Saturday, August 9, 2008

20 years ago today, Wayne Gretzky trade changed NHL forever

It is very difficult to even think of attempting to write the perfect blog entry on a topic with unprecedented significance and of a subject that so many others will talk about at greater and more detailed length. But at least from my own perspective, I'll just post any thoughts that come to mind.

When my passion for being a National Hockey League fan skyrocketed in the 1980s to where I'm a full blown hardcore fanatic today, there was one man that I always felt was responsible for making that happen. It certainly goes without saying it is true amongst millions of others like me, but without Wayne Gretzky, would the NHL exist as it does today? In my opinion, the answer is clear. No.

The legendary chronicles of Gretzky's career have been well documented over the last three decades. We've seen countless interviews and shows, special events and of course all the games that makes #99 one of the greatest players in the history of professional sports. As the NHL's all-time leading point scorer with 2,857 regular season points, he owns at least 60 league records, including his 894 goals. The 1999 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee also is the only man in a professional hockey career to amass at least 1,000 goals (46 of them came from the World Hockey Association) and score at least 200 points in an NHL season (done four times).

Gretzky had burst into the NHL with such force, he was already breaking NHL records. One that stands out in the earliest years of his career would be him surpassing Mike Bossy and Maurice Richard's record of 50 goals in 50 games. But on December 30, 1981, #99 was able to do it for the Edmonton Oilers by scoring 5 goals in a 7-5 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. How was it a new record? Gretzky reached the 50-goal plateau in just his 39th game of the 1981-1982 season. Then there were the four Stanley Cup titles he helped win for the Oilers, the only ones he'd get in his 20 NHL seasons. Those unmatched achievements were all done in Edmonton. One would think he'd be there forever in that uniform.

But it was not meant to be. Twenty years ago today, it is a day that will go down as one of those with the biggest impact in the history of sports and culture. August 9, 1988 will be remembered as the day of "The Trade". Due to rising economic costs in the NHL and with his other business ventures suffering financially, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings just two months removed from winning the 1988 Stanley Cup championship. Along with Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski went to the Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash and first round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993.

This trade obviously created such opposite perspectives of it like none we may never see again.

The city of Edmonton, Oilers fans and hockey fans across Canada were either in mourning, shock or downright irate over the trade of their hockey hero. The National Post had an editorial published today to point out this was more than losing a player, it was like losing a son. Canadian fans were so angry that unleashed numerous death threats toward Pocklington, took to the streets of Edmonton in protest demonstrations and New Democratic Party House Leader Nelson Riis went as far as asking the Canadian government to step in and block the trade. Those efforts failed, but in the end, Kings owner Bruce McNall acquired the best player the NHL had to offer and in turn helped bring his team into relevance. But it did so much more than that.

In Gretzky moving his career to Los Angeles, it generated the kind of excitement you'd swear you never saw before there in the second-most populous metropolis in the United States behind New York City. As Thomas Bonk of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, it also would be important in saving a struggling hockey market in Los Angeles and then putting the sport more securely on the map in the state of California. In turn, this would later help grow the sport across much of the Sun Belt region of the country. Many historians and hockey observers believe had it not been for this trade, several current franchises would likely not exist such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers. Some can make a claim that the impact of Gretzky's arrival in Los Angeles sparked an establishment of hockey at the grassroots level across California to a point that adding the San Jose Sharks would be very beneficial for the NHL. Orange County Register hockey writer Dan Wood encourages people to give thanks to Gretzky for jump starting the growth of hockey in California and elsewhere across the Sun Belt.

Gretzky had marginal success with the Kings. The biggest highlights are pretty obvious. Los Angeles Daily News hockey writer Rich Hammond posted video clips at his Inside The Kings blog highlight versions of the goodbye press conference in Edmonton and the hello one in Los Angeles, plus Sports Illustrated columnist Michael Farber's overview of the trade. Five years later, Gretzky helped lead them to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. It was his unforgettable hat trick performance to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 in Game 7 of the Campbell Conference Finals on May 29, 1993 to propel Los Angeles to the championship round for the first time in team history. Two other moments in time we'll never forget when he was donning the silver, white and black of the Kings was when he broke Gordie Howe's records in points (1,851st on October 1989 in Edmonton) and goals (802nd on March 23, 1994 against the Vancouver Canucks at the Great Western Forum).

This 20-year anniversary is being noted league-wide. Amongst those in the media:

*Bob Stauffer of the Edmonton Sun compared the Gretzky trade to the assassination of former United States President John F. Kennedy while his colleague Terry Jones discusses how the NHL is today since the trade.

*David Staples of the Edmonton Journal pointed out in The Cult of Hockey blog that this was not a trade, it was a sale.

*Jim Gintonio of the Arizona Republic stated that Coyotes captain Shane Doan who grew up as an Oilers fan was crushed by the news Gretzky was traded away.

*The Tennessean's John Glennon credits Gretzky for making the placement of an expansion team in Nashville possible.

*CBS Sports' Wes Goldstein provides a retrospective of the roller coaster ride of NHL hockey in the United States since "The Trade".

*TSN covered the shock angle to the trade.

*CBC posted an archive audio clip of when the news broke.

*Rogers Sportsnet put together a timeline of how the trade materialized and some classic photos of Gretzky's days in Edmonton.

*Like what Bonk covered, FOX Sports hockey contributor Lyle Richardson (Spector) felt it was a great trade for hockey.

*ESPN's Scott Burnside notes the league-wide ramifications as does USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen in calling it a "seismic impact".

*The Sporting News' Craig Custance got McSorley to weigh in with his point of view of how he saw the trade.

* correspondent Evan Weiner brought up the question of whether or not the WHA's Indianapolis Racers (Gretzky's first professional team) actually sold him to the Oilers before that team joined the NHL in 1979.

The Brantford, Ontario native has made such an impact on hockey and in professional sports, the list would be far too long to keep a blog entry relatively short. After getting traded to the St. Louis Blues on February 27, 1996 and playing only 18 games for then-head coach Mike Keenan, #99 finished his incredible playing career with the New York Rangers where he helped lead the team to the 1997 Eastern Conference Finals with re-united teammate Mark Messier. Certainly April 18, 1999 will forever be the saddest day of all when Gretzky retired, but "The Trade" that is already 20 years removed is what changed the NHL and the sport in the United States forever.

When a trade is of such astronomical magnitude as this one was, you cannot help yourself but take a long hard look at how the trade went down and the what ifs of what the NHL would be like today had Gretzky stayed in Edmonton. Damian Salvati, a gentleman I worked with while I was a junior in high school, I recall being a huge Oilers fan. To this day, he is the only person I remember in my life that wore Oilers clothing in the New York City metropolitan area as proudly as he did. I'll never forget watching one of the 1990 Stanley Cup Finals games with him on one of the TV monitors during some down time at our job. I do wonder what he thinks 20 years after #99 left Edmonton.

Since Gretzky's retirement as a player, the Great One has continued to be an ambassador of the game. His biggest achievement was being the architect of the 2002 Olympic Gold Medal-winning Canadian hockey team. But now, as managing partner and head coach of a franchise that has fallen on hard times, Gretzky looks to build a winning tradition with the Coyotes and eventually bring a Stanley Cup title to Phoenix.

If you're looking for wall-to-wall coverage of this 20-year anniversary of "The Trade", besides the newspaper and national network sources I've provided, you can certainly go to's 20th Anniversary of Gretzky Trade page, the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretzky Anniversary page, watch NHL Network's continuing coverage that has been airing since Wednesday of this memorable day or if you're really dedicate this August 9th as "Wayne Gretzky Day", then grab the DVD set Ultimate Gretzky, plop on the couch and enjoy.

Among the bloggers that put in a significant amount of their time to commemorate the trade anniversary, my recommended reading...

NHL FanHouse:
Remembering the Gretzky trade: 20 Years later and 10 years too young

Covered In Oil:
The day Wayne Gretzky broke his non-crying promise to Mark Messier

Counter Trey

Frozen Royalty:
20 years since Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, there is one little, nagging thing

The Battle of New York:
A look back at the historic Gretzky trade
Twenty years later

One Fan's Perspective:
The Gretzky Effect

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