Was It Worth It? The Gretzky Trade, 25 Years Later

Wayne Gretzky wasn’t the first athlete to agree to play in a warmer climate in front of less demanding fans, and he won’t be the last. That doesn’t mean his trade from Edmonton to L.A. wasn’t an affront to the gods.

Paul Taunton is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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Let’s all remember together.

Twenty-five years ago, on August 9th, two important things happened in sports that weren’t actually supposed to happen that day. One was supposed to happen sooner, the other later. Both were parts of movements to modernize their leagues, but each was, in many ways, more the closing of a chapter.

The first thing took place after what is known by religious folk and many insurance companies as an Act of God. The Chicago Cubs were set to end their glorious holdout as the last Major League Baseball team to not play home games under stadium lights on 8/8/88 (Woody Allen: “How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans”), but after three-and-a-half innings against the Phillies, the game was rained out. In the record books, the first official night game at Wrigley Field was postponed by a day.

The second thing took place because of an affront to the gods. Half a continent away in Edmonton, a secret press conference had been scheduled for August 11th to announce Wayne Gretzky’s trade from the hometown Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. To no one’s surprise, the secret wouldn’t keep (Proverb: “What is told into the ear of a man is often heard a hundred miles away”—that’s 161 kilometres), and the respective franchise owners were forced to move up their timetable for meeting the press.

The first one I was expecting, because my brother and I spent most of our summer afternoons in the late ‘80s watching WGN as Harry Caray and Steve Stone described the Cubs’ various ways of not winning the World Series while bathed in brilliant, fleeting sunshine. The second was, as much to us as every other hockey fan, a surprise—one made even stranger by hearing the news on the way back to Phoenix after visiting family in Edmonton. We had stopped in Las Vegas (where Gretzky’s Kings would soon play an outdoor exhibition game at Caesar’s Palace as part of their Sun Belt barnstorming tour, as Stephen Brunt recalls in his 2009 book, Gretzky’s Tears), and though I don’t remember the panicked international call we must have placed from Circus Circus, it must have happened. Is everyone okay up there?

The press conference, of course, is legendary; an eponymous chapter in Brunt’s aforementioned book spends 24 full pages recreating it. But the salt in the wound came a couple of weeks later, when The Great One appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (we still ran to the mailbox for it back then) with the headline “Great Move, Gretzky.” Just a couple months before, he’d appeared on the cover under the headline “A Class Act,” when the Oilers had defeated the Boston Bruins to win the Stanley Cup. Now here was Gretzky, standing next to Magic Johnson and wearing the flashy new jersey of the Kings. Fittingly for Oilers fans, thanks to that era’s uniform regulations, he’d be wearing white at home, and on the road, black.

Okay, so maybe this is an overreaction—using the iconography of western films and treating the trade like a natural disaster. And the Oilers weren’t even my team. But in the minds of many fans, this was wrong. There are rules. First of all, you do not transact within your division.11Especially when the playoffs have a divisional format, something that had been in place since 1982, the first year the two teams had met in the playoffs. Known as “The Miracle on Manchester,” Los Angeles overcame the largest deficit in NHL playoff history, 5-0, to win game three of a best-of-five against the Oilers. The win propelled the Kings to an upset of their heavily favoured opponent, and delayed by a year Edmonton’s first finals meeting with the New York Islanders—the team to whom they’d lost the year before, and to whom they would lose again in 1983 before finally defeating them in 1984 for their first championship. How had it worked out for Boston when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to their divisional rivals in the Bronx? Many, Brunt included, note that Gretzky was more sold than traded, with cash being the most important quantity coming back to Edmonton. The big-city Yankees had never won a World Series before the Babe arrived. Was the Curse of the Bambino about to repeat itself in hockey?

Of course, the Oilers and Kings met in the following postseason, and the punishment for Edmonton’s transgression was meted out directly. In heartbreaking fashion, Edmonton blew a 3-1 series lead, and the curse seemed to be coming true. But the hockey gods seemed also to have a case against The Great One: The two teams met again each of the following three seasons, and each time, the Oilers had their justice. In the first of those years, 1990, they were champions again, this time with Mark Messier wearing the C and Bill Ranford between the pipes. Edmonton fell short of the trophy the next two years, yet it wasn’t Gretzky who won it all, but another ex-Oiler, Paul Coffey, hoisting back-to-back Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mario Lemieux, who seemed to have supplanted Gretzky as the best player in the league.

If there are hockey gods, however—if there are ghosts in the Montreal Forum, as they say—they showed themselves most in 1993, taking up residence in their old home. In fairness to a league’s worth of fans who still kind of hate them, we’ll keep the lauding of the Habs to a minimum. But there was something about that year. The year Gretzky’s Kings had finally put it all together, when he could get away with anything—including high-sticking Leafs captain Doug Gilmour during game 6 of the conference finals and remaining on the ice to score the winning goal. He then netted a hat trick in game 7 to prevent the first all-Canadian final since Toronto’s last championship in 1967, and it might have been the first time a few Leafs fans didn’t cheer against the Habs since Montreal’s 1975 exhibition game against the Red Army. (Or maybe neither excessive communism nor capitalism can sway a Leafs fan in this debate.) And yet despite Gretzky’s seemingly limitless fortune, the team of destiny wasn’t his own, but was instead the otherwise least-decorated Canadiens squad of them all, one that managed a record 10 straight overtime wins during its march to the Cup, and found itself in the mostly unfamiliar position of slaying Goliath instead of being him.

During his media appearances in the summer of 1988, Gretzky kept saying that bringing the Kings the Cup was the goal, and that it would be good for the league. But after 1993, he never even made it back to the finals; it took the Kings almost 20 years to return themselves. In that light, the question lingers: was it worth it?

Was it worth it for the Kings?

Of course it was. If you can get the best player, you get the best player—especially if you’re removing him from your major playoff roadblock in the process. Still, I find myself happiest for those Kings fans who were there before, during, and after Gretzky, and finally got to see the Cup come to Los Angeles in 2012.

Was it worth it for the Oilers?

Well, there were financial considerations involved … and it looked like they would lose him anyway … but no, of course not. Here’s the return the Oilers received: Jimmy Carson (who would never fit in), Martin Gelinas, $15 million, and first round picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993. The 1989 pick was traded to New Jersey for Corey Foster. The 1991 pick became Martin Rucinski, and the 1993 pick became Nick Stajduhar, who played only two games in the NHL. (Fun fact: After being dealt to the Quebec Nordiques before they moved to Colorado, Rucinski would also be part of the next landscape-changing move in hockey—Le Trade—when Montreal sent Patrick Roy to the Avalanche in late 1995. St. Patrick promptly won a third Cup, followed by another in 2001 with Ray Bourque.) The Oilers may have won that fifth title in 1990, and it was a special one for Oilers fans, but it doesn’t justify the trade. Sports fans have long memories: There are still Chicago Bulls fans who blame Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause for breaking up the Jordan-era Bulls dynasty.

If anything, it was worth it mainly for a generation’s worth of former Edmonton players, Messier chief among them. He proved he could do it without Gretzky in 1990, and then solidified his legend in 1994 when he guaranteed a Rangers victory to tie the conference finals with New Jersey (scoring a hat trick in the third period) and then scored the Cup-winning goal against Vancouver in the next round. He did it with ex-Oilers Glenn Anderson, Kevin Lowe, Esa Tikkanen, Craig MacTavish, and even Adam Graves, who was traded to Edmonton from Detroit in 1989 for the disgruntled Jimmy Carson.

As Brunt points out, fans of other teams were not necessarily crushed when Gretzky left the Oilers—especially in the Smythe division, which the Oilers had owned for most of a decade. The bridesmaid for much of that time, the Calgary Flames, not only got to see their arch-rival eliminated by Gretzky’s Kings in his first postseason in L.A., they also got to eliminate Gretzky himself. Then, after earning a re-match in the finals against the team who beat them in 1986, they became the first team to beat the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup on Montreal ice (after a go-ahead goal scored by the greatest moustache in sports history). It was a very good year for the Flames and their fans: Even the scratched Jim Peplinski came running out from the locker room in his underwear to celebrate.

Was it worth it for Gretzky?

It’s harder to speculate on the individual, and really, who are we to criticize another person’s quite reasonable life and career choices? After all, Gretzky was not the last NHL player to choose to play in a warmer climate in front of less demanding fans, and he wasn’t the first employee to have a falling out with his boss. Brunt notes that when Gretzky signed with the WHA as a teenager, he accepted the fact that he might never play in the NHL in the first place; since then, he’s been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in an Oilers uniform eight times (more than Orr, Lemieux, or Crosby have in their careers). His cover with Magic Johnson, however, was his only cover in a Kings jersey. His final two were in Rangers jerseys, first when he reunited with Messier and then when he retired, and the one remaining cover was a minor feature during his blip with the Blues, where he briefly shared the ice again with Grant Fuhr. It’s hard for a fan to imagine a player leaving a city where their great-grandchildren will eat for free. (In baseball, Albert Pujols made the Sports Illustrated cover eight times as a Cardinal; his one appearance as an Angel looks like it could be his last. Will it be worth it?) In the end, did Gretzky become something of a—gasp—journeyman?

Was it worth it for the league?

The league would say yes. After all, it was 29% larger when Gretzky retired than it was at the time of the trade (it’s 43% larger today). But then, that level of expansion is one of the main things the sport’s core audience complains about. At the time of the trade, the league had just lost its contract with ESPN for the first time (RIP Tom Mees), and for a while I actually lost the ability to see any team during the regular season except Gretzky’s Kings, who played on Prime Ticket, a basic cable channel co-founded by the Lakers (and former Kings) owner Jerry Buss. Prime Ticket would ultimately carry both the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks (née Mighty Ducks of Anaheim), and later became Fox Sports West about the same time Fox debuted FoxTrax, a.k.a “the glowing puck,” in its NHL coverage (cue more booing from the core audience). Brunt speculates that the Gretzky trade started the domino effect that would see Canadian teams such as the Winnipeg Jets relocate to places such as Phoenix (where Gretzky would later coach and be part owner. It hasn’t escaped notice that after a playing career like Michael Jordan’s, his executive career ended up looking… a lot like Jordan’s). But then, the NHL had been trying to build a Sun Belt audience for some time: I once saw Guy Lafleur play an exhibition game in Phoenix during his comeback. There were a lot of Blackhawks jerseys in the crowd.

Brunt quotes Kings owner Bruce McNall as seeing himself in opposition to the reactionary owners of the past, like Chicago’s Bill Wurtz and Boston’s Jeremy Jacobs. Maybe that’s true. But the quote in Brunt’s book that jumped out at me the most came later, from a Los Angeles Times piece the morning after Gretzky’s Kings eliminated the Oilers that first year, in which Jerry Buss praised McNall for his courage in making the trade: “You don’t just step up to the line with $15 million of your own money like that.” Did Buss misunderstand where McNall got his money? Or is that just how owners think?

So, sure, the league was bigger after the trade, but I’m not sure it was better. Twenty years later, another superstar—David Beckham—came to L.A., and his team actually won the championship. But do Americans necessarily like soccer more because of it? Or is that happening on its own? 

Was it worth it for the fan?

There are many reasons why you could say yes—mostly to do with entertainment—but I’m going to say no for the same reason. The fans missed out on seeing arguably the greatest hockey team of all time become definitively the greatest hockey team of all time. Before The Trade became the worst moment in Oilers history, the worst moment wasn’t the Miracle on Manchester: It was Steve Smith’s own-goal in 1986, when he (Oilers fans, cover your ears) accidentally banked the puck off Grant Fuhr’s skate and into the Oilers’ net to give Calgary the go-ahead goal in the third period of game 7 (Fuhr and Smith later played together for a year on the Flames, which should be redacted). The Flames, as mentioned, went on to lose to rookie Patrick Roy in the finals— a lot of tears have been shed wondering if the Oilers could have beaten him—and then proceeded to match the five consecutive Cups of the ‘50s Canadiens, superseding Scotty Bowman’s four Cups with the ‘70s Canadiens and the four straight won by the Islanders. After that, who knows? With Gretzky, the 1989 Oilers don’t get eliminated by Gretzky, and they won in 1990 without him, anyway: It’s not inconceivable that even with the own-goal, the Oilers might have won 6 out of 7, something that has still never been done. I cheered against Gretzky’s Oilers, but I had little doubt that I was cheering against the best. To the prospective fan, I’m not sure that’s less entertaining than over-expansion and the coming decade of New Jersey Devils hockey.

Much, of course, has changed in the league since the trade—even since Gretzky’s retirement. Detroit, Chicago, and Boston have all ended long championship droughts. (The Cubs have not, though they do still play more day games than anyone else, at least.) Even Los Angeles finally won. But listing the champions in this article has reminded me of one familiar fact that still astounds: In addition to his Canadiens dynasty, Scotty Bowman was behind the bench or in the front office for both of Pittsburgh’s championships, as well as another four with Detroit and two more with Chicago. Maybe 25 years ago, the Kings should have been going after Bowman instead.

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