(Video posted to YouTube by CBC)
August 9, 1988…
I was 16 and in Florida visiting my grandparents with about a month left before my junior year in high school. I walked into the house that afternoon after a visit down to New Smyrna Beach, and my grandfather, a big baseball and football fan but who didn’t know (or give) a whit about hockey, greeted me with the last news I ever expected to hear.
“Hey, Kirk- did you hear that Wayne Gadsby just got traded?”
I must’ve stared at him blankly, because he followed up with: “You know? That hockey player from Canada?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the largest percentage of hockey players in the NHL were from Canada, but my brain was beginning to process what he’d just said.
“Wayne Gretzky got traded?” I said.
“Yes! Gretzky…that’s the one! They’ve been talking about it a lot on the TV and radio…”
He started to tell me what he knew about the deal…Los Angeles Kings…cash and young players…but his words were like the teacher in Charlie Brown (Wah-WAH-Wah-Wah-Wah.) My mind was racing: Gretzky, the Edmonton Oilers’ four-time Stanley Cup captain and face of hockey, the only player in the history of the game to score more than 200 points in a season not once, not twice, not three times but FOUR times…had been dealt in the prime of his life at 27 years old. My goodness, I thought as the realization hit me- if my grandfather Merlin in Florida is talking about this trade- how enormous of an impact is Gretzky to Tinseltown going to have on the NHL and hockey?
The truth is…in my teenage mind, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend it.
The Internet didn’t exist (at least not in its public form) back then, and there was no NHL Network to keep you up to speed on the minutiae of the off-season. However, this bombshell was anything but minute.
Sure, there were rumblings that Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s greatest scoring machine of all time, newly-wedded to actress Janet Jones and just coming off of a fourth Stanley Cup championship since 1984- this one at the hands of my beloved Boston Bruins in a sweep just three months earlier- might not be long for Edmonton. But, in all seriousness, did anyone actually believe he’d be traded.
With NHL salaries long kept lower than those of the other major North American sports (I’m not going to open the Alan Eagleson can of worms here but let’s just say it’s a huge can indeed), it was only a matter of time before the league saw a sea change in its economic landscape. Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, who had purchased the 17-year-old Gretzky from the WHA’s soon-to-be defunct Indianapolis Racers, was now facing the reality that the dynasty he and Glen Sather had built was not going to survive the requirements to keep that galaxy of stars properly compensated. With what began in late 1987 with 48-goal scoring defenseman Paul Coffey’s forced trade to Pittsburgh, dark clouds gathered over Edmonton’s summer skies some 10 months later, with Gretzky lining up to be the next domino to fall.
And fall it did. Off to L.A. was Gretzky, along with teammates Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley. The Oilers, in addition to a massive infusion of cash ($15 million U.S.) from new Kings owner Bruce McNall, received 55-goal man and Detroit native Jimmy Carson, the Kings’ top draft pick from just a few months earlier in Martin Gelinas, and the Kings’ top draft picks in 1989 (traded to New Jersey- Jason Miller), 1991 (Martin Rucinsky) and 1993 (Nick Stajduhar). A year+ later, and unhappy Carson would be sent by the Oilers to the Red Wings for youngsters Joe Murphy and Adam Graves, the two of whom would form the “Kid Line” with Gelinas in 1989-90, to help spark the Oilers to their fifth and final Stanley Cup championship.
But many sources out there can tell you about the trade- the nuts and bolts- and what kind of impact it had on the NHL. The truth is- the Kings benefited from his superstar status, and though he came close (a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, falling to the Montreal Canadiens in five games), the Great One could not on his own deliver a championship. The Oilers would win more Stanley Cup without Gretzky, but a mass exodus of Edmonton’s core players, started by Coffey and Gretzky in 1987 and 1988, and continued by Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson and Graves to name a few in 1991 and 1992, accelerated a slide into mediocrity. Although the Oilers returned to a Stanley Cup final appearance in 2006, the franchise has been largely a sad sack organization 28 years removed from a fifth championship in seven years, doomed by poor drafting/player development and economic challenges that other NHL clubs didn’t have to face.
The bigger point from the trade that rocked the hockey world is what Gretzky to L.A. did for hockey in the United States.
At the time of the trade, movie producer McNall had just bought complete control of the Kings up from his 25 percent stake in 1986. He knew that his team played a distant second fiddle to the Los Angeles Lakers with whom they shared the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, and to maximize his investment, he would have to figure out a way to energize Southern California fans out of the apathy towards hockey and the Kings in general, who aside from the glory of the Marcel Dionne-Dave Taylor-Charlie Simmer Triple Crown Line days and Rogie Vachon’s goaltending in the 1970’s, had never really come close to being a contender. One of the first things McNall did to reshape the Kings in a different image was to dump their classic purple and gold color scheme and adopt the black and silver synonymous with the L.A. Raiders, who were still in town after rogue owner Al Davis moved them from Oakland earlier in the decade and would move them back to Northern California in 1995. While a personal fan of the old threads vs the new uniforms, McNall’s vision needed to create separation between his struggling franchise and that of the larger-than-life Lakers.
It wasn’t enough to just roll out new uniforms- to unveil the new-look Kings with the introduction of the world’s greatest player was the stroke of genius that secured the team’s place in Southern California, eventually seeing two trips to the promised land in 2012 and 2014, but even more importantly- establishing the region as a fertile incubation chamber for future NHL talent, something that would have been unthinkable during the firewagon hockey days of the mid-1980s.
From a purely hockey standpoint, Gretzky to L.A. bore the immediate desired effect. The focus was squarely at the GWF on opening night, and the Great One did not disappoint, scoring on his very first shot in front of delirious masses who had surged and sold out Kings’ season tickets in the aftermath of the trade. From the very beginning, it looked like Gretzky’s arrival would mark a renaissance for Bernie Nicholls, the same age as Gretzky, who was the heir apparent along with Luc Robitaille when the Kings moved on from Marcel Dionne in 1987. Nicholls had a career season riding shotgun with Gretzky, scoring 70 goals and 150 points.
The Gretzky-led Kings under 1st-year head coach & Needham’s Mass’s own Robbie Ftorek were a solid 42-31-7 in that first 1988-89 season, even knocking out the Oilers in the 1st-round of the playoffs in seven games before running into the eventual Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames in the second round. But Gretzky’s presence turned the Kings from an NHL outpost to one of the choice destinations for stars and free agents.
Two years later, the San Jose Sharks were allowed entry into the NHL, an indicator that after a previously failed venture into that market with the Golden Seals, that the league was confident that the Golden State would be a winner for that franchise. Perhaps the biggest validation of Gretzky’s impact was the arrival of another team in Southern California by the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1993 (the Kings pocketed approximately half of the $50 million NHL entry fee). Where just five years earlier, the Kings might have been in danger of being a failed operation, with two NHL franchises in the same geographic region, hockey was here to stay.
30 years later, we’re seeing the legacy of Gretzky’s presence in Southern California borne out with players like Kevan Miller, Jason Zucker, Matthew Nieto, Ian McCoshen and Thatcher Demko all hailing from the non-traditional hockey region. Even Auston Matthews, who was born in California but raised/trained in Arizona can claim to be a part of that Gretzky legacy, as his success paved the way for the original Winnipeg Jets to relocate there as the Phoenix (and later Arizona) Coyotes in 1996. Where once, Californians in the NHL were seen as fluke occurrences (Surfin’ John Blue for example), there is now a growing generation of young California born-and-bred hockey players who will add to the pro hockey ranks.
The recently-concluded World Junior Summer Showcase in Kamloops, B.C. saw just one California native on the USA roster (Jacob McGrew– drafted by the Sharks in 2017), but there were players from other non-traditional (for hockey) areas in the U.S.- Kyle Keyser (Bruins), Quinn (Canucks) and Jack Hughes– from Florida (though in fairness- they were raised in Toronto) and Max Gildon (Panthers) from Plano, Texas.
Three key players from the 2001 birth year currently competing at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup in Alberta are Arthur Kaliyev (Florida), Dustin Wolf and Josh Groll (both from Southern California). The Anaheim Jr AAA Ducks 16U minor midget team went all the way to the final four of the Tier 1 16-and-under USA National Championship tournament in Philadelphia last April.
30 years after the fact, Gretzky’s departure from Canada to Los Angeles still enjoys a far-reaching effect. He scored more than 900 career points as a King from 1988-96, when he was traded to the St. Louis Blues before ultimately finishing his NHL career on Broadway with the New York Rangers from 1996-99.
While there were non-hockey reasons for Gretzky’s trade to the Kings, he was also traded from L.A. to St. Louis at age 35. It just goes to show you that if the Great One could be dealt, then no one is safe.
And although McNall ultimately ended up falling from grace and even bankrupted the Kings. After giving up ownership, he served time in prison for fraud, but stayed on good terms with Gretzky and many of his former players. In the end, his vision for hockey in Southern California was realized through a bold move to acquire the Great One three decades ago, and had Gretzky gone to other rumored destinations like Detroit or the NY Rangers at the time, his legacy would no doubt have been sterling, but would it have been as transformative?
I lost my grandfather in 1995, but I still remember one of our last conversations a year earlier when I visited him during spring break of my senior year in college- 1994. I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that as non-hockey a person as Merlin F. Luedeke was, he made a point of keeping up to speed with the sport’s biggest star.
“You still like that Gadsby character in hockey?” he said to me.
“The Great Gadsby, grandpa…of course- he’s done a lot for the Kings since he got there,” I replied with a smile, not correcting him- I have no doubt he knew it was Gretzky.
“Pretty good run, he’s had,” he said. “They should’ve won the Stanley Cup last year.”
“Yes, grandpa…a hell of a run.”