We are in the process of celebrating the anniversary of not only one of hockey’s biggest transactions, but also one that ranks among the top, if not at the top, of all sports history. As a matter of conjecture, we can also argue that the Nashville Predators might not even be in existence had it not occurred.
On August 9, 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, the swap played a critical role in the expansion of the NHL’s footprint across North America. It spread well outside the areas where most thought the sport could thrive.
Adam Proteau, formerly 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 Yankees dominated baseball for much of the 20th Century.
Years later, the financial difficulties of Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington 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 Gretzky leading the way. They were the dynasty that followed the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens. Dynasties do fade, but the outlook for that Oilers team indicated no such fall off in the foreseeable future.
To repeat, financial problems were at the root of this deal. 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 is 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 U.S. cash, forward Jimmy Carson, forward Martin Gelinas (whom the Kings had drafted in the first round that summer and who later played for the Preds in 2007-08), plus the Kings’ first round picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993. Those picks brought defenseman Corey Foster (in a trade with New Jersey), left wing 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 2000-01).
The Gretzky trade was only the beginning. It wasn’t long before the other six Hall of Famers were moved out of Edmonton: Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and even General Manager/Head Coach Glen Sather. Pocklington ultimately sold the Oilers in 1998.
So McNall saw his chance to bring hockey’s greatest star to the city that thrives on celebrities, 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 While it Lasted: My Rise and Fall In the Land of Fame and Fortune) and Gretzky was traded again, to St. Louis in 1996, before moving yet again, and finishing his career with the New York Rangers in 1999.
Moving away from those details, the Gretzky deal showed that hockey could draw consistent sell-out crowds in Los Angeles and make the Kings a huge draw on the road. After his move, 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 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 trade 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.
Babe Ruth did transform the Yankees into a championship team, and his style of play had an incredible effect on baseball. However, it didn’t result in a mass expansion of baseball, or even the move of franchises into new cities (at least not 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 have fully become a business.
Also, 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 Dr. 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!”