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NHL Centennial

Gretzky trade put Los Angeles hockey on map

Deal between Kings, Oilers on Aug. 9, 1988, sparked game's growth

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / NHL.com Staff Writer

On the day Wayne Gretzky was traded, he wasn't thinking about transforming the sport of hockey or the magic act of pulling kids inside from the Southern California heat to play in chilly rinks.

That all would come later.

Instead, the goals were far more modest -- but nonetheless formidable -- for the man who was well on his way to scoring more goals in the NHL than anyone who ever played in the League.

On Aug. 9, 1988, the Los Angeles Kings acquired Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley from the Edmonton Oilers for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round NHL Draft picks and $15 million. It remains one of the biggest trades in the history of professional sports.

Video: Wayne Gretzky's emotional post-trade press conference

Gretzky began the day with an emotional farewell in Edmonton and ended it with a rousing welcome in Los Angeles at his introductory news conference. Gretzky stood in front of a bevy of flashing cameras and television crews in a room packed with reporters. Decades later, he admitted there was a "deer in headlights" feel to that evening with the weight of his latest challenge sinking in.

The Kings had finished the 1987-88 season with 68 points and lost to the Calgary Flames in five games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Two teams, the Minnesota North Stars and Vancouver Canucks, ranked below the Kings in average attendance figures that season.

"I remember standing there thinking, 'This team finished last year [18th] of 21 teams. What am I doing?'" Gretzky said in an interview with NHL.com earlier this year. "But I honestly really didn't even think about making hockey bigger.

 

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"It really wasn't in my mind. What was in my mind was changing the culture and mindset and to help make the Kings a winning organization."

A common thread that ran through Kings history, in good times and bad, was that their first three owners were larger-than-life personalities, out-of-the-box thinkers and ahead of their time in many respects.

First came Jack Kent Cooke, then Jerry Buss, and then Bruce McNall.

Even before McNall pulled off the blockbuster trade to acquire Gretzky, Buss tried to do something similar when he was majority owner of the Kings. After all, he was no stranger to headline-making moves in his long run as owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers.

Buss made the first overture of a Gretzky-to-L.A. move with Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington shortly after the Oilers won their second Stanley Cup in 1985.

Video: Oilers announce Wayne Gretzky trade to Los Angeles

As it turned out, Buss' foresight of what Gretzky could mean to the Southern California marketplace was accurate. But the timing simply wasn't right. 

Even the innovative Buss, who died in 2013, probably couldn't have envisioned how Gretzky's presence would provide the impetus for popularizing hockey at the grassroots level in nontraditional markets.

Despite Buss' well-known powers of persuasion, Pocklington wasn't willing to entertain his proposal quite yet.  

"What he saw was a team that had an asset. Would he be able to keep that team together, or would the owner eventually want to rebuild?" said Jeanie Buss, Jerry's daughter and the Lakers owner and president, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "He just kind of planted the seed, I believe, and a guy like Bruce would be the one to stay on it and deliver."

Three years later, McNall, who was Kings majority owner, made his move.

The impact was felt immediately. In Gretzky's first season with the Kings, they had 91 points and rallied from down 3-1 to upset the Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. Soon, the Kings were one of the toughest tickets in town. By 1991-92, they sold out every game at the Great Western Forum.

One of the many fans who watched the Kings play at the Forum, located in Inglewood, California, eventually helped trigger a fundamental shift in the League's footprint. He happened to be a powerful movie studio chief at Disney and an acquaintance of McNall's.

"Michael Eisner used to come to the games because his son loved to play hockey and he loved hockey and created a movie ("The Mighty Ducks"), and next thing you know he owned an NHL franchise," Gretzky said of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (now the Anaheim Ducks). "Once Michael Eisner got on board, he helped really take hockey to another level, not only in California but throughout North America."

It's safe to say hockey's growth in nontraditional U.S. markets received a major boost from the epic trade between the Kings and Oilers 29 years ago.

"It was a perfect storm, but quite honestly, I didn't come here thinking, 'Oh my gosh, we were going to make hockey big,'" Gretzky said. "I never ever even thought that. There was more of, 'I want to get there and I'd really like to help this franchise become a winning franchise.' That was the mindset."

Video: Gretzky reflects on trade to LA

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