By Sean Hartnett
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24 years to this day, the Edmonton Oilers sent Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. On August 9, 1988 — “The Trade” rocked the hockey world to its core.
Suddenly, the most dominant player in NHL and already the greatest player in the history of his sport was trading the cold winters of Alberta for the sunny beaches of Southern California.
A tearful Gretzky struggled to hold it together as the weight of leaving Edmonton hit him, as all of Canada gathered to watch his departing press conference from their television sets.
At 27, Gretzky was at the peak of his powers. Having led Edmonton to four Stanley Cup championships in the past five years, Gretzky’s Oilers had established themselves as a dynasty that was set to continue for many years to come. The Oilers’ dominant reign was about to come crashing down.
A Dynasty Dismantled
While the Oilers won the 1990 Stanley Cup without Gretzky, “The Trade” was the beginning of the dismantling of the Oilers. One after another, the remaining superstars left Edmonton. Each would go on to become Hockey Hall of Famers.
The man who took Gretzky’s place as Edmonton captain, Mark Messier was traded to the New York Rangers. Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson were dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Star sniper Jari Kurri joined Gretzky in Los Angeles.
Had the Oilers kept Gretzky and this group together, their dynasty may have continued into the mid-1990′s. It’s possible that the Oilers could have won a total of ten Stanley Cups between the years of 1984 to 1996.
“Wayne Gretzky was sold for $15 million dollars, five draft picks and a couple of players. I wouldn’t have traded him for an entire organization,” former Oilers’ General Manager Glen Sather said during ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary ‘Kings’ Ransom.’
A Nation Mourns
To fully understand the impact of Canada losing Gretzky, you would need to understand that Gretzky was more than a hockey player to Canadians. He was an unofficial symbol of Canada and a rock star to its people.
His wedding to actress Janet Jones attracted the media attention of a royal wedding. Canadian families bought every product that Gretzky endorsed from cars, to hockey products, to cereal boxes.
“Wayne Gretzky is a national symbol, like the beaver. How can we allow the sale of our national symbols?”
“The Edmonton Oilers without Wayne Gretzky is like apple pie without ice cream, like winter without snow, like the Wheel of Fortune without Vanna White – it’s quite simply unthinkable,” Riis said in Ottawa.
“The bottom line is that we have to keep Wayne in Canada, where Canadians can see their greatest hockey player ever on a regular basis,” he demanded.
Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington was besieged by angry letters and death threats. Edmontonians marched in protest and burned effigies of Pocklington.
Everyone in Canada was up in arms and pointing fingers over ‘The Great One’ joining L.A. Janet Gretzky was branded by Canadian papers as “Yoko Ono” for breaking up the mighty Oilers.
Gretzky was indeed Canada’s favorite son, by moving to Los Angeles — he became Canada’s greatest ever export.
“It was like Prime Minister of Canada being sent to another country, ” Sather remembered.
Gretzky’s Impact On American Hockey
While Gretzky was unable to lift the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles, he did take the Kings on an inspirational run to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. The Kings were defeated by the Montreal Canadiens in five games during a thrilling Stanley Cup Final. Three of Montreal’s victories were decided in overtime.
Gretzky’s larger impact was selling the NHL to emerging American hockey markets. If Gretzky hadn’t come to Los Angeles, there wouldn’t be the Dallas Stars, San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes or Nashville Predators today.
In an interview with NHL Network, Gretzky described the transformation of Los Angeles into a hockey town. The Kings began to sell out games at the Great Western Forum once Gretzky came to town. Hollywood celebrities filled rows of seats and wholeheartedly embraced the Kings.
Kids started playing roller hockey in the streets of a city where the Lakers were the main attraction.
“I stopped the car and said to a friend, ‘You know, if we were in Canada, kids would be playing ball hockey, or inline hockey here and it would be amazing.’ And this guy said, ‘Well, this is California,’” Gretzky said on NHL Network. “A year later there was a sign on the fence that said ‘no inline hockey allowed’ and I was like, ‘We’ve come a long way.’ “
After a 45-year wait, the Los Angeles Kings finally lifted the Stanley Cup over the New Jersey Devils this past June. Even though he retired in 1999, I think Gretzky deserves an assist for the Kings’ first-ever Stanley Cup championship in 2012. Had he not joined the Kings, the franchise might’ve left Los Angeles decades ago.
Is Gretzky’s trade to the Kings the most important in sports history? Follow Sean on Twitter and pass along your comments to him at — @HartnettHockey.