On August 8, 1988, the Edmonton Oilers shocked the hockey world by trading Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. This was a trade that impacted far more than those two teams, but the sport itself.
Ultimately, it played the critical role in the expansion on the NHL’s footprint across North America. It spread well outside the areas thought to be the only spots where most thought the sport could thrive.
Adam Proteau of the Hockey News covers this thoroughly in his oral history of the transaction from virtually every angle.
Clearly, it was a deal that shocked the hockey world, but as with most moves, finances were at its base. New York Yankees co-owner Jacob Ruppert was able to take advantage of a difficult financial time for Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee when he purchased Babe Ruth for $200,000 cash and a loan of $300,000 in 1919. That deal clearly changed the course of baseball, as the previously second-rate Yankees dominated baseball for much of the 20th Century.
Years later, it was the money problems of Edmonton Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington that led to a similar situation. You can read about them and what led up to the ultimate trade from Pocklington’s perspective in his 2009 book, “I’d Trade Him Again.”
In 1988, the Oilers had just wrapped up their fourth Stanley Cup title in five seasons, with Wayne Gretzky leading the way. They were the dynasty that followed the New York islanders and Montreal Canadiens. Runs of dominance do fade, but the outlook for that Oilers team indicated no such fall off in the foreseeable future.
The idea that Gretzky’s marriage that summer to actress Janet Jones (unfairly called “Yoko Ono” in some circles) was the impetus for it was a convenient smokescreen for Pocklington.
There was no reason to call this anything but an accommodation of Pocklington’s difficulties with not only the Oilers, but his other businesses (and there were many) as well. He owned the best team in hockey, but was cash poor, and Gretzky could have become a free agent in 1989. So, he used his most significant asset to try to ease his situation.
This is the trade that was fashioned by Pocklington and Kings’ owner Bruce McNall to masquerade the money concerns at its base: Gretzky, along with enforcer Marty McSorley and center Mike Krushelnyski, were traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers received $15 million US cash; center Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas (whom the Kings had drafted in the first round that summer), plus the Kings’ first round picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993. Those picks brought defenseman Corey Foster (in a trade with New Jersey), forward Martin Rucinsky (who played just two games with Edmonton), and defenseman Nick Stajduhar (who also played just two games in Edmonton before finishing up with the Idaho Steelheads in 2000-2001).
The Gretzky trade was the sure sign of the Edmonton fire sale. While defenseman Paul Coffey was dealt to Pittsburgh the previous summer, after Gretzky was traded, it wasn’t long before the Oilers’ other five Hockey Hall of Fame players were moved out of Edmonton.
In 1991, center Mark Messier was sent to the Rangers and Jari Kurri joined Gretzky with the Kings. Also in 1991, goaltender Grant Fuhr and forward Glenn Anderson were traded to Toronto. Defenseman Kevin Lowe was sent to the Rangers in 1992. Pocklington finally sold the Oilers in 1998, and General Manager – Head Coach Glen Sather hung around another couple of years after that before joining the New York Rangers in 2000.
So Bruce McNall saw his chance to bring hockey’s greatest star to the city that thrives on stars, Los Angeles. The Oilers were still able to win the Cup in 1990 with what was left behind. The Kings got to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 1993, losing to the Montreal Canadiens.
McNall’s financial empire began to crumble after that, (see: McNall’s Story from 2003: “Fun White it Lasted: My Rise and Fall In the Land of Fame and Fortune”) and Wayne Gretzky was traded again, to St. Louis, in 1996, before moving yet again, and finishing his career with the New York Rangers in 1999.
Gretzky’s arrival in California showed that the game could draw consistent sell out crowds in Los Angeles. The Kings became a huge draw on the road as well. Three years later, the NHL returned to Northern California (San Jose) in 1991.
The move to the Sunbelt began in earnest in 1992, when the Lightning began play in Tampa Bay, followed immediately by the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim the following year. Also in 1993, the Minnesota North Stars franchise was moved to Dallas.
The Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final in their third season. The next spring, the NHL announced it had awarded conditional franchises to Nashville, Atlanta, and Columbus and was returning one to Minnesota. In 1999, the Dallas Stars won the Cup and went to the Final again the following year.
This had another effect – spreading the game to youngsters all over the map. Admittedly, the 1980 Miracle on Ice for Team USA in the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid also played a role in this. As the demand for players has become greater, products from California, Tennessee, Texas and other Sunbelt areas are now playing junior and college hockey and being drafted by NHL teams. Did Gretzky’s trade accomplish this singularly? Perhaps not, but it was a major step. Along with the Miracle on Ice 8 years before, it expanded the base of youngsters taking up the game in the United States.
Babe Ruth transformed the Yankees into a championship team, and his power-hitting, go-for-broke, style of play had a positive impact on baseball. However, it didn’t result in the expansion of baseball, or even the move of franchises into new cities (it wasn’t until almost 20 years after the Babe’s retirement, when his last team, the Boston Braves, moved to Milwaukee).
Ruth and Gretzky were historically two of the dominant performers in their sports. Both were moved because of the financial instability of their franchises. This is not unique to sports, it just points out that sports has become every bit a business.
Just as another difficult time for a franchise almost resulted in a Stanley Cup champion defending its title in Music City. In 1995, as the movement was already underway to build what is now Bridgestone Arena, the Devils had just won their first Stanley Cup. Owner John McMullen was trying to get a better lease at the Meadowlands and had serious flirtations with Nashville. Those dealings caught the attention of the NHL, and though the Devils did not move out of New Jersey, Nashville suddenly became an attractive landing spot for an NHL team.
Even after that, there were stories of the Edmonton Oilers moving to Nashville (as Pocklington was about to sell the team).
My conclusion: hockey is a much bigger business because of the impact of Wayne Gretzky’s trade from Canada to Los Angeles. The NHL capitalized on that, and one way or another, the interest in Nashville was going to result in a team setting up here. For those reasons I say: “Thank you Wayne Gretzky!”