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

IMG_0247A HEARTFELT APOLOGY TO THE OTTAWA SENATORS

     Let me begin by saying I like the Ottawa Senators.  I really do.  I am-and remain-an Edmonton Oilers fan, which is why when I moved to the Nation’s Capital I promised myself I’d resist the urge to make any sort of emotional investment in the Senators.  You see, at the time the Sens were coming off their second season since rejoining the NHL as an expansion team and were the joke of the professional sports world.  Seriously.   Not only had they finished last both years (by a country mile), but had captured records for sheer awfulness. They finished dead last their third season as well.  And they’re fourth for those of you keeping score at home.  My point is, when I decided to uproot myself and make Ottawa my home, the Sens weren’t just bad, they were historically bad.  Adding insult to injury was the fact that they were still sharing a building with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s (the Civic Centre, capacity 10 585), and would continue to do so until early 1996.  And the Oilers at the time, weren’t far behind in the punchline category.  In fact, one team the Senators usually had some sort of chance against in those dark, early years, were the Edmonton Oilers.  When pondering whether or not I should follow the Sens, as an established Oilers fan, did I really want to do that to myself?  I mean let’s face it, if I was going to split my loyalties, why follow the biggest punching bag in all of professional hockey when I was already following one of the worst?  Why not follow Detroit or Pittsburgh or the Montreal Canadiens, who claimed much of Ottawa’s relatively virgin fan base  (while Toronto claimed much of the rest)?

But the truth is, the Senators grew on me.  And why not?  There were plenty of similarities between the two teams back then, aside from their dismal records.  Both were small market Canadian teams trying to compete against much richer squads in the days before the salary cap, when the Canadian Loonie could buy you an American nickel.  Both had a handful of shiny young players they were pinning their future hopes on-Ottawa boasted talented superstar centre Alexei Yashin, Alexandre “the Second Coming of Mario Lemieux” Daigle and the highly touted Radek Bonk while Edmonton’s prayers included names like Doug Weight and Jason Arnott.  Ironically, both teams ended their losing ways at the same time, the Senators making the playoffs for the first time in 1997 while the Oilers ended a five year playoff drought that same year.  Both teams flirted with relocation (the Sens sinking as low as bankruptcy before being rescued by billionaire Eugene Melnyk) and both teams flirted with greatness, with Edmonton making an improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006 and the Ottawa Senators doing so in 2007.

So yes, I like the Ottawa Senators.  I like to see them do well.  Make no mistake, when they play Edmonton my ultimate loyalty remains with the Oilers (but cheering for an Edmonton win in overtime allows the Oilers to claim a rare victory while it allows the Senators to steal a point in what has become a claustrophobic Eastern Conference), but I have watched the Senators grow and have taken pride in their achievements and shared their sorrow during their defeats.  I was happy for them when they made the playoffs for the first time in 1997.  I swore at the TV whenever Alexei Yashin decided to wage another contractual temper tantrum and I cheered for them in 2003 when they advanced to the Final Four and again in 2007 when they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.  I despised Dany Heatley as much as any Sens fan when he turned his back on the franchise that had welcomed him after his life and career became a literal train wreck in Atlanta (even more so when he snubbed the Oilers repeated attempts to trade for him) and I felt the swelling bitterness when Ottawa was driven from the post season by the hated Toronto Maple Leafs not once, not twice, not even thrice but four god forsaken times.  Living in the Ottawa during all of those ups and down probably had a thing or two to do with my growing affection for the team as well, but as an Oilers fan, I became enamoured with underdogs.  And whether it was luck or design, the Sens have been underdogs more often than not.

But being a fan has never completely blinded me to reality.  OK, well, it has on occasion, but we’re talking less than 50/50 here.  After all, I AM an OILERS fan.  Delusion is part of the package.  It’s how we cope.  But it also equips you with more than enough pragmatism to look at a situation subjectively and size it up.  It’s either “we’ve got a real shot here,” or “yeah, we’re totally boned.”  I’m sure you get the picture.   And last winter, I took a look at Ottawa and figured they were destined to miss the playoffs (if there’s one thing an Oilers fan is an expert at, it’s failure and post season futility).

I don’t think I was too out of line.  Ottawa qualified for the 2012 playoffs by capturing the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and they had the fewest points of any team that made the post season that spring.  And that modest level of success exceeded most people’s expectations for Ottawa that year (the Sens missed the playoffs in 2011, and most predictions for the 2011-12 season leaned towards them missing the post-season again and participating in the Nail Yakupov sweepstakes).  And some of the teams that trailed Ottawa by a handful of points in the East made some significant gains last summer.  Carolina, who finished ten points behind the Senators, added top six forwards Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin.  Steve Yzerman, whose Tampa Bay Lightning trailed Ottawa by 8 points come season’s end, added free agent blue liners Matt Carle and Sami Salo to his weak defense corps and bolstered his struggling goaltending staff by acquiring (then) highly sought after netminder Anders Lindback.  But the team I felt represented the biggest threat to the Sens playoff presence was the Buffalo Sabres, who despite losing over 300 man games to injury and enduring a sub par year from franchise goalie Ryan Miller, finished a mere three points beneath the Sens.  And none of that takes into account the Toronto Maple Leafs inevitable (some might say overdue) improvement from a basement team to a playoff one, or the remarkable turnaround  of the Montreal Canadiens, jumping from dead last in the Eastern Conference to second place.  What was Ottawa’s big move?  Trading Nick Foligno to Columbus for defenseman Marc Methot.  In fact, the only team I considered in more jeopardy of losing their playoff berth was the New Jersey Devils (well, I swung an even .500 on that one).

And all my crystal ball gazing came before the Senators avalanche of injuries.

Defenceman Jared Cowen underwent season ending surgery in November to repair a hip he injured playing for the AHL Binghamton Senators during the early days of the NHL lockout (though he made a surprising comeback at the end of April).  Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson returned to the lineup during the first round matchup against Montreal after missing over two months with a sliced Achilles tendon after a run in with a reckless Matt Cooke in February (Karlsson wasn’t expected back until next October).  Jason Spezza was on the shelf between January and mid May with a herniated disc and Craig Anderson, easily the team’s MVP this season (whose absence from this year’s Vezina nominees has raised a few eyebrows) and sniper Milan Michalek have missed considerable chunks of time.  Taking all that into account, would any sane man have bet on the Senators playoff chances?  In fact, I know a lot of Senator fans who thought they’d be in the hunt for the first overall pick after the injuries started piling up (could you imagine adding Seth Jones to a blue line that already included Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen and potentially Codi Ceci?).  And I did go so far as to bet a co-worker lunch that the Sens would fail to qualify for the post season.  Don’t worry Matt, I haven’t forgotten, although if you insist on McDonald’s I reserve the right to yak on your Senators jersey.

So here’s my apology Senators, because the one thing I should have learned about this team from the time I decided to begin cheering for the rare win while they were still playing on OHL ice, to this year’s Cinderella bouncing of the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, is to never count this team out when the odds are against them.  Make no mistake, there have been plenty of times this team has choked.  There were years when they skated into the playoffs as the favourite to win the Cup, years where they had dominated the regular season, only to crumble under the pressure.  But when they’ve been counted out before a single regular season game has been played, or before a single skate blade touched playoff ice, that’s when they’re dangerous.  That’s when they’re most effective.  Especially this year, when catastrophic injuries forced them to play playoff hockey all season long.  And while things may not look so good for them against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins right now, the fact that they managed to make it this far, often with a roster that resembled an AHL team more than an NHL one, is no small victory in itself.  So sorry Sens, in the future, I hope I’ll know better.  You earned this.

Go Sens Go.

Shayne Kempton

A HEARTFELT APOLOGY TO THE OTTAWA SENATORS