August 09, 2011
The 23rd anniversary of Wayne Gretzky's trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings has inspired the annual remembrances and NHL alternate histories that acknowledge the magnitude of the event.
One of our favorite "what if?" scenarios surrounding the Gretzky deal in 1988 comes courtesy of the owner who acquired him: Bruce McNall, the gregarious former Kings owner and the only man to have been chairman of the NHL Board of Governors, owner of a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card and sentenced to 70 months in prison for conspiracy and fraud.
McNall was an idea man on a grand, somewhat delusional scale, which we find NHL ownership sadly lacking these days. (Oh, Oren Koules, what might have been.) He was a rock star in a land of buttoned-up conservatives, but his star ascended among his peers once the most famous hockey player that ever lived was on his roster.
One of McNall's greatest unrealized notions was what can only be labeled as a "Wayne Gretzky Tax" on the NHL's other owners and, in turn, their fans.
Stephen Brunt's book "Gretzky's Tears" was a solid read because it focused a lot of attention on the Los Angeles years, rather than just what happened in Edmonton to lead to the deal.
Via "Gretzky's Tears", here's how McNall sought to maximize the return on his investment:
In hindsight, McNall thinks that one of his biggest mistakes was not convincing other NHL owners to subsidize the cost of acquiring Gretzky for the Kings, because it would benefit the overall health of the League to have him in Los Angeles.
"What I should have done, which I didn't, because I didn't have the courage, was go back and say to my partners in the League, 'If I do this Gretzky trade, here's the new deal,'" McNall says.
"'I get half of your gate when I walk into the building. You charge extra, do whatever you want to do. But this is a new road show. This is not just Wayne Gretzky — this is entertainment. If I have a concert, I can charge more money for someone big.' They would have said no. And I would have said, 'Okay, see you later.'"
McNall would actually execute a variation of his "traveling road show," spending $5 million on a Boeing 727 and flying Gretzky and the Kings to non-NHL markets for preseason games that made big bank. (Among the locales: Future NHL cities like Miami, Dallas and Tampa/St. Pete, as well as Las Vegas.)
NHL home teams keep their gate revenue, so McNall's Gretzky Tax was a radical idea. That said, the notion that fans should pay more when a certain "special attraction" comes to town was frankly ahead of its time — variable pricing has been standardized in dozens of NHL arenas, whether it's having games against lesser foes offered at deep discounts or games against popular foes priced significantly higher.
Outside of Gretzky, the mass marketing of individual players wasn't commonplace in the NHL. That was then; today, it's Crosby and the Penguins vs. Ovechkin and the Capitals in the Winter Classic. It's Stamkos and the Lightning on your TV. It's slowly become a star-centric league after the lockout, though not on the egregious level of the NBA. Fans still pay more to watch certain teams, put the notion of "gate attractions" has certainly been prevalent in recent years.
But none of those stars are on a Gretzky level, or even close. From expansion to endorsements to television, his trade to the Kings 23 years ago changed the NHL.
Luckily, none of us had to pay extra to witness it.