Gretzky Trade Should Not Be Celebrated

Today is August 9 and a few writers (probably Americans) at have chosen to write articles about an event that they believe somehow deserves a place of honor in American NHL sports history, the trade of Wayne Gretzky by the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Somehow the belief exists that this trade resulted in a massive upsurge of interest in the NHL across the United States, particularly in California. There are those who to this day swear that this trade was an important preliminary step to the eventual creation of the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks. America had finally secured (stole according to Edmonton fans) Canada’s greatest player. Gretzky was being traded, “Americanized”, “for the good of the game”.

They were wrong. The trade would prove to be the first and probably the most important step in the decline of the Gretzky legend. They damaged an intangible. There are some things that cannot be bought and the Gretzky legend would never be the same. There are still regretful articles written about how many Stanley Cups the Oilers would have won if Gretzky had not been traded. In retrospect, the whole thing is a shameful act of betrayal. Canadian bad faith and lack of capital met American greed and ignorance with disastrous results. It was not the first and would not be the last time this author at least, would see such a combination bring catastrophic consequences, not just confined to hockey.

Gretzky himself did not want to be traded. He wanted to be an Oiler forever. This is where he had blossomed, a real hockey environment. The whole team had been built around him and he had already won four Stanley Cups. But Oiler owner Peter Pocklington was bribed by Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall (who would later go to prison) with $15 million, some players, and three number one draft choices. The official argument for the trade, it would be announced, was that somehow overnight Gretzky had become a “wasting asset”, that he had passed the peak of his abilities at the age of 27, and that Pocklington was getting what he could for him while he still could.

Ironically that would prove to be true, but only because Gretzky was being traded from a championship environment to a horrible one. To be called washed up at 27 when the peak years in a hockey career are usually from 23 to 30 is lying nonsense. But that didn’t stop the trade and the first major blow against the Gretzky legend had already been struck: Unknown to everyone, Gretzky had hoisted the Stanley Cup for the last time. Most of the core of the Oiler team would win the Stanley Cup for a fifth and last time and some of the others would win more Stanley Cups after they were traded elsewhere. But Gretzky, the greatest Oiler in history would only win four Stanley Cups, all with Edmonton.

The choice of Los Angeles as the trading partner was based on the money offered and because McNall was said to be almost the only owner who could afford to pay Gretzky’s contract and bribe Pocklington with enough money to let Gretzky go, and it was a city that supposedly would further Gretzky’s new wife, Janet’s career. In fact Janet would be unfairly blamed as desiring to get out of “small town” Edmonton; at least temporarily until the truth emerged, she became the NHL’s version of Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman.

In acquiring Gretzky, McNall was recognizing the realities of the Los Angeles market. Los Angeles is not a sports city. It is a market where the movie star is the ruler. People are more interested in who gets starring roles, who wins the Oscar, who gets to direct what picture, and which stars are having extra marital affairs with other stars. A few years later, Los Angeles would lose both its NFL teams, the Rams and Raiders and the public merely yawned, put its feet up, and would be content to be without NFL football for 20 years, the greatest humiliation in NFL history.

In Los Angeles, sports are sold by having star players. The sports star can then be passed off as a kind movie star in another field. The Kings already tried to win with Marcel Dionne and now with the acquisition of Gretzky, they were sure they would be over the top. Unfortunately the Kings were so bad, particularly at the ownership and management level, they did know what to do with their prize acquisition. The Kings had long been one of the jokes of the NHL. All through the Dionne years, the best they could do was win one playoff round a year. The best that Gretzky would do in Los Angeles was one random appearance in the Stanley Cup Final where the Kings lost to the Montreal Canadiens.

Management tried various combinations. They even traded with Edmonton to get Gretzky’s old winger, Jari Kurri, in a desperate attempt to make a winner out of the team. Gretzky’s wallet and financial status did well of course, but being in a city where he was just another star, instead of being the main attraction in a true hockey environment was not the same. He continued to pile up a lot of impressive individual scoring statistics and make a lot of money, but the Gretzky legend suffered. At the end of his contract he would be traded to St. Louis and then move on to the New York Rangers. There would be no more Stanley Cups for the Great One.

All it proves is that it is the great team, not the great player that wins Stanley Cups. It would be two decades later, when the Kings had much better ownership and management that they would finally build a team, with much less glamorous players than Gretzky and Dionne that would win two Stanley Cups. The Gretzky and Dionne years in Los Angeles were wasted ones.

The least that the Oilers could have done was to trade Gretzky to a real hockey environment with competent ownership and management that knew what they were doing. Montreal, arch-rival Calgary, or even French speaking Quebec City were the best Canadian hockey teams at the time. Or if it must be an American city, Philadelphia, the New York Islanders, Boston, and Detroit would have been better choices. As to the arguments that Gretzky improved California hockey and was responsible for the birth of two more California teams, that is stretching things. The trade undoubtably helped stir interest in hockey in California, but the NHL had always wanted to return to the Bay area after the disaster of the California Golden Seals, and the creation of the Anaheim Ducks might have more to do with the Mighty Ducks of the movies and Walt Disney, than Wayne Gretzky.

But the real damage was to the intangible, the Gretzky legend and hockey legends in general, things that cannot be bought. For a start it was a betrayal of Gretzky himself, the Oiler organization by its owner, and the city of Edmonton and its fans. Can you imagine Jim Brown in any other uniform but the Cleveland Browns? Or Babe Ruth in anything other than a Yankee uniform? (Ruth would play one half of a disastrous final season with the National League Boston Braves and then be forced to retire. There would be betrayals in that episode too.) At least when the San Francisco 49ers let an aging Joe Montana go to Kansas City, they had Steve Young waiting in the wings.

The Montreal Canadiens at least had a sense of the importance of legends. They kept Maurice Richard in his declining last years. They could not bear to think of him in another uniform even though Richard had said publicly he would not object to playing with another team. And Richard kept winning Stanley Cups until he retired, being part of Montreal’s greatest dynasty from 1956 to 1960. His immortality is at least undiminished.

But the Gretzky trade (which made California hockey?) is actually the start of his decline. There is little after it that really adds to his legend. It was a shameful betrayal, not something to be celebrated. Gretzky would go into the Hall of Fame as an Oiler. That says it all.