August 9, 1988. A day that will live in infamy for a lot Canadians. On that day, 20 years ago, the hockey world turned upside down.
The idea that Wayne Gretzky
-- the greatest offensive player in NHL history, the face of the NHL and the person who in many ways exemplified what Canadians thought of themselves -- could be traded shook Canada to its core. Not only had become the most prolific scorer anyone had ever seen, he was a national treasure for many Canadians -- and doubly so for the residents of Edmonton. In the words of Edmonton Sun columnist Graham Hicks, "He was our best reason for living here." In many ways, he defined the way Canadians liked to see themselves -- hard-working and talented, but humble and determined.
Gretzky was the key cog in the greatest scoring machine the NHL had ever seen. He put up offensive numbers that were inconceivable only a few years earlier: 92 goals in one season, 200-plus points four times. He and the Oilers had supplanted the New York Islanders
as the NHL's dynasty team by winning four Stanley Cups in five years -- and at age 27, coming off a sweep of the Boston Bruins
in the Final, there was no telling how many more Cups were in the future.
Gretzky got married that summer, exchanging vows with actress Janet Jones on July 16 in the closest thing Canada had to a royal wedding. Less than a month later, Jones' name would be reviled in much of Canada as the cause of Gretzky's departure from the only NHL team he had ever known.
In truth, there were a lot of moving parts to the deal. After news of the trade first broke, Gretzky said he had asked to be traded. In reality, he likely acquiesced to the idea after he learned that Oilers owner Peter Pocklington -- fearing that Gretzky would leave as a free agent when his contract ran out after the 1991-92 season -- had been shopping him around after Gretzky turned down a request to extend his deal for another couple of seasons.
In Los Angeles, Bruce McNall, the new owner of the Kings, was trying to make the team relevant in a market that was dominated by the Dodgers, Lakers and the NFL's Raiders and Rams. What better way than bringing in hockey's greatest (as well as most marketable and media-savvy) player?
The deal was (and still is) the biggest in NHL history: Gretzky, forward Mike Krushelnyski
and defenseman Marty McSorley
to Los Angeles for 20-year-old star center Jimmy Carson, three No. 1 picks, recently drafted forward Martin Gelinas
-- and $15 million (negotiating rights to a couple of minor-league defensemen were also part of the deal). In all of sports, perhaps only the Babe Ruth deal between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees comes close to the impact that the Gretzky deal had.
The deal was an instant shot in the arm to hockey in Southern California. The Kings, who had never advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since joining the NHL in 1967, quickly became the talk of the town. All 8,500 loge seats in the Forum sold out for the season within three days of the Gretzky announcement. The Kings' cable-TV outlet nearly doubled the number of games it planned to cover in 1988-89.
But in Edmonton, and throughout much of Canada, there was mourning -- not because dealing Gretzky meant that a Stanley Cup parade would no longer be an annual spring event in the "City of Champions" (the Oilers, sans No. 99, won the Cup again in 1990), but because for a lot of people, their hearts had been ripped out.
"The best hockey player in the world was ours, and the Americans flew up from Hollywood in their private jet and bought him," Vancouver Province columnist Jim Taylor wrote. "It wasn't the Canadian heart that was torn, it was the Canadian psyche that was ripped by an uppercut to the paranoia."
But in truth, the Kings had been courting Pocklington to try and get Gretzky to L.A. for a couple years. Owner Jerry Buss had made the original inquiries, and after he sold the team to McNall, his minority partner, McNall continued the push.
"A couple of days after Wayne's wedding, (Pocklington) called me and said, 'If you're serious about No. 99, we should talk,'" McNall recalled in Sports Illustrated. "He said that Jerry had originally offered him $15 million and any three players on the roster, and we used that as a starting point for the negotiations. I never did get him off that $15 million figure. The money issue was settled the fastest."
After more negotiations, including a late-night session that lasted into the wee hours of Aug. 9, the price was agreed upon -- the addition of Carson, a 55-goal scorer the previous season, had been the stumbling block.
Because some specifics of the trade had already leaked, McNall and Pocklington opted to hold a news conference that afternoon. A few minutes before they were due at the news conference at Molson House in Edmonton, Pocklington gave Gretzky the chance to call off the deal. Gretzky declined. Then he had a short but tearful meeting with Glen Sather
, the Oilers' longtime GM and coach. "It was out of Slats' hands," Gretzky said. "He didn't want to make the deal. He told me that."
Oilers fans didn't want the deal done, either -- and they weren't fussy about who got the blame. Pocklington's effigy was burned outside the Northlands Coliseum and city hall, and outraged citizens organized boycotts against two of Pocklington's companies. Edmonton radio stations were inundated with calls from fans incorrectly blaming the trade on Jones, who was called a "witch" and a "Jezebel" -- newspapers across Canada quickly came up with headlines such as "JEZEBEL JANET" and compared her to Yoko Ono, who was blamed for breaking up the Beatles because of her relationship with John Lennon.
Gretzky refused to ride to the news conference with Pocklington and wouldn't read the statement the owner's spokesman had written out for him. Instead, he told the 200 reporters and a nationwide radio and TV audience that he had requested the trade to Los Angeles "for the benefit of Wayne Gretzky, my new wife and our expected child in the New Year. I feel I'm still young enough and capable enough to help a new franchise win the Stanley Cup."
He choked back tears as he struggled to express his thanks to the people of Edmonton. "It's disappointing having to leave Edmonton ... there comes a time when...." He was unable to go on.
Pocklington dug himself an even bigger hole in his hometown when he told the Edmonton Journal that Gretzky "has an ego the size of Manhattan .... He's a great actor. I thought he pulled it off beautifully when he showed how upset he was." He later called Gretzky to apologize, claiming the remarks were taken out of context. "I understood where he was coming from when he talked about the size of my ego," Gretzky said. "He didn't mean that as an insult. But the part about the theatrics made me sick. I wouldn't accept an apology on that."
The deal turned the Kings into the hottest ticket in L.A. -- and a team that opponents finally had to take seriously.
Gretzky and his new team returned to Edmonton on Oct. 20, 1988, and he scored on his first shift. Gretzky then personally ended the Oilers' run as Stanley Cup champs the following spring when he rallied the Kings to a seven-game victory over his former team in the opening round of the playoffs. On Oct. 15, 1989, Gretzky made his most heroic return visit of all. In front of cheering fans at Northlands Coliseum, he broke Gordie Howe’s NHL all-time points record by scoring his 1,850th and 1,851st points.
In Los Angeles, celebrity-laden sellout crowds became the norm at the Forum, and Gretzky carried the Kings to their first Stanley Cup Final in 1993 (they lost to Montreal). Gretzky became not only a hockey star, but a media star, bringing the NHL a kind of attention it had rarely seen in the U.S.
The Gretzky-less Oilers rebounded to win the Cup in 1990. They haven't won another since then, and didn't get back to the Final until 2006, long after Pocklington had sold the franchise.
Gretzky was traded to the St. Louis Blues in 1996 and finished his playing career by playing three seasons with the New York Rangers. But he was still an Oiler at heart, and admitted that every Edmonton homecoming was difficult.
"It was the only place I dreaded playing as an opponent," he said in 1999, when the Oilers retired his No. 99.
The Oilers survived and the Kings thrived, but the biggest winner in the trade was the NHL. Gretzky created interest in hockey where there had been none previously.
The pre-Gretzky NHL had 15 U.S.-based teams, but none were south of Washington D.C., and only the Kings played west of St. Louis. Today's NHL has 24 teams in the United States, including a number in non-traditional markets across the Sun Belt. One of those teams, the Phoenix Coyotes, is coached by Gretzky; he is also a managing partner in the franchise, which moved from Winnipeg in 1996.