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Wayne Gretzky traded by Oilers to Kings 28 years ago

Aug. 9, 1988, move boosts hockey's popularity in Los Angeles, haunts some in Edmonton to this day

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

The trade that most thought could never happen was made on this date 28 years ago.

Wayne Gretzky, the captain and the heart and soul of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers, was traded on Aug. 9, 1988, sent to the Los Angeles Kings along with center Mike Krushelnyski and defenseman Marty McSorley. Coming to the Oilers in return were center Jimmy Carson, first-round draft choice Martin Gelinas, first-round picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993, and $15 million.

The trade, which caused chaos in Edmonton and left all of Canada in disbelief, redefined player movement throughout sports.

Every trade made in its wake, no matter how monstrous or unthinkable, could now be explained logically: "Well, if Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be traded."

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

None of that, though, made the day of the trade any less surreal.

Gretzky, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington and coach and general manager Glen Sather sat for a packed, hear-a-pin-drop press conference at Edmonton's Molson House to try to explain what, to many, was unexplainable.

Gretzky dissolved in tears as he spoke.

"I'm disappointed with leaving Edmonton. I've enjoyed living here and I love the fans," he said, his voice catching.

"I told [Oilers teammate Mark Messier] I wouldn't do this," he continued, choked by emotion. "But as I said, there comes a time when, uh, when…"

Video: Gretzky reflects on trade to LA

Gretzky couldn't continue. He stepped away from the microphone, his few words hanging unfinished in the air.

"Everything changes, we all get older," a solemn Sather said. "We all have other demands on our lives. It's a boy's game that men try to play, and that is the tough part of it; saying goodbye. And I'm going to miss Wayne."

The shockwaves of the trade were felt for years, but the emotions of the moment were raw in a sense that had never before been felt in hockey.

In Edmonton, Pocklington was burned in effigy by angry fans who believed the owner had sold off the franchise's greatest asset.

The Oilers' 21 phone lines melted with callers threatening to cancel season tickets and/or never again buy a ticket or follow the team in any way.

Gretzky's wife, the actor Janet Jones, also was blamed for the trade, three weeks after she was the sweetheart of Edmonton during the couple's storybook wedding.

A member of Canada's Parliament even proposed the federal government block the trade or buy Gretzky's contract and sell it to another Canadian team.

"The Oilers without Gretzky is like apple pie without ice cream, like winter without snow, like Wheel of Fortune without Vanna White," New Democratic Party House Leader Nelson Riis said.

Said Don Cherry, the popular Hockey Night in Canada commentator: "There's no way Wayne would have wanted out of Edmonton and there's no way that Janet should be played the heavy in this. I think Wayne should have stayed in Edmonton and retired in Edmonton just like Jean Beliveau did with the Montreal Canadiens."

Lost in the uproar was the fact that Gretzky had asked to be traded, his wife expecting their first child, her career prospects rooted in Hollywood. But there was a strong undercurrent suggesting that Gretzky was bitter about the Oilers shopping him, the team reportedly listening to offers from the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers.

Despite the uproar, Pocklington was generous in his comments to reporters as he announced the trade.

"I believe [Gretzky] has earned the right to determine his own destiny," he said. "We are not replacing Wayne Gretzky in this trade. You cannot replace Wayne Gretzky. … It's like losing a son. He's been more than a hockey player to me."

Video: Oilers announce Wayne Gretzky Trade to Los Angeles

Pocklington felt so strongly about Gretzky that he says he gave the player the chance to pull the plug on the deal.

"I told Wayne, 'You have the opportunity to back out now, I don't want to trade you,'" the Oilers owner said, as quoted by Los Angeles Times writer Gordon Edes. "His response was, 'I want to be traded. I wish to go through with it. I have an opportunity to do some new things for me, and it will be good for hockey in the U.S.'"

And, just like that, there was a far different hockey vibe in Los Angeles.

Dennis Metz, sales manager for the Kings at the time, said his team had a thousand phone calls inquiring about tickets the day the trade was announced, a bit of a spike from the 10 he said would come on a normal August day.

"We don't have to sell the sport anymore," Metz said. "We have the best player in hockey. It will sell itself."

Said Kings owner Bruce McNall: "I've got to do something to sell hockey in L.A., and there's no name in hockey like Wayne Gretzky."

At the time of the trade, the Hockey Hall of Fame-bound Gretzky, then 27, was the dominant player of his generation, holding single-season NHL records for goals (92), assists (163) and points (215). He was the League's all-time assists leader with 1,086 and sat 218 goals and 181 points behind Gordie Howe for No. 1 all-time in those categories. He would break each of those records with the Kings.

Video: Wayne Gretzky breaks Howe's record with goal no. 802

Gretzky scored 246 goals and had 672 assists in eight seasons with Los Angeles. In his first season with the Kings, he won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player for his ninth and final time. He rapidly built the team's fan base and captured the imagination of all hockey fans, winning the NHL scoring title in his second and third seasons with the Kings.

"Wayne is the biggest draw in hockey and the best player in the world," Kings GM Rogie Vachon said upon Gretzky's arrival. "He will make a tremendous impact on fans here, on the interest in hockey, and really put us on the map. It's very rare that a franchise gets the opportunity to get a player of this caliber."

The Kings, who had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three of the previous six seasons and hadn't won a series since their upset of the Oilers in 1982, went to the postseason in each of Gretzky's first five seasons in Los Angeles. In 1993, they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, losing to the Canadiens in five games.

Video: 1993 Conf Final, Gm7: Gretzky's trick: LA to Final

Gretzky left the Kings when he was traded to the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 27, 1996. He signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers on July 21, 1996, reuniting with Messier for the final three seasons of his career before retiring April 16, 1999.

The Oilers won one more Stanley Cup, in 1990, without Gretzky, but Edmonton's dynasty would crumble with the eventual departures of Messier, scoring forward Jari Kurri and goaltender Grant Fuhr.

Gretzky's impact in California was huge, stirring enormous interest in the market and throughout the United States.

His departure, though, remains a healing wound for some in Edmonton.

"He was Canada, he was Edmonton, he was the Oilers, he was greatness now and tomorrow; he was on his perfect team in his perfect time," wrote late Ottawa Citizen columnist Earl McRae two days after the trade that changed hockey's landscape forever.

"So, weep you Oilers fans, but consider this: Wayne Gretzky never did belong to the Oilers. He belonged to the NHL. Maybe that's the ultimate truth behind this saga, yet to be revealed."

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