On August 9, 1988, the unthinkable became thinkable. It was the day when one city wept and another one awakened. When economic constraints, and the men driven mad by their shackles, could necessitate extreme sacrifice. When the seeds were planted for expansion into “non-traditional” U.S. markets for the NHL.
When every far-fetched, seemingly impossible trade imagined by a wistful fan became possible.
Because, after all, if Wayne Gretzky could be traded …
On the 25th anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, here are 99 facts, figures, opinions and fascinating moments from the deal that shocked the sports world. Part timeline, part oral history, it captures the build-up, the drama, the emotions and the aftermath of a trade that still has ripples in 2013.
Here are the 99 most fascinating things about the Wayne Gretzky Trade…
Material here is from various sources around the web, in print and from works like Stephen Brunt's "Gretzky's Tears" and the ESPN documentary "Kings Ransom."
1. On Aug. 9, 1988, Gretzky was traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings with forward Mike Krushelnyski and defenseman Marty McSorley for center Jimmy Carson, forward Martin Gelinas, Los Angeles’ first-round picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993 as well as straight cash, homey.
2. The negotiating rights to unsigned defensemen John Miner of the Oilers and the Kings ‘ Craig Redmond were also swapped.
3. Overshadowed on Aug. 9, 1988: The first official night game at Wrigley Field. In a shocking twist, the Cubs won.
4. The cash was $15 million; adjusted for inflation, it would have been between $28-30 million in 2012.
5. According to Kings owner Bruce McNall, the $15 million was requested by Oilers owner Peter Pocklington and was the de facto centerpiece of the Gretzky Trade. “He said, ‘I want $15 million U.S. cash, and I need some players to make it look like a trade,’” according to McNall. [Brunt]
6. The 1989 pick was later traded to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Corey Foster. The Devils selected center Jason Miller with the 18th overall pick; he would play six games in the NHL.
7. The 1991 pick was used on Martin Rucinsky, who played two games for Edmonton before being traded to Quebec in 1992 for Ron Tugnutt and Brad Zavisha. He went on to play 961 NHL games and won gold for the Czechs in the 1998 Nagano Games.
8. The 1993 pick was used on defenseman Nick Stajduhar, who played two games in the NHL with the Oilers in 1995-96. He's most famous for suffering a concussion in a bar fight during his AHL days in an incident that derailed his career. OK, make that "infamous."
9. Martin Gelinas played five seasons for Edmonton before being traded to Quebec I 1993 for Scott Pearson. Of course, his NHL legacy is with that other team in Alberta.
10. Gelinas was at lunch during a break from his hockey school in Shawinigan, Que., when a stranger approached him and told him that he had been traded for Wayne Gretzky. Gelinas laughed, thinking it was a joke.
11. Jimmy Carson played 626 NHL games but retired at 27. The Oilers made out like [expletive] bandits traded Carson to the Detroit Red Wings in a 1989 seven-player deal that saw Petr Klima, Joe Murphy and Adam Graves come to Edmonton.
12. After the NHL, Carson became a financial adviser and partnered in a small investment bank outside of Detroit. Said Kings owner Bruce McNall after Carson retired: “I always thought, deep down, that maybe long-term hockey wouldn’t be for him.”
13. Carson had just purchased a home in Redondo Beach when he was traded to Edmonton, which is 1,381 miles from Redondo Beach as the crow flies.
14. It’s been reported that Carson, of Greek descent, is actually named “Demetrios Kyriazopoulos.” So it turns out Gretzky really wasn’t the biggest name in the trade.
15. Mike Krushelnyski played 897 games in the NHL, having won three Stanley Cups with Gretzky’s Oilers. He was traded two years later to the Toronto Maple Leafs for John McIntyre. He would win a fourth Cup as an assistant coach with Detroit in 1998.
16. Gretzky asked that McSorley be part of the deal going to Los Angeles. He would play 961 regular-season games in the NHL before retiring in 2000. He also once mistook Donald Brashear for a piñata.
17. McSorely’s illegal stick in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final, Gretzky’s lone appearance in the championship round as a King, was the stuff of curses.
18. Gretzky (99), McSorley (33) and Krushelnyski (26) all were able to get their respective Oilers sweater numbers with the Kings. Carson had to switch from 17 to 12. Because some dude named Kurri wore 17.
19. Gretzky said he knew he would be traded by the cash-strapped Oilers the moment he signed a 5-year extension with them. He said in 1992 that his immediate reaction to the contract: “I’ve just traded my life away.”
20. He could have ended up a Vancouver Canuck. Pocklington asked for five first-round picks and $22 million in cash from Vancouver for Gretzky. The deal was later $18 million (CDN), three first-round picks and forward Greg Adams. Brian Burke and Pat Quinn, the Canucks’ front-office brain trust, turned down the deal.
21. Pocklington claims McNall initiated the trade talks. McNall claims Pocklington called him at his office in 1988 and they negotiated the deal at the NHL Draft that summer. [Brunt]
22. One of the initial offers from the Oilers was a deal that would have brought Luc Robitaille to Edmonton. The Kings, knowing Gretzky was all but LA-bound, declined the offer.
23. Kings GM Rogie Vachon was famously left out of the loop for the negotiations. He told the Globe and Mail on Aug. 5, as rumors swirled: “If anything like this had been discussed, I’m sure it would be between the two owners.”
24. When McNall was finally given permission to speak to Gretzky, he pitched a contract extension that would have matched the annual salary of Magic Johnson in 1988 – $3 million per season. [Brunt]
25. Bruins GM Harry Sinden, who was part of the Boston braintrust that traded Bobby Orr to Chicago, urged Edmonton not to deal Gretzky. [Brunt]
26. Pocklington told GM Glen Sather that he had “sold” Wayne Gretzky while the two were at a charity golf tournament in Beaver Creek, Colorado. [Brunt]
27. Sather later admitted he wanted to punch Pocklington in the face. [Brunt]
28. McNall went Los Angeles Lakers owners Bill Daniels and Jerry Buss to raise $10 million in cash to help complete the Gretzky trade.
29. Rumors of a Wayne Gretzky trade were well-known through the hockey world leading up to the deal, but were never formally reported by the media. (Oh, if only Twitter were around back then.) Red Fisher famously recalled hearing about the trade from several sources but failed to get the Oilers to confirm it.
30. An Ottawa radio station was the first to report that Gretzky was going to be traded by the Oilers. [Brunt]
31. Wayne Gretzky was babysitting Robin Thicke when he was traded to Kings. Wonder if he asked Robin to “hug me.” (And what rhymes with “hug me,” incidentally? Asking for a friend.)
32. Here are the remarks from Pocklington, Gretzky and a feisty Glen Sather.
33. Upon arriving with Gretzky in Edmonton, McNall asked Pocklington for a tie because Gretzky didn’t have one. [Brunt]
34. Gretzky removed his jacket upon sitting down at the table for his emotional Edmonton press conference.
35. Pocklington’s first words: “Ladies and gentleman, thank you kindly for coming out to this conference.”
36. Gretzky’s first words: “I didn’t know I was next.” (He meant in the speaking order.)
37. Pocklington blamed the media for expediting the trade, and that it was completed in the “wee hours” of Aug. 9.
38. Gretzky apologized to Jim Taylor, a hockey writer, for not confirming the trade.
39. First appearance of Gretzky’s Tears: 2 minutes and 16 seconds into his speech.
40. Moments before leaving the mic, Gretzky dropped the famous line: “I promised Mess I wouldn’t do this.”
41. Number of times Gretzky referred to himself in the first person during speech: 1.
42. Number of references to Janet Gretzky during initial speech: 1
43. Sather called out McNall in the press conference, saying he couldn’t know what he and Pocklington are feeling because he’s “new to this game.”
44. Sather mistakenly said the Kings had traded their 1981 first-round pick to the Oilers in the trade. Since that would have been Doug Smith … meh, better to stick with 1989.
45. First question asked of Gretzky was about Janet Gretzky living in Edmonton. Said Gretz: “Janet is 100 percent behind whatever I wanted to do. After playing nine years in Edmonton, to meet someone … no one’s going to tell you to leave a Stanley Cup team. A place that you really enjoy. Her ambition now is to raise a family, and she would have had a tremendous amount of fun raising a family in Edmonton. This is my decision that I made. My own gut feeling. My decision. Something I felt that would benefit myself and my family now.”
46. Pocklington on the cash in the deal: “When we were faced with the inevitable of might happen, it became a business transaction.
47. #HockeyPorn: “I’m hooking up with a great man.” – W. Gretzky, on Bruce McNall.
48. Gretzky said he would get a de facto raise because of the strength of the U.S. dollar. How times have changed…
49. A photographer for the Edmonton Journal thanked Gretzky for giving them great material. Seriously.
50. Gretzky actually called out the NHL for losing its deal with ESPN during his farewell press conference. The League left ESPN for SportsChannel America for a 3-year deal.
51. On the Oilers, Gretzky said: “This team’s too good not to stay strong.” They would win again in 1990.
MEANWHILE, IN LOS ANGELES
52. The full LA press conference:
53. Gretzky’s press conference in Los Angeles happened the same day as his farewell presser in Edmonton.
54. Gretzky’s introductory press conference was carried on Prime Ticket cable.
55. McNall joked that the press event was being held to unveil the Kings’ new team colors, before revealing Gretzky as the “model” for the new colors. It was that whimsy that made him the darling of Cell Block C.
56. Gretzky’s remarks lasted 2:21.
57. His justification for leaving Edmonton was that he “may test the waters” of free agency at 31, after the remaining four years of his contract, and that at 27 he felt he could help a team immediately.
58. Number of times Gretzky referred to himself in the first person during speech: 2.
59. Jerry Buss, Lakers owner and former Kings co-owner, when asked if this was a bigger night than when he signed Magic Johnson: “I wish I had [my] half of the Kings back.”
60. Buss: “Wayne could do more for Los Angeles than he could for any other team, and therefore more for Los Angeles. … I look at Wayne Gretzky coming to Los Angeles as bringing hockey to the entire Western United States.”
61. Gretzky introduced his wife to the LA media. Somebody said “woo.”
62. Janet Jones Gretzky was asked about her role in bringing Gretzky to Los Angeles. She went to the podium and admitted she loved L.A., it was sad to see him leave his friends but was happy because she has a lot of friends in L.A.
63. Gretzky said he hoped to keep playing “five, six, seven or eight years.” He would retire in 1999.
64. Gretzky said it was essential that the NHL get franchises in San Francisco and Seattle in order to be ultimately successful in the U.S. (Well, we’re getting there.)
65. Gretzky said that the Kings were the only team west of Chicago in the U.S. Somewhere, the Minnesota North Stars silently wept.
66. Assessing hockey’s popularity, Gretzky said it wasn’t as big as baseball or football. And yet ProStars happened …
67. An actual question asked to Wayne Gretzky actually at his LA press conference: “What can Kings fans expect as far as wins, playoff position, Stanley Cups in your first year?”
68. Nelson Riis, a member of Parliament from British Columbia, urged the Canadian government to intervene and stop the trade. His plan? The government buys Gretzky from the Kings and then sells him to a Canadian team. That’s something not even the KHL dabbles in …
69. Said Riis: “The Edmonton Oilers without Wayne Gretzky is like apple pie without ice cream, like winter without snow, like the Wheel of Fortune without Vanna White - it's quite simply unthinkable.” (Somewhere, Pat Sajak weeps …)
70. Meanwhile, New Democrat Leader Ray Martin wanted the Alberta government to intervene if Gretzky’s “personal services contract” had been sold to the Kings, as that contract had been used by Pocklington as collateral to secure loans. [Globe & Mail]
71. New York Rangers General Manager Phil Esposito told the Washington Post that, "I think it may have been the best business decision two sports franchises ever made.”
72. Pocklington told the Edmonton Journal that Gretzky’s emotional press conference was choreographed: ''Wayne has an ego the size of Manhattan. … He's a great actor, I thought he pulled it off beautifully when he showed how upset he was.
73. As one might expect, Pocklington later claimed his comments “were taken totally out of context.”
74. Gretzky’s response: “I'm not going to get into a war of words with anybody from Edmonton,'' he said. ''But if that's what he thinks, then I'm very disappointed. I'm grateful for what the Oilers did for me for 10 years. I'm proud to have been an Oiler, and people who know me and are friends of mine know the statements aren't true.”
75. Janet Gretzky’s response, to Terry Jones of the Sun: “Peter Pocklington is the reason Wayne Gretzky is no longer an Edmonton Oiler. "The key to everything that happened was an event five days after our wedding. Pocklington gave Los Angeles Kings' owner Bruce McNall permission to take Wayne if he could do it. And that did it!"
76. As Wayne Gretzky would tell filmmaker Peter Berg in the documentary “Kings Ransom”: "I was mad they were trying to trade me. So I left."
77. The media reaction to the trade was fascinating. Jim Taylor, writing in Sports Illustrated: “Forget the controversy over whether No. 99 jumped or was pushed; the best hockey player in the world was ours, and the Americans flew up from Hollywood in their private jet and bought him. It wasn't the Canadian heart that was torn, it was the Canadian psyche that was ripped by an uppercut to the paranoia.”
78. Mike Perricone of the Sun-Times: “There is no telling how many millions Gretzky can make from endorsements, fueled by regular appearances with Carson and Letterman. Who wouldn't grasp such potential to provide for his family? If Gretzky can't sell hockey in the U.S., no one can.”
79. From the Globe and Mail: “The automatic dead-end that used to exist in Edmonton has been removed. In fact, to put it simply, in every city with a National Hockey League franchise, there is a not unreasonable expectation that Gretzky’s departure will weaken the Oilers and therefore improve the local team’s Stanley Cup chances. If the Oilers aren’t weaker after this, then Glen Sather will not only deserve to be named coach of the year but coach of the century.”
80. Oilers fans marched in protest of the trade and burned Pocklington in effigy.
81. Among the other protests of the trade: Fans sent death threats to team management and spray-painted the letters "LA" on an Edmonton city sign. [“Kings Ransom.”]
82. The Oilers dropped prices for 3,000 tickets by $4, but claimed it had nothing to do with losing Wayne Gretzky.
83. The Kings’ gross revenue for 1988-89 was up $9 million over the previous season, as the Gretzky Effect meant $2 million more in ad revenue and TV rights fees; $2 million more in sales of Kings gear; and a 27.4-percent increase in attendance. [SI]
84. The NHL reported that its licensing and merchandise sales pulled in $150 million in 1988, which was 50 percent higher than they had estimated. [SI]
85. Advance ticket sales for the Kings’ 1989-90 season were $4 million greater than the TOTAL ticket sales from Gretzky’s first season in LA. [SI]
86. The 1989-90 season was the first one to turn a profit for the Kings in their then-22-year history. [SI]
87. Gretzky’s first game as a King was Oct. 6, 1988, where he had a goal and three assists in an 8-2 victory. His goal came on his first shot of the season.
88. Gretzky opened the season with 51 points in his first 23 games, scoring at least a point in each game.
89. His first game back in Edmonton was Oct. 19, 1988. The Oilers won, 8-6, and Gretzky was limited to two assists and a minus-2. Mark Messier scored two goals.
90. Gretzky received a 4-minute standing ovation from Oilers fans. Messier, now captain, was booed when he went to the penalty box for an infraction against Gretzky. [NYT]
91. A fan had a banner in the arena that read: “DOWN THE DRAIN WITHOUT WAYNE.”
92. Don Cherry told the Edmonton Sun that he was nearly fired for saying, upon Gretzky’s return to Edmonton, that, “seeing Gretzky in a Los Angeles Kings uniform is like watching Secretariat at a state fair.”
93. A life-size bronze statue of Gretzky was erected at Northlands Coliseum one year after the trade, a statue whose future location is a point of some debate. The Kings would add their own statue.
94. Gretzky won the Hart Trophy in 1988-89 for the League’s MVP. He led the NHL in scoring three times with the Kings.
95. The Kings qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five of his seven possible postseasons, making the Final in 1992-93 where they lost to Montreal. The Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1989-90 and then lost in the conference finals in the following two seasons. After that came a four-season playoff drought.
96. Gretzky played parts of eight seasons with the Kings before being traded (with less fanfare) to the St. Louis Blues in 1996 for Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, St. Louis' 5th round choice (Peter Hogan) in 1996 Entry Draft and St. Louis' 1st round choice (Matt Zultek) in 1997 Entry Draft.
97. Rob Vollman, blogging at Artic Ice Hockey, ruled the Gretzky Trade to be a slight victory for the Kings, statistically speaking: “This trade was hardly the disaster that people anticipated at the time, or that more emotional fans still believe today. In fact, it’s remarkable how such a crapshoot could have turned out so evenly for both teams.”
98. Gary Bettman credits Gretzky’s presence in Los Angeles with making hockey palatable to the “Sun Belt” markets to which the NHL expanded. “Wayne’s presence in L.A. and the success the Kings had demonstrated that hockey had credibility in so-called newer or non-traditional markets,” he told the Canadian Press in 2013. (Brunt believes that the NHL’s eventual U.S. expansion into Sun Belt markets was the work of McNall and that Gary Bettman was just carrying out that plan. “It wasn’t the Bettman strategy; it was the Bruce McNall strategy. Bettman was hired to enact it.”)
99. Finally, Michael Farber of SI, on Gretzky’s impact on Los Angeles during his time there:
“Without Gretzky's enormous crossover appeal -- raise your hands if you think another hockey player will be the host of Saturday Night Live within 20 years -- there is a distinct possibility several of these franchises would not exist. Gretzky's early years in Los Angeles, through the 1993 Cup final, were a perfect match of star power and a city that demands nothing less.
"A defenseman couldn't deflect a shot into the stands without the risk of braining someone who could 'open' a movie, or at least had his own publicist. Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, John Candy ... the increasingly dilapidated Great Western Forum was the party hall for A-Listers, and, by extension, the entire NHL, the epicenter of the era of good feeling that lasted through the New York Rangers win in 1994. The subsequent lockout and the spreading neutral-zone trap were buzzkillers; you can argue the Gretzky-fuelled overexpansion actually led directly to the Dead Puck era. Anyway, this was Wayne's world. We were just living in it.”
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