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Gretzky trade to Kings leaves mark on then-GM 30 years later

Vachon recalls impact, details of blockbuster deal with Oilers

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Rogie Vachon was at the epicenter of the earthquake that shook two countries Aug. 9, 1988, when the Edmonton Oilers sent Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in what remains the most spectacular trade in NHL history.

Three years after the two teams first floated the idea of Gretzky relocating from Edmonton to Los Angeles, virtually undercover, the trade changed the face of hockey in Southern California and beyond.

 

[RELATED: Gretzky trade anniversary to be celebrated by NHL Network]

 

Looking back on the 30th anniversary of the transaction, Vachon remains a little thunderstruck by its enormity and sweeping impact.

"There was no question, absolutely, that I felt Wayne would make an impact on the Kings," said Vachon, then the Kings general manager. "I knew he was like God in Canada, but I never realized how big he was going to be in the [United] States as well."

Video: Oilers send franchise icon Wayne Gretzky to the Kings

Interest in the Kings at home spiked immediately, with fans swamping the team office with ticket requests.

"But what really impressed me was when we went on the road, even back East, to places where we'd go once or twice a season," Vachon said. "We'd fill the building because of Wayne. Before, there would be 5,000 empty seats. Overnight, every team benefited from us having him."

Gretzky gave the sport importance in Southern California, paving the way for teams in San Jose and Anaheim, and gave the NHL credibility in nontraditional hockey markets in the Sun Belt, where it now has teams in Florida, Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, North Carolina and Nevada.

The summer of 1988 wasn't the first time Vachon had heard rumblings about the center becoming a member of the Kings. Three years earlier, about a year and a half into Vachon's tenure as GM, then-Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss was testing the waters in talks with Oilers owner Peter Pocklington.

Los Angeles Kings legends gather for a 2016 portrait. Back row, from left: Dave Taylor, Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake. Seated: Rogie Vachon, Marcel Dionne.

 

"Dr. Buss was very, very serious about trying to acquire Wayne (in 1985)," said Vachon, who rarely has spoken about off-the-radar talks between two team owners that laid at least a little of the trade's foundation. "He and Mr. Pocklington tried to work a deal. At that time, the price was $15 million cash and I don't know how many first-round picks, probably five or six, and players. They were talking quite a bit, a deal got a little closer and then Mr. Pocklington got cold feet and he bailed out."

In March 1988, having bought Buss' shares to become the Kings owner, Bruce McNall immediately started pursuing a Gretzky trade, Vachon said.

The Oilers, a swaggering dynasty, had won the Stanley Cup in 1984, '85, '87 and '88, with Gretzky the brightest star. But as Pocklington's need for cash grew more frantic to buoy his other businesses, Gretzky's unthinkable change of address became a possibility again.

Video: Oilers announce Wayne Gretzky trade to Los Angeles

With Gretzky, the Kings acquired forwards Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley for forwards Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas, three first-draft picks and $15 million. This was a trade -- more a sale and purchase, some still say -- made by two owners; Vachon and Glen Sather, his counterpart in Edmonton, were almost accessories to it.

"There was certainly discussion between Bruce and myself," Vachon said. "He was willing to spend the $15 million required. We talked about how we'd handle draft picks and the players that would be moving. I knew if Wayne comes over, he certainly would want protection. We wanted Marty McSorley in the deal because he and Wayne were very good friends and we knew that Marty would protect him on the ice. And we got Krushelnyski, too."

The cost of the Kings' three first-round draft selections was an unknown. Ultimately Martin Rucinsky, selected No. 20 in the 1991 NHL Draft, would be the most durable of the players taken with those picks, playing 961 NHL games. He played two games for the Oilers before he was traded to the Quebec Nordiques on March 10, 1992, for goalie Ron Tugnutt and forward Brad Zavisha.

Forward Jason Miller, the No. 18 pick in the 1989 NHL Draft, played six NHL games, all for the New Jersey Devils, and defenseman Nick Stajduhar, the No. 16 pick in the 1993 NHL Draft, played two, both for Edmonton.

Los Angeles Kings legends on Staples Center ice in 2009. From left: Rogie Vachon, Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille.

 

"If you're a GM, you hate to give up first-round picks," Vachon said. "But if you think about a deal of this magnitude, if you get the best player in the world, if you have to give up six or seven [first-round picks], who cares? Most of the [first-rounders] in those days didn't make it big, anyway. You're not giving up five big stars, you know? Some will be good, but some won't make it."

Vachon didn't watch the momentous Edmonton press conference to announce the trade.

"I don't even know if it was on TV," he said. "But Wayne then flew to L.A. (on McNall's jet) and we had our own press conference. There were lots of important people at that, and Bruce was all over it. This was his deal."

Vachon was onstage to help Gretzky pull on his Kings jersey, then watched him, that day and for years to come, effortlessly handle the crush of attention usually reserved for the entertainment elite of Hollywood.

"Wayne was always on an even keel, always calm," Vachon said. "He had a good rapport with the press and the fans. I think he handled the whole situation on and off the ice like a real pro. It was amazing. He's responsible, 100 percent, for bringing a franchise to Anaheim (in 1993-94) and to San Jose (in 1991-92). When Wayne came in, youth hockey in California really grew. Everybody got excited because of him."

Gretzky helped the Kings make a 23-point improvement in 1988-89, then helped Los Angeles come back from trailing 3-1 in the Smythe Division Semifinals against Edmonton to defeat his former team in Game 7 and end the Oilers hopes for a third straight championship.

Wayne Gretzky fans in Vancouver following his trade to the Los Angeles Kings.

 

"The Oilers still had a good team, even without Wayne," Vachon said. "They were really, really tough. They had [Grant] Fuhr in the net and a lot of experience up front and they'd been winning Cup after Cup. When they got into the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs, they were animals. It was tough being down 3-1 but when you have Wayne, anything can happen."

Named captain his second season in Los Angeles, Gretzky carried the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in five games to the Montreal Canadiens. He was traded to the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27, 1996; by then Vachon had moved upstairs in the Kings' executive suites. Gretzky finished that season with the Blues before playing three more with the New York Rangers and retiring in 1999.

Vachon used to see Gretzky at charity golf tournaments, but with fewer of those on his schedule, he said they now renew their friendship when special Kings events bring them together. Three decades after the trade, he best remembers none of the 918 points (246 goals, 672 assists) that Gretzky had for Los Angeles in 539 games, but rather a handful of points that eluded him.

"We won a game maybe 5-4 and that night, honestly, Wayne should have had 15 points," Vachon said. "That's how good he was. He was setting up guys who were missing empty nets and hitting posts. It was unbelievable. Every time he was on the ice we had scoring chances."

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