance floor."

While the trade world may have substantially changes, it hasn't gone away because the old axiom remains true.

Heck, even Wayne Gretzky got traded.

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