LAST SATURDAY MARKED THE 26TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE WAYNE GRETZKY TRADE. THIS IS A REVISED EDITION OF THE STORY WE RAN FOR THE QUARTER CENTURY ANNIVERSARY LAST SUMMER
It was one of those “where were you” moments that happen a handful of times in a generation. The kind you’ll be able to tell your children and grandchildren one day 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 celebrity 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? 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 Atlantis Disaster. And normally I’d agree with you, but the fact is when Gretzky, along with teammates Marty McSorley and Mike Krushylniski, 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 the relationship perfectly. “In Canada,” he once remarked, “you go to church and you play hockey.” The fact is that it’s impossible to find a metaphor that accurately describes how important hockey is to the Great White North. 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, 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, 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 the worst kind of bogey man. 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 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 once said 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.
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 soon follow. The trade dominated the headlines of Canadian papers for weeks afterwards and Kings owner Bruce McNall and Gretzky’s new bride, Janet Jackson, became public enemies number one nationwide, their names cursed in 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 would go to the Eric Lindros deal that went down between 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 Alberta’s frozen northern tundra, but 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 hockey had become the new cool thing among Tinseltown’s trendsetters seemingly overnight. When Gretzky was traded in 1988, the NHL boasted 14 American clubs; twenty-six 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 Arizona, Dallas, 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 22 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 eight 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 hockeywise 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 over a quarter of a century ago, the game as we know it today-a multi billion dollar entertainment empire that spans entire continents and stretches across generations-wouldn’t exist. Make no mistake, the game would still be here, but you can bet all the money in your mattress that the financial pie the owners and players find themselves squabbling over every seven years or so would be a lot smaller and the game would have to settle for a much smaller stage.
In the end, Canada shed a lot of tears with Wayne that steamy August day in 1988 (“I promised Mess I wasn’t going to do this,”), but Canada survived and hockey in the Proud North is doing just fine (as evidenced by gold medals in the 2014 and 2010 Winter Olympics). And 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.