August 08, 2007

The Gretzky Trade - August 9th, 1988

It's hard to believe, but its now been 19 years since Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles.

I remember the day well. I refused to listen to the radio when I first heard it. Still lost in an age of innocence, trading the greatest player in the game was impossible, at least I thought. Everyone thought that.

The Oilers had just won their fourth Cup in five years and Gretzky was 27, coming off a year where he put up 40 goals and 149 points in 64 regular season games and 12 goals, 43 points in 19 playoff games. The local radio must have been playing a terrible prank.

After listening to the news reports several times over it finally dawned on me that this was indeed true. Then came the teary eyed press conference followed by the Kings jersey unveiling that cemented a whole new reality in the completely shaken hockey world.

Wayne Gretzky had been traded.

It was probably the biggest trade in the history of sports, or certainly tied with the Babe Ruth transaction. The impact of the move was beyond what anyone could imagine, and is still unfolding.

The NHL went Hollywood and has since gone through immense expansion in US sun belt zones. For a while hockey was even cool in the US, something the rest of the western world already knew though they now craved it even more.

Though Canadians love to accuse these virgin US markets of not being able to support the NHL, in reality grassroots hockey in these parts is now starting to blossom. More kids in American, notably in California and other sunny climes, picked up the game, and now some are starting to make a run at their own NHL dreams.

In Canada, the ramifications were also immense. We all lost a little something when they took Gretzky out of the Canadian priaires. In many ways #99 exemplified the Canadian image: Hard-working and talented yet humble and determined. He wasn’t just a hockey player, he was a national treasure.

For many Canadians, the date of August 9th, 1988 marks the date Canada started losing control of hockey, although in reality it was more of an awakening to a long time reality than a beginning. Hockey quickly became a big business, and the American dollar and entertainment marketplace called the shots. Gretzky was taken. Soon the Stanley Cup would be hoisted in unthinkable cities like Raleigh, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Anaheim. Though it always seemed America remained disinterested in Canada's game, the game was sold out irreversibly starting on the day Canadians learned who Bruce McNall was.

For me personally, the trade helped cement me as a great hockey fan. The trade set up a season full of intrigue every time the Kings played the Oilers. Gretzky and his new team returned to Edmonton on October 20, 1988, and the Great One scored on his first shift. Later that spring, Gretzky and the Kings eliminated the Oilers from the playoffs. On October 15, 1989, Gretzky made his most heroic return visit of all. In front of cheering fans at Northlands Coliseum, he broke Gordie Howe’s NHL all-time points record by scoring his 1,850th and 1,851st point.

Some great memories, in deed. In some ways my awakening allowed me to cherish Gretzky's Hollywood days more so than my younger days when the Oilers were kings. A whole new hockey landscape was created for me. I don't just mean in the old Smythe Division where the Oilers and Kings faced off regularly. I mean it was a complete awakening for me to realize that hockey was a business, and hockey players are businessmen. My innocence may have been lost, and Canada's greatest hero may have flew south, but my love for Canada's game only grew stronger.

Read Wayne Gretzky career biography - Also See: Gretzky vs. Lemieux


Unknown said...

While I don't remember the day, I do remember how fashionable LA Kings merch became after that trade. I got my mom to buy me a cool silver/black LA Kings parka, and a lot of casual type fans (and rappers) wanted the gear.

I also remember how Gretz actually sold out a Carolina Hurricanes game in Greensborough. Even when he was old and ancient, he could draw the Southerners.

Anonymous said...

with the oilers, wayne won 6 hart, 5 pearson, 7 art ross 2 smythe and a lady byng. playing for 3 american teams he won a hart, 3 art ross and 4 lady bings. eight 50 goal seasons as an oiler, one as a king. his three lowest point totals as an oiler: 137, 149, 164. his three best afterwards: 168, 163, 142.

Despite a hall of fame calibre career as a king/blue/ranger, he went from being the great one to being great when he left canada.

Anonymous said...

Sure, his totals went down, but they were already headed that way. His point totals the last three seasons in Edmonton were 215, 183, 149. Next three seasons in L.A., they were 168, 142, 163.

Age had a lot to do with that — even at 28.

Playing without the same cast also had as much or more of an affect.

Geography — meaning, leaving Canada — had nothing to do with declining point totals.

Unknown said...

You forgot to mention he never won a Stanley Cup without the Oilers, and the Oilers won one without him.

His -5 in LA also suggests his value, at least even strength, he was more of a liability to his team.

Anonymous said...

Were you really lost in an age of innocence? Did you really refuse to listen to the radio?

Unknown said...

If Gretzky was a -5 in L.A. I bet the teams' Plus/Minus was rude!!

Gretzky Rules!!

Anonymous said...

All sports are a GAME! The object is to win the game.The objective of business is to make money. Business people have corrupted sports and in so doing have tried to change the paradigm.This change can only happen if your mind allows it.Don't give in to cynicism. In professional sports, championships can only happen if ownerships first commitment is to winning. Remember,money can never be a primary reinforcer,only a secondary one.

Ugo said...

I was 10 and at summer camp when news of this trade broke. I couldn't believe it. When I saw pictures of Gretzky holding that silver and black Jersey I though the Kings would win a cup that year. I know a lot of older fans talk of the orginal six. But to me hockey peak in 1988-1994 (then Bettman took over). The rivalaries were great. I wish the league stoped expanding at 24. 1989 was the year that all the great Russian and Czech players were coming over. I miss the Norris Smythe, Adams and Patrick Division. The Jets and Whalers. I remember reading an SI talking about hockey taking over from Basketball. I hope Gary is happy he helped destroy this game.

Anonymous said...

Gretzky won 3 Art Ross tropies after leaving Edmonton and tool LA to a final series with a tremendous game seven in Toronto (hat trick!)

His team had less fire power and this cost him many points. He was older, yes. But even more importantly, the league scoring per game drastically reduced as interference and half holds and traps took over the NHL. It got to the point where, instead of 30 guys scoring 100 points a year, and a few guys getting 140 a year ..where NOBODY got 100 one year.