Thoughts on “the Trade”- 30 years ago today Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles helped to transform hockey in the USA

(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.

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Brodeur postscript

I wrote this cover story for the April 2011 edition of New York Hockey Journal. Since I referenced the time period in my tribute post to Marty Brodeur, I thought I would provide it here for added context.

NEWARK, NJ— If the New Jersey Devils have a glimmer of hope of reaching the 2011 postseason, then a major source of that optimism resides with goaltender Martin Brodeur.

The 38-year-old first ballot Hall of Famer is in his 18th NHL season, all with the team that drafted him 21 years ago has weathered the storm of uneven play and injuries early to reestablish his superstar credentials at just the right time. Through it all, Brodeur sparked his team not only by finding his four-time Vezina Trophy form down the stretch, but with his easygoing style and eternal optimism.

“Nobody expected us to fall in the tank like we did early,” Brodeur told New York Hockey Journal after a March practice. “It was disappointing; there’s no doubt about that. Knowing what we know now, I wish we could go back and play these first 41 games.”

Brian Rolston is one teammate who got to know Brodeur when both were young players less than a year apart in age, winning the team’s first Stanley Cup in 1995. Rolston was traded away few seasons later, but returned to the Devils as a free agent after playing most of the last decade against Brodeur.

“He’s always on an even keel and never gets too high; he’s always in control,” Rolston said. “I went away for a few years and came back, but saw how he’s still real competitive in practice. He’s got that same kind of competitiveness with the even-keeled personality so it’s a good mixture for a goaltender.”

If the 2010-11 campaign has been the toughest challenge of his storied career, you would not know it to hear him speak. Where many of his peers who play the position might have shown overt signs of cracking under the tremendous pressure after the Devils stumbled, the player who never posted less than a .902 in any of his 17 full seasons remained confident in his team’s ability to turn things around.

Fast forward to March, and with Jacques Lemaire back for his third stint behind the New Jersey bench, he’s steadied the ship by getting the Devils to within single digits of a playoff berth. Much of it stems from the fact that he’s shown steadfast faith in the player who backstopped his only championship as an NHL coach.

“Marty’s an important piece of the puzzle on this team,” said Lemaire. “He’s a guy that will give us the chance to win. He’s a guy that can make the big saves in a game that gets us closer to come back in the game, gets us closer to win games. He gives us a chance to stay in and do what we have to do.”

This season has been one of extremes for Brodeur, as he mirrored the team’s struggles early, only to turn it around in stunning fashion. From November 15 through January 1, Brodeur went through the most dismal stretch of his career, going 1-10 with a 3.85 GAA and .851 save percentage. In 2011, he’s posted a 15-3-1 record with a 1.70 GAA while stopping 93 percent of the shots he faced since January 1.

‘We got ourselves back,” Brodeur said. “Not necessarily close enough now, but the games matter. And I think that was the thing back in December- everybody was afraid that we’re just going to have to go through the motions here. That’s got to be awful for everybody. We were able to pull it through with a pretty major streak we got together to get to this point.”

To the surprise of no one, the NHL’s leader in career games (1123) wins (622) and shutouts (114) saved his best hockey for when it matters most. With Brodeur manning the nets for the Devils, the team may or may not reach the playoffs for the first time since 1996, but he’s given his club a fighting chance. That’s something that few would have granted the team just 90 days ago given how bleak the months of October-December were.

“He’s the best ever, so it’s a pleasure to be on the same team with him and be in the locker room every day,” said leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk. “He’s an unbelievable guy; great man who takes care of everybody and the way he treats people around him, that’s impressive. He’s an All-Star everywhere.”

Defenseman Colin White broke in with the Devils as a rookie in 1999-00 when the club won the second of its three Stanley Cup championships. Like Brodeur, every one of White’s 739 NHL games have been played in a Devils uniform. Having gone from a youngster to one of the team’s veteran leaders over the past decade spent with the team gives White quite a perspective on what Brodeur means to the franchise.

“Right away when I came (to New Jersey), he was the backbone along with Scott Stevens (Ken) Daneyko, (Scott Niedermayer) and all those guys,” White said. “Marty came and worked hard in every day. He’s real competitive, challenges himself hard and mentally is very focused on his job and the team. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Brodeur will be 39 when the season ends. He has a trio of Stanley Cups, a pair of Olympic gold medals, myriad major awards including a Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL rookie of the year in 1994 on his resume. Aside from a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, the one individual accolade that has eluded him, he has nothing left to prove other than to add to his seemingly unbreakable records signifying sustained excellence for almost two decades in the sport.

Oh, and there’s the matter of trying to add a fourth Stanley Cup ring to his collection that fuels Brodeur’s inner fire, too.

“I know I don’t have much left,” said Brodeur. “For me this is enjoyable. This is what I know, my whole life I’ve just been doing this. So, I just want to keep it going. Everybody’s dream is winning the Stanley Cup, and that’s why I’m still here, because I believe we have a chance to do it.“

Should the Devils reach the 2011 playoffs and earn the shot at one more championship, it will be in large part because New Jersey’s franchise icon put up a Hall of Fame-worthy push when his team needed it the most.

Martin Brodeur’s No. 30 to the rafters

I’ve always had a fascination with goaltenders.

From Gilles Gilbert to Mike Liut, from Pete Peeters to Andy Moog and Felix Potvin…I’ve always had an obsession with those masked men between the pipes.

But when it comes to goalies, there’s one NHL player I’ve always identified with and followed much closer than my hockey idols growing up, mainly because we’re the same age, and he established himself as an elite young NHL goalie at the same time I was graduating from college and entering the active duty military in a career that is finally winding down after nearly 22 years.

That personal journey is one I can sketch in milestones associated with one of the NHL’s true greats at any position, and why the event taking place in Newark at the Prudential Center no doubt has real meaning for so many people who watched him establish a two decade-long record of excellence playing what is arguably the most difficult and stressful position of any in team sports.

Tonight, the New Jersey Devils will bestow the high honor of retiring Martin Brodeur’s No. 30, the latest step in a journey that will soon take the 43-year-old into the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

His career numbers are astounding in a career spent mostly in the Garden State except for a brief stopover in St. Louis, where he was unable to recapture his former glory, but was not quite ready to call it quits.

691 career regular season wins in 22 years (21 of them as a Devil), the most in NHL history.

125 career regular season shutouts, ditto.

28,508 career saves, double ditto.

24 career playoff shutouts, ditto times three.

When I was a kid growing up, I read more than one hockey scribe say that Terry Sawchuk’s career 103 regular season shutouts would likely never be broken. Brodeur crushed that record, though in fairness- when those articles were written, we were in the middle of the fire wagon hockey era of the late 1970s-early 1990s.

There are a lot of things that a player needs to win three Stanley Cup championships (and five SCF appearances) and pile up the kind of eye-popping stats Brodeur did- athletic ability is atop the list, and in his case, it didn’t hurt that he played for one of the most stable, successful NHL franchises as a young player and well past his prime playing years.

But I think what allowed Brodeur to play so well for so long had to do with his mental toughness and ability to deal with the stresses and sheer ups and downs that every NHL goaltender must deal with at some point in their careers, with an even keel that would make most Zen masters turn green (and red) with envy.

Covering the New Jersey Devils for the New York Hockey Journal in the 2010-11 season was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed me to be around the team more than just an occasional away game for the first time in my hockey writing career, and allowed me to get to know Brodeur and several of his Devils teammates. On the other- the Devils struggled mightily that season, beginning the year in the basement, then dismissing first-year bench boss and Devils folk hero John MacLean before bringing back icon Jacques Lemaire and making a second half run for the postseason that ultimately fell short. It wasn’t all that jovial a room during that season, especially through the first part of January, but being around Brodeur and the veterans gave me an inside glimpse of why the Devils had such a sustained run of excellence the way they did.

Even in the depths of New Jersey’s position at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings at one point, when little was going right for them, especially for Brodeur, the goaltender set the tone by refusing to let the stress and pressure get to him. It wasn’t like he adopted an Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?!” attitude, but at the same time- he talked about the importance of the team sticking together when there were a lot of competing factors to drive them apart. “We got into this (nosedive) together,” he told me after one practice in December. “We got to get out of it together or it won’t happen for us at all.”

Fast forward to mid-March and the Devils were knocking on the door of the playoffs. They ultimately would not get in, but the next year they made one final glorious run to the playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final series before bowing out to the Los Angeles Kings in that franchise’s first of two championships in 2012 and 2014. When I asked Brodeur about the turnaround and how much better the team had played since they were cellar dwellers just a few months before, he first gave credit to Lemaire for pushing the right buttons, but then reminded me that the team was making it work together. “You have to row the boat in the same direction if you want to win in the NHL,” he said. “We’re rowing together, and that’s a big thing.”

He delivered both quotes with the exact same, relaxed temperament in two completely different situations. To me, that underscored Brodeur’s otherworldly ability to block out external pressures and distractions and focus on the task at hand. Many goalies talk about the importance of doing it, but few can pull it off the way he could.

So, as they raise his No. 30 to the rafters, I consider myself fortunate to have seen him from start to finish and towards the end, having the chance to watch him work firsthand.

It’s easy to say his records will never be broken, and who knows- perhaps somewhere out there is a kid lugging his equipment bag and pads into a rink somewhere who is focused on the goal of doing just that. Records were made to be broken, after all.

In Brodeur’s case, his legacy will stand the eternal test of time as one of the NHL’s best and brightest.