A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley ...

A statue of Wayne Gretzky raising the Stanley Cup graces the front entrance of Edmonton’s Rexall Place. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

25 YEARS AGO TODAY, THE EDMONTON OILERS TRADED THE GREAT ONE, WAYNE GRETZKY HIMSELF, TO THE LOS ANGELES KINGS IN A DEAL THAT SHOOK ONE NATION TO ITS VERY FOUNDATION AND BROUGHT HOCKEY ALIVE IN ANOTHER

     It was one of those “where were you” moments that happen a handful of times in a generation, the kind where history slaps you in the face to remind you whose running the show.  It was one of those iconic events where you can tell people for the rest of your life where you were when it happened because your memory preserved every detail with brutal clarity.  One of those moments where you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren exactly what you doing when history hit the fan and the world stopped making sense.  The beginning or end of a war; a president, civil rights leader or musician being assassinated; a space shuttle exploding without warning as it touched the heavens.  For most of the world, August 9th, 1988 passed like any other, but in Canada, people from coast to coast to coast spent most of it glued to their television sets, sitting transfixed and unbelieving as they witnessed our National Passion (a National Obsession for many) became an export, a commodity shipped south of the border to a ravenous American empire, changing our game and indeed our very identity as a country forever.

Sounds a little much, right?  A tad excessive to say the least?  Normally you’d be right and you’d be forgiven if you dismissed the previous paragraph as an extra-large serving of hyperbole tossed in a blender with a generous amount of fresh cow manure; a BS shake, so to speak.  Many would find it justifiably offensive to lump the day the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in with Pearl Harbor or the space Shuttle Discovery Disaster.  And normally I’d agree with you, but the fact is when Gretzky, along with teammates Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, became Los Angeles Kings, Canada’s entire landscape shifted forever.

You have to be able to grasp hockey’s importance to Canada at the time to truly understand the relevance of this date.  Gretzky himself summed up Canadians relationship with hockey perfectly.  “In Canada,” he once remarked, “you go to church and you play hockey.”  That may actually be selling it short; Canada is full of atheists who’ll never set foot in a church but there’s a chance most are hockey fans.  The fact is that it’s impossible to find a metaphor that accurately describes how important hockey is to the Great White North.  Sharing the world’s longest friendly border with the richest, mightiest and loudest super power history has ever seen for the better part of a century and a half has nurtured a healthy humility in Canadians, but it’s also burdened us with a mean inferiority complex.  But nothing is so distinctly Canadian, nothing is bound so tightly with our national sense of self as the sport of hockey is.  During the Super Series against the Soviet Union in 1972, the day of the final game was an unofficial holiday north of the border, businesses closed up shop and teachers wheeled television sets into classrooms so their students could watch.  When Canada and the United States clashed for the gold medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the CBC reported ratings somewhere in the upper stratosphere.  And when the NHL returned from a year-long lockout in 2005, Canada’s public broadcaster tossed all of their previous records out the window as Canadian viewers rushed back to Hockey Night in Canada with savage enthusiasm.  While less than a quarter of the NHL’s teams currently call Canada home, we supply the league with nearly half its revenue and over half its talent.  And those numbers barely scratch the surface of how important the game is to us Canucks.  Hockey is imprinted on our DNA like few other things are.  Which is why the Gretzky trade rattled us so deeply.

Gretzky wasn’t the only future legend the Oilers boasted in the 1980’s, and while number 99 was a once in a lifetime player, he was the centerpiece of a once in a lifetime collection of talent.  They were known as the Boys on the Bus and they were responsible for more nightmares among NHL goalies than Stephen King, George A. Romero and Cold War paranoia combined.  But if Edmonton was a symphony of divine talent, Gretzky was the maestro, conducting the Oilers with surgical brilliance.  The Great One was often knocked for his lack of size (in the days before personal trainers and home gyms) and his skating was often criticized as being average at best.  But Gretzky’s true gift was his uncanny timing, his innate awareness of where everyone was on the ice at any given moment.  He was once quoted as saying that the secret to his success wasn’t knowing where the puck was, but knowing where it was going to be.  He thought the game at a higher level, the way a grandmaster thinks chess miles beyond his opponents.  Gretzky made a habit out of winning Stanley Cups and re-writing the record book, and he made it look easy.   And not only was he Canadian, but he also played for a small market Canadian team.  He belonged, without a doubt, to Canada.  Until that fateful day, exactly a quarter century ago today.

To add a little extra context to the tale, Canada was in the middle of the fierce Free Trade debate at the time, with millions of Canadians genuinely afraid that the trade agreement with the United States threatened Canada’s economic and cultural sovereignty.  Having fifteen million American greenbacks coming back to Edmonton as part of the return for the Great One ramped up the conspiracy whispers that Gretzky had simply been auctioned off to Big American Business and that the rest of Canada’s national treasures would follow.   The trade dominated the headlines of Canadian papers for weeks afterwards and Kings owner Bruce McNall and Gretzky’s new bride Janet Jones became Canada’s public enemy number one, their names cursed in newspaper editorials and on radio call in shows.  Fans held protests outside Northlands Coliseum and then Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was burned in effigy.  NDP House Leader Nelson Riis even demanded that the Canadian government declare Gretzky a national symbol and block the trade.

It wasn’t the biggest trade in NHL history (that honour goes to the Eric Lindros deal that was completed by the Quebec Nordiques and the Philadelphia Flyers just a few years later), but it is without question the most important.  Up until that time, Gretzky was promoting the NHL from the frozen tundra of Alberta.  Now that he was in L.A. and playing in the shadow of Hollywood, the game’s American popularity exploded like a dying sun.  Celebrity spotting became a new past time at Kings games and overnight hockey had become the new cool thing among Tinseltown’s trend setters.  When Gretzky was traded in 1988, the NHL boasted 14 American clubs.  Twenty-five years later, through expansion and relocation, 23 teams now reside in American zip codes, including two more clubs in California, two in Florida and teams in Dallas, Phoenix, Nashville and Carolina, markets the NHL never dreamt of penetrating before The Trade.  And in the wake of Gretzky’s tearful migration south, the United States various amateur hockey programs have improved so much that Canada’s southern neighbours now challenge the Great White North’s previously unquestioned dominance on a regular basis.   None of that could have happened unless Wayne Gretzky had worn a Kings jersey.

Edmonton still managed to win another Stanley Cup despite trading the Great One, capturing Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice in 1990.  But since then it’s been pretty grim for the Oilers and their fans.  They’ve only qualified for the playoffs seven times in the last 21 seasons.  And while they were the NHL’s Cinderella story the last time they did make the post-season, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006, they currently own the longest active playoff drought in the League, missing the playoffs the last seven seasons in a row.  The closest Gretzky came to Stanley Cup glory after the Trade was leading the Kings to the Cup finals in 1993, where they were embarrassed by Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in five games.  When he retired in 1999, the four Stanley Cup rings in his trophy case were all won as a member of the Oilers.  The Great One captured Canada’s collective heart once again in 2002 when he was the most public architect of Canada’s gold-medal winning Olympic hockey team in Salt Lake City (ending over half a century without Olympic gold), but being an owner and NHL head coach didn’t work out too well in his post-retirement days and the Great One has been pretty silent hockey-wise the last few years.  He leaves behind a legacy of untouchable records though, and remains the biggest reason why hockey was able to plant roots and grow in the United States.

Volumes have been written about the deal that sent Gretzky and company to L.A., and whenever the Trade celebrates a significant anniversary, magazines, newspapers and sports shows run lengthy pieces commemorating it and examining the impact it had.  The question of which team won the deal has been asked until the question has lost meaning, but the truth is the real winner was the game of hockey.  It’s true that August 9th symbolized the end of one era and the beginning of another, when hockey stopped being just a game and became big business.  It also marked the beginning of the game’s explosion of growth in the United States and what it all boils down to is that if, for whatever rhyme or reason, the Edmonton Oilers hadn’t traded Wayne Gretzky to the L.A. Kings on this day a quarter of a century ago, the game wouldn’t exist today as we know it, a multi billion dollar entertainment empire that spans continents and stretches across generations.  Make no mistake, the game would still exist, but you can bet all the money in your mattress that the financial pie the owners and players wind up squabbling over every seven years or so would be a lot smaller and the game would have to settle for a much smaller stage.

Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end, Canada shed a lot of tears with Wayne that steamy August day in ’88 (“I promised Mess I wasn’t going to do this,”), but Canada survived and hockey in the Proud North is doing just fine.  The Trade laid the groundwork that allowed hockey to spread and reach new heights of success and popularity.  There have been plenty of bumps along the way, but it was this deal that built the road in the first place.  And the purists can rest easy, the game of hockey still bears one, undeniable label.  It reads Made in Canada.  And no trade will ever change that.

Shayne Kempton

AN UNTOUCHABLE LEGACY

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One thought on “AN UNTOUCHABLE LEGACY

  1. Gary B. says:

    Very well researched and written article, I had there thought about how the present day NHL came to be from that trade.

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