When Wayne Gretzky was officially traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988, the announcement required not one, but two of the biggest press conferences in the history of sports.
Each was broadcast across North America. The first, in Edmonton, featured a vulnerable Gretzky bidding a tearful farewell to the Oilers. The second, in Los Angeles, featured "The Great One" triumphantly coming to L.A. in a show of Hollywood glitz.
Had it happened today, it probably would have played out online in a matter of minutes. Instead, it took a lot longer.
"There was no Twitter and there were no cell phones. So there was no communication," said Sportsnet's Mark Spector, who back then was a reporter for the Edmonton Journal. "It was nothing like it is today. Everything worked a little slower and not as electronically."
With stories needing to be filed hours in advance just to make it in the next day's newspaper, it could take some time for people to hear about a breaking news story. The advantage at that time was with radio and television, which had a shorter, more immediate deadline to work with.
Few people in the local or national media caught wind of the Gretzky news in time to report it for that day's newspaper. But there were a few local reporters in Edmonton who did manage to get the scoop in time for their story to be published the morning of the big announcement.
"I had something in the paper. The day before, I got some stuff out of [Oilers general manager Glen] Sather," Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal said. "We had something in the paper the day it happened."
Media from across the globe were expected to attend or watch the press conference in order to learn the details of what was quickly turning into one of the biggest sports stories in history. During an era when nationally televised live press conferences were rare, Gretzky's face was beamed across the continent.
"The thing I can remember is it was really new to be able to watch an event, a news conference from another country, on home television. It was really something that was a cool thing," said Frank Brown, the NHL's group vice president of public relations who was then working as a reporter with the New York Daily News. "There wasn't anything close to the saturation of availability. Obviously, this was an event that was deserving of that kind of coverage."
But real information was at a premium in Edmonton. In a room swarming with media, Gretzky was overcome with emotion and had difficulty sharing his thoughts. What's more, reporters were limited to 10 questions following statements from Gretzky and Oilers owner Peter Pocklington. When a photographer from the Journal took the time to thank Gretzky for his time in Edmonton, Oilers media relations counted it as one of the 10.
The difficult situation was exacerbated by the noticeable absence of longtime Oilers media relations director Bill Tuele, who was stuck in Phoenix after going on vacation at the most inopportune of times.
"There had been chatter about Gretzky being traded. In this particular case, the chatter was a little louder. There had been a lot of speculation," Tuele told NHL.com. "I asked Glen Sather if I should stay back. He was quite adamant that there was nothing going on. So off I went."
Reporters in L.A. didn't fare much better. The press conference in Los Angeles was fairly short and media in attendance were limited to two questions. But there was one reporter at the event who did manage to get quite a scoop.
"I was walking back to the hotel and I felt a tap on my shoulder. Somebody, I don't remember who, handed me a folded piece of paper. He said 'Wayne wanted you to have this,'" said Jay Greenberg, who was writing for the Philadelphia Daily News. "It was Wayne's new L.A. phone number and it said, 'Call me tomorrow.' He knew what a joke the press conference was. He saw what effort I took to get there and I knew him for a while. I called him the next day."
Greenberg got his exclusive, which was published in the Daily News almost two days after news of the historic Gretzky trade first broke. In today's online media landscape, many people would have moved on to the next story in that time. Back then, two days later was still considered breaking news.
Author: Tal Pinchevsky | NHL.com Staff Writer