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Two decades later, Gretzky trade still affects hockey

by Larry Wigge

The sports world was turned upside down twenty years ago this week when the L.A. Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers.
VIDEO: Gretzky on hockey's future
It wasn't a typical slow news cycle in sports. Fans were still buzzing about the first game under the lights at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8. Jose Canseco was approaching the 40-homer, 40-stolen base mark. "Flo-Jo" and "Big Ben" and Greg Louganis were on the minds of the world because of their quest for gold at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Joe Montana was still holding off Steve Young as quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, and I was chasing the more than just tantalizing return of Guy Lafleur to hockey story.

It was actually a day when some said the hockey world stood still.

I still can remember hearing the phone ring and how funny it sounded on that stifling St. Louis morning of Aug. 9, 1988. The sound was a little tinny. A little eerie -- almost surreal.

"No, this isn't Rod Serling. But I'm beginning to feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone, too," laughed Bob Johnson, when I told him about what a strange day I was having trying to track down rumors that Wayne Gretzky was close to being traded by Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings just weeks after being he was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner for helping lead the Oilers to their second straight Stanley Cup and fourth in the last five years.

Rumors that Gretzky would be traded anywhere seemed like a figment of someone's imagination. But to the Los Angeles Kings? That was more like a Steven Spielberg make-believe Hollywood mystery.

At that point in his career, "Badger" Bob Johnson had yet to win his only Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He made his name winning hockey championships at the University of Wisconsin and had just finished a five-year stint coaching the Calgary Flames, directing the only team that knocked off the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a five-year period from 1984 through 1988. Johnson was now an executive for USA Hockey. But he was well aware of the passion and fierceness of the "Battle of Alberta" between Calgary and Edmonton, plus the greatness of "The Great One" and the Oilers.

"Since we talked last week, I just finished a trip to Anaheim, Dallas, Nashville and Tampa ... and even though I was in non-hockey cities, I couldn't get away from people asking the question that's on everyone's mind: Is it true that Wayne Gretzky is going to be traded?" Johnson said excitedly. "It can't just be a rumor anymore. Not with this much speculation. Heck, it's got to be the biggest trade since Babe Ruth went from the Red Sox to the Yankees, eh?"

Yes, Gretzky had become the Babe Ruth of hockey in his 10 years with the Edmonton Oilers. The rest of the sports world was gushing over the basketball exploits of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. But none of them had won eight straight scoring championships or been named MVP of their league for eight-consecutive seasons and just finished with three goals and 10 assists in a sweep of the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final to be named Playoff MVP for the second time in his team's four Cup title years.

"This beats all the other sports headlines ... by a mile," gushed Johnson. "Don't get me wrong. The Oilers will still win without 'The Great One.' But there have been nights in his 10 years in Edmonton when the rest of the team was having a bad night and he found a way to win anyway. No one plays as smart and with the same kind of creativity in all of sports."

Johnson paused -- and that was saying something about the "It's a great for hockey" coach who could talk your arm off about the game he loved so much -- so you knew something important was coming when he added, "In the end, this trade may prove to be the best thing to happen to the NHL. Yeah, I know it shakes up the hockey world, especially in Edmonton. But if Wayne can work his magic in Los Angeles, there are a lot of other warm-weather cities looking to get into the NHL. Think about how he could put hockey on the map in non-hockey cities in the States."

The deal was bigger than a young Babe Ruth going from Boston to New York in 1920 for $125,000 and a $300,000 loan to Boston owner Harry Frazee. The Oilers sent Gretzky along with veterans Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley to Los Angeles for center Jimmy Carson, left wing Marty Gelinas, first-round draft choices in 1989, 1991 and '93 plus $15 million in cash.

"I thought Slats (then-Oilers General Manager Glen Sather) was joking when he asked me at the draft (in late June) if I wanted Gretzky," said Phil Esposito, then the GM of the New York Rangers. "I remember I asked him what he wanted ... my whole team."

Everyone thought it was a bad joke.

"It's like ripping the heart out of the city," Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore said bluntly.

"You don't tamper with God," joked then-Washington Capitals GM David Poile. "If there was an untouchable in this business, it was Gretzky. From today on, I guess anything's possible."

"I don't think there's an Aug. 9 that's gone by when I haven't thought about it. It still seems like yesterday. And it was something I thought would never end." -- Wayne Gretzky
"We've just lost the greatest player in the world," said center Mark Messier, with tears in his eyes. "But we have to go on ... and look at this as a new challenge."

"Thank God I believe in life after death," said Oilers co-coach John Muckler, with tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

In the end, "Badger Bob" proved prophetic in so many ways -- the Messier-led Oilers did win another Stanley Cup in 1990, Gretzky did get the Kings to the Final against Montreal in 1993 -- and, most important, the 21-team NHL expanded to today's 30 teams primarily because of the credibility that Gretzky brought to L.A. and warm-weather cities in the United States. At 27, "The Great One" still had plenty of things to prove.

Then, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington's businesses were oozing red ink. He had previously sold off All-Star defenseman Paul Coffey and the team still won. The bottom line, however, was Pocklington did not include a no-trade clause in a new contract the team and Gretzky were talking about. Relations were frayed. But ...

"If Wayne totally wanted to say and if Peter totally didn't want to trade him, they would have found a way," Sather explained back then. "I did go up to Wayne and told him, 'If you don't want to be traded, I'll stop it right now.' "

The rest is history.

"I don't think there's an Aug. 9 that's gone by when I haven't thought about it," Gretzky told me back in 1998 when ruminating about the 10th anniversary of The Trade. "It still seems like yesterday. And it was something I thought would never end.

"I think about it all the time ... how things might have been different if I could have talked Wayne out of the trade. I think about it every time I see him. I think about it every time I see or hear something about him." -- Glen Sather
"At the time, we were the cream of the crop. We'd just won our fourth Stanley Cup. And I played as well as I ever played in that Final. Then all of a sudden, that part of my life ... was over."

"If the team had been a separate entity, if Peter was not involved in the other businesses, I think we could have kept that team together for quite a while longer," Sather recalled after he had reacquired Gretzky, this time in New York. "I think about it all the time ... how things might have been different if I could have talked Wayne out of the trade. I think about it every time I see him. I think about it every time I see or hear something about him."

How many more Stanley Cups could those Oilers have won with Gretzky and Messier and Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr and Esa Tikkanen and Kevin Lowe together?

"I know we would have won more than one more Stanley Cup. Probably two or three," Sather said.

Gretzky was confident those Oilers had even more to give the hockey world.

"I'll go to my grave believing we would have won seven or eight," he added, his voice getting raspy with a still hard-to-forget emotion from that day in 1988.

"I'll never forget going back to Edmonton that day. I thought I was fine. (Kings owner) Bruce McNall kept asking me, 'Are you OK?' I thought I was composed. Then, when a reporter asked me what my most memorable moment in Edmonton was it hit me like a ton of bricks. My tears came out from thinking about the people I had grown up with, players I wouldn't play with anymore, thinking of the Stanley Cups we had won, the great times we had. It all kind of hit me at once."

From a hockey perspective, the world obviously didn't stand still on Aug. 9, 1988. Wayne Gretzky wouldn't let that happen. Instead, it began to grow and grow. And you can say that in more than 99 different ways.

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