Edmonton’s first gulp of greatness came from Gretzky. The Panthers can say ‘thanks,’ too

Not even American Airlines links the city in Western Canada oil country where a January temperature might not reach 0 degrees Fahrenheit and South Florida, where 78 in February drives the tourism and real estate industries. One name does link the Panthers and their Stanley Cup Final opponent, the Edmonton Oilers.

Wayne Gretzky, of course.

The man who retired with 61 NHL records set most of them while being the main reason the Edmonton Oilers ruled the NHL as the league’s 1980s glamour team. But, the Aug. 9, 1988 trade of Gretzky to the NHL’s lone warm winter team, the Los Angeles Kings, started the timer on a bomb that exploded and rearranged the NHL.

Soon, the league had two Florida teams (the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning), three California teams (the Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks), and relocated teams in Texas (Dallas Stars from Minnesota) and North Carolina (Carolina Hurricanes from their Hartford Whalers roots). A few years later, Nashville joined the party.

Oh, yes, there’s also the relocated original Winnipeg Jets, the Arizona Coyotes, now in the process of moving to Salt Lake City. That franchise began life in the World Hockey Association, as did Edmonton.

That’s also where Gretzky almost wound up instead of Edmonton.

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99, no problems in Edmonton

Desperate to stop gushing losses of games and money, WHA owner Nelson Skalbania signed 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky in 1978 for the Indianapolis Racers despite doubts about the size (155 pounds) and speed of Canadian junior hockey’s No. 2 scorer.

Eight games into Gretzky’s career, the part time Broad Ripple High School student had three goals and three assists. But, Gretzky’s autobiography, “Gretzky,” said Skalbania claimed to be losing $40,000 per game. He decided to sell the contracts of Gretzky, goalie Eddie Mio and forward Peter Driscoll to either Edmonton or Winnipeg.

“I called (agent) Gus (Badali) and he said, ‘Pick Edmonton,’” according to “Gretzky,” an autobiography. He said it was an oil town that was booming. Also, it had led the WHA in attendance the year before. If the NHL was going to take a WHA team, they’d want a team with a big arena and a great following.”

Actually, both would be taken by the NHL along with the Quebec Nordiques and the Hartford Whalers as the WHA died after the 1978-79 season. Meanwhile, the slithering skinny teen put up 46 goals and 110 points as a WHA rookie.

Gretzky tied Los Angeles’ Marcel Dionne for the league scoring title in Edmonton’s first NHL season with 137 points. Then, as Edmonton finished adding future Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe and goalie Grant Fuhr, Gretzky and the Oilers destroyed the NHL record book.

Only one team, the 1970-71 Bruins with record seasons from Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, had averaged five goals per game. Edmonton did it every season from 1981-86. No one has done it since.

Esposito set the record for goals in a season, 76, and points, 152. Gretzky reset those to 92 and 215. His four 200-point seasons remain the only ones in NHL history. Orr’s 102-assist mark got raised five times before Gretzky peaked at 163 assists in 1985-86.

Yes, that season, Gretzky beat Esposito’s previous points record on assists alone.

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The Edmonton Journal’s Jim Matheson, who has been covering the Oilers since their WHA days, said, “Wayne put Edmonton on the map outside the sport of hockey.”

Matheson recalls a fellow black jack player in Las Vegas, upon hearing he was from Edmonton, recognize it as, “’That’s where that Gretzky plays,’ despite not liking hockey.

In some ways, the Oilers were the NHL’s answer to the 1980s University of Miami Hurricanes: fast, high-scoring, nontraditional, unafraid to run their mouths or throw a little extra into a celebration.

Like UM, they infuriated traditionalists, especially before they won anything of consequence.

“Unless you were an Oiler fan, he was hard to like,” former New York Rangers goalie John Davidson wrote in “99 My Life in Pictures.” “Why? Because he was part of a young, hockey, brash — at times, obnoxious — but extremely talented hockey club.”

Davidson said that fit because they were coached by Glen Sather, of whom Gretzky wrote, “I swear, I can’t remember a game when there wasn’t some kind of altercation between the (road) fans and Sather.”

Eventually, their cocksure attitudes would be justified by Stanley Cups in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and even 1990 after Gretzky was traded.

“People called us cocky, but in truth, we were really just young and naive,” Gretzky wrote in “99 My Life in Pictures.” “And, we were good. Now, that I’m retired I can say it: I was good.”

But, not so good that he couldn’t be traded.

99 goes to LA, the NHL goes everywhere (including Florida)

Matheson was asked if he could envision 20 years after Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles on Aug. 9, 1988 that the NHL would have the warm winter teams it had.

“Yes, because he’s the one who got all those teams there,” Matheson said.

Los Angeles averaged 11,667 fans per home game in 1987-88, their best total of the previous 10 seasons. After trading for Gretzky, the Kings set a franchise record with 14,875 and were over 15,000 the next six seasons.

Suddenly, the kind of movie stars once seen only at Lakers games dotted the stands at Kings’ games. Even without the Tom Hankses and Goldie Hawns, the crowds told the NHL a competitive team could build a solid following in sunny cities that didn’t have LA level star power.

Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) and Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) celebrate after teammates after their team’s win against the New York Rangers in Game 6 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers left wing Matthew Tkachuk (19) and Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) celebrate after teammates after their team’s win against the New York Rangers in Game 6 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.

When the Board of Governors for the then-21-team NHL next heard from expansion applicants, in December 1990, those trying to get into the league came included groups from sunny cities Miami, San Diego/Anahiem, Tampa and St. Petersburg (separately).

San Jose already had been awarded, to start in 1991. Groups from Tampa and Ottawa got selected because, according to “Power Plays” by then-NHL President Gil Stein, they didn’t balk at paying the $50 million franchise fee.

Stein still had Miami as a “targeted expansion site” when he heard Dolphins and Marlins owner H. Wayne Huizenga might be interested in a franchise. Stein, who had been meeting with interested Disney CEO Michael Eisner about Disney owning a team playing in a new building in Anaheim, figured out how to cut the usual expansion process from two years to less than a month.

That’s how in December 1992 at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Huizenga and Eisner stood in front of the Board of Governors with their formal requests of franchises. The Florida Panthers and the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim began play 10 months later.