Sunday, 4 August 2013

Nothing's sacred: The 1988 Wayne Gretzky trade

It was the shot heard round the hockey world. Edmonton Oilers' fans mourned, Calgary Flames' fans cheered. Twenty-five years ago this week, Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, on August 9, 1988.

It can't be, can it?
It was the last summer I spent on the family farm. I was outside working, when I came in for lunch. The radio was on LA-107 FM and they were reporting rumours that Wayne Gretzky, fresh off captaining the Edmonton Oilers to their fourth Stanely Cup championship in five years, was being traded to the lowly Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson and Luc Robitaille, two young but very talented players.

"It can't be," I thought.

Back in those days, Gretzky was synonymous with the Edmonton Oilers. His first contract was actually 21 years for $21 million, signed on his 18th birthday. It was eventually re-negotiated, but still one of the richest in professional hockey. Plus, blockbuster trades were few and far between back then. When they occurred, it was a straight up swap of talent. There was no way L.A. had anywhere near enough talent to trade for Gretzky. And, a few weeks earlier, he married actress Janet Jones, an event that was televised. Everything indicated he was happy in Edmonton and the rumours were false. (Later it would come out he was eligible for free agency at the end of the 1988-1989 season, and the Oilers were looking to get what they could if he did sign with another team).

In living colour
That night, the news showed the trade had in fact happened, and that tearful press conference became part of hockey history and legend. However, the principals in the trade were much different than first reported by LA-107 FM.

Gretzky, along with Marty McSorley, and Mike Krushelnyski were off to the Kings in exchange for Jimmy Carson, junior prospect and 1988 first round pick Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash, and first-round draft picks in 1989 (later traded to the New Jersey Devils who selected Jason Miller), 1991 (Martin Rucinsky), and 1993 (Nick Stajduhar). When I saw this, I thought the Oilers really got a bad deal. Gretzky alone was worth everything the Kings gave Edmonton and more. Adding Robitaille, who would go on to score hundreds of goals off Gretzky passes, would have at least made the trade more equitable.

A few months later, on October 19, 1988, I was at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton to watch Wayne Gretzky play his first game in Edmonton since the trade. It was surreal. I never much cared for the Oilers, or Gretzky on the ice, so I was not sure who to cheer for. In the end, my loathing of the Oilers prevailed, and I cheered for the Kings. Plus, I came to respect and even like Gretzky as he matured. Edmonton went on to win 8-6.

Hockey lost its way that day
The fact is, that's when hockey lost its innocence. When the greatest player on earth could be traded – well sold actually – to the highest bidder, the game had become about money. As free agency burgeoned and players changed teams as often as they changed skates, loyalty followed. When the NHL head office was moved from Montreal to New York, new franchises were located in sunbelt states, and Canadian franchises were re-located to unappreciative and unworthy American markets, it lost its roots too.

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