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50 Years of LA Kings Hockey – The Gretzky Trade

Alright, alright. The time has finally arrived for us to go back in time and re-live not just one of the biggest and most important moments in Los Angeles Kings` history, but one of the biggest and most important moments in the history of the NHL and the hockey world, period! An event, so massive, that we are still feeling the shockwaves from it today in 2017. It was an event that changed the sport of hockey forever, and created new life for the Kings organization, as well as for the state of California and throughout the southern belt of the United States. It `helped usher in a new era for the sport of hockey and that event is of course, the Wayne Gretzky trade to the Los Angeles Kings! So, strap into your preferred device for time traveling and follow me back to the summer of 1988. Okay ready? Let’s go!!!

 

(photo credit to thetelegraph.com)
(photo credit to thetelegraph.com)

It was May 26, 1988 and Wayne Gretzky had just won his fourth Stanley Cup in five years with his closest friends as part of the Glen Sather led powerhouse, Edmonton Oilers. He had just broken a couple of NHL playoff records as well by achieving 31 assists in 18 games, and 13 points in the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, which garnered him his second Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP. Observing everyone around him on the ice, as well as in the stands, he soaked in the triumphant excitement and celebratory glory that everyone was soaked with. As Captain of the team, he was asked to go receive the Stanley Cup, which he did, and he lifted it high over his exhausted shoulders, but he couldn’t help shake off the feeling that something was off. Something was just not right. Because of it, he asked his teammates to sit with him on center-ice so the photographers could take some photos of the whole team with the Cup.  He wasn’t sure why this idea randomly popped up in his head for this particular Cup victory, but this eerie feeling he was experiencing had convinced him that this was the right thing to do. It was something he needed to do before it was too late, and the moment had faded away with time. He needed them all together there, as champions, as family and he needed it preserved and frozen in time with a picture.  Everyone agreed and followed him without question and Wayne Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers, sat and stood there at center ice, with the Stanley Cup displayed proudly in the middle, as the they surrounded it with their happiness, sweat, blood, tears and exhaustion. Gretzky absorbed the moment as best as he could but he still felt that something was off and not right. He ignored this instinct and deciding to celebrate the Cup victory with his friends and family, not fully understanding at the time that the instinct he had felt that something was off was indeed correct. Something was off because after ten years and four Stanley Cup victories, Wayne Gretzky had just played his last game as an Edmonton Oiler.

(photo credit to the Edmonton Sun)
(photo credit to the Edmonton Sun)

In the next few weeks, he celebrated his Cup victory with his teammates around Edmonton, before turning his attention to his upcoming wedding to actress Janet Jones. With so much to do, and with so many distractions, especially after the announcement of their engagement had created an overwhelming media frenzy all over Canada with full coverage of the events on every news platform leading up to special day, helped him to focus away from that negative feeling he had on the night they won the Cup, but it was there, nagging at him in the back of his mind. On Saturday July 16, 1988, at St. Joseph’s Cathedral Basilica, Wayne and Janet were married in front of their friends and family, as well as the rest of Canada, as the event was broadcasted live throughout the entire country. After a wonderful honeymoon, Gretzky received a random phone call from Bruce McNall, the owner of the rival Los Angeles Kings.  This started the events the changed the hockey world forever.

(photo credit to macleans magazine)
(photo credit to Macleans magazine)

Gretzky was shocked, but not fully surprised that erratic Edmonton Oiler’s owner Peter Pocklington had allowed McNall to call him and ask him to come to Los Angeles so he could personally talk with him about playing for his LA Kings. In the previous season, Gretzky’s close friend and teammate Paul Coffey had been traded away to the Pittsburgh Penguins. That was the first crack in the core of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers’ team, but yet this call had caught Gretzky off guard. Gretzky listened to what McNall had to say, and was impressed by the owner’s charm, respectfulness and ideas, but he politely answered with a no and thanked the Kings’ owner for the call. Wayne found himself annoyed, not at McNall but with Pocklington for allowing the call to happen in the first place.  Little did Gretzky know that McNall wasn’t going to give up on getting him so easily, or that Pocklington wasn’t going to give up on trading him away that easily either.

McNall kept calling Gretzky and their conversations started to last longer and longer. Finally Gretzky relented, and agreed to meet with McNall in person.  Gretzky was developing a liking to McNall, but still had no desire to leave his Edmonton Oilers. In fact, he pictured himself being an Oiler until the day he retired. He would give McNall the opportunity to do his pitch, but his heart was in Edmonton, and that was where he wished to stay. Sitting in Bruce McNall’s office in downtown Los Angeles, it was here when McNall confessed the truth about why McNall was hoping that Wayne would agree to a trade to the Kings.  It was because Oiler’s owner Peter Pocklington was heavily pushing McNall and some other owners of NHL franchises to accept a Wayne Gretzky trade in exchange for $10-20 million dollars. Pocklington needed the money desperately because his other business interests, including his Rolls Royce car dealership and his food processing company in Alberta, (whose workers kept going on strike), were losing him millions of dollars. The only thing keeping him financially afloat were his Stanley Cup winning Edmonton Oilers, but with his profits sinking towards the red, he needed to make a drastic business move before he went bankrupt.  Bruce McNall and former Kings`s and current LA Lakers owner, the legendary Dr.  Jerry Buss, had always joked with Pocklington about the possibility of trading Gretzky to Los Angeles, but Peter “Puck” would always politely decline and laugh.  After the Oilers had won the Cup for a fourth time and with his other business ventures failing, he wasn`t laughing anymore and the money was needed immediately, so Pocklington decided to call up some NHL owners, including McNall to see if they were interested in attaining Gretzky.  All teams were of course, but only the LA Kings were willing and able to provide Pocklington with what he needed the most financially, which was $15 million dollars. McNall agreed to the price tag, and was giving the okay to call Gretzky up and give him the pitch. Gretzky was stunned with disbelief.  This wasn’t so much a trade, it was a sale.  Peter Pocklington was trying to sell him to the highest bidder. Gretzky needed some proof that McNall was being on the level about Pocklington. As much as Wayne was liking McNall, he had known Pocklington since he was 18 years old. They were never that close with each other, like how close he was to Oiler’s head coach and general manager Glen Sather, but Gretzky did admire and respect him. If what McNall was saying was the truth, then he needed to hear it from Pocklington himself. McNall agreed and dialed Peter’s number. Peter answered and McNall put him on speaker phone, but didn’t tell him that Gretzky was there present in his office.  McNall brought up the possible trade and asked Peter if Gretzky would even accept a trade to the Kings or to anywhere else? Pocklington answered him by saying he would because Gretzky was selfish, whose inflated ego made him very difficult to deal with, especially after he married that “Hollywood actress.” The Oilers would be better off without him. They then changed the focus of the conversation to the actual trade exchange and Pocklington made it clear that if McNall wanted Gretzky,then he would have to pay $15 million for him, or there would be no deal. McNall agreed and said he would be in touch before hanging up the phone. Gretzky sat there heartbroken at first, but the more he thought about what had just transpired in front of him, and what he had heard from Pocklington with his own ears, started to make him feel angry and betrayed. He told McNall that he had a lot to think about and needed to talk to his wife and father, plus his Oiler teammates and GM Glen Sather, who Gretzky hoped wasn’t a part of this betrayal, (he wasn’t), before he can come up with a decision.  McNall understood and expressed to Wayne that there was no pressure for him to make a quick decision.  Bruce made it clear to Wayne that he could take all the time he needed, and if he needed anything, Bruce would be there for him. He also mentioned one last thing that that ended up touching Wayne’s heart and moving him greatly. He told Wayne that if he wasn’t comfortable at all with being traded to and playing for the Los Angeles Kings, then he didn’t have to. Bruce wouldn’t take any offense from it and that he would completely understand.  At this very moment in time, Wayne knew that he didn’t want to be Oiler anymore, and after talking to his wife, (who brought up the idea to Wayne that if he HAD to be traded at all, why not be traded to his favorite team as a child, the Detroit Red-Wings, where his idol Gordie Howe played?), and his father, Wayne had made up his mind, he was going to become a Los Angeles King.  Gretzky called up McNall and told him he was in. McNall asked him if he was one hundred percent sure and comfortable with that decision and Gretzky answered yes, he had never been more sure in his life.

(photo credit to the latimes)
(photo credit to the latimes)

Glen Sather was furious at Pocklington after he heard the news. Normally trades are done between the team’s general managers and not by the owners, but Pocklington went over Sather’s head and did the deal anyway.  Sather thought that trading Gretzky away in general, especially to a division rival was complete insanity. Nobody in their right mind would trade the best player in the game, especially when he’s still in his prime? It didn’t make any sense to Sather until he dug a little deeper and found out about this being more of a sale instead of a proper hockey trade. This only made Sather even more furious. He was against trading Gretzky and told Pocklington so to his face, but Pocklington wouldn’t budge. Gretzky was being moved out whether Sather liked it or not. Disappointingly realizing that this trade was happening no matter what, Sather quickly convinced Pocklington that the Oilers needed to receive some quality players in return to help the team out in Gretzky’s absence. It couldn’t just be an exchange for money. Sather knew that if Pocklington wasn’t going to look out for the best interests of the team, only the best interests of his pockets, then Sather would have to. Sather talked to McNall and his GM Rogie Vachon and worked out the finer details of the trade. He wanted Luc Robitaille from the Kings, plus some draft picks in return for Gretzky, but the Kings refused that deal immediately. They weren’t willing to part with the young Calder Trophy winning left winger. Jimmy Carson was offered instead. While the negotiations of his trade continued, Gretzky realized that he was going to need some help in LA, and requested that Oiler defenseman and enforcer, Marty McSorley and forward Mike Krushelnyski be traded along with him, to add some toughness and grit to the Kings.

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On August 9, 1988, the hockey world woke up to the most shocking news in the history of the sport. The Edmonton Oilers, who had just weeks ago won their fourth Stanley Cup in five years, had traded the greatest player to have ever have played the game, Wayne Gretzky, plus defenseman Marty McSorley and forward Mike Krushelnyski to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, the Kings’ first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993 and $15 million dollars. The city of Edmonton as well as the entire nation of Canada was stunned. So stunned in fact that everybody, and everything just froze in silence as if time had suddenly just stopped. It was so quiet that the only noise that could be heard, were the wild celebrations coming from the Kingdom all the way down in Southern California, (and at my house where I was losing my mind with excitement and was rubbing it in to every Oiler fan that I knew!). After the silence ended, and everyone started coming to their senses to make out and understand what was happening, the silence was replaced with anger, and eventually… rage.

The Oilers announced that there was going to be an official press conference in Edmonton, but right before the conference started, Glen Sather was still trying to convince Gretzky to change his mind and stay. Feeling hurt and betrayed by Pocklington, Gretzky declined the offer and then thanked Sather for everything he did for him and his family. Sather was like a second father to him. Choked up and emotional they embraced. Heartbroken and sad, Sather respected Wayne’s final decision.  McNall witnessed this and waited until Sather walked away so he could approach Gretzky privately. Most owners would take advantage of a situation like this and go back to convincing the player that this trade is the right thing for him to do, but Bruce didn’t do that. He knew how much it meant for Gretzky to play for the Oilers and how much this was hurting him, so he let Gretzky know that it still wasn’t too late for him to change his mind and back out of the trade. It would be okay if he did. McNall would rip up the agreement and there would be no hard feelings. Gretzky smiled and made it clear to Bruce that he really wanted to do this and that Bruce didn’t have anything to worry about. He was now a Los Angeles King.

During the press conference, Pocklington spoke loudly and proud about how Gretzky was like the son he never had, and the Oilers would always be thankful for everything Wayne did for the team, the city of Edmonton and the province of Alberta.  After he was done, it was Wayne’s turn to talk. Earlier Gretzky had made an agreement with Pocklington that at the press conference, Gretzky would make it sound like the trade was more his idea than Peter’s. This way, Gretzky would take the heat from the Oiler fans and media instead of Pocklington, (which proves right there that the selfish one here wasn’t Gretzky at all). Gretzky leaned in towards the microphones and started speaking, but suddenly everything that was happening hit him all at once. He was leaving the Oilers, he was leaving his friends forever. Thinking of this made him start to cry and made it hard for him to speak and eventually he couldn’t continue.  He walked away from the microphones and the podium in tears as everyone stood up and applauded him. Pocklington, (who was still sitting) just watched on and fumed. Fearing that after Gretzky’s unexpected emotional breakdown , no one was going to truly believe that the trade was Gretzky’s idea instead of his, so he told the Edmonton press that Gretzky had put on a great show with his “crocodile tears.”  That turned out to be a big mistake by Pocklington.

Gretzky felt better when he arrived in Los Angeles and completed a press conference there with the LA press, which also revealed the brand new LA Kings’ jersey and logo, complete with the silver and black color scheme of the (then) LA Raiders. Gretzky later found out what Peter had said about him and his, “crocodile tears”. If he wasn’t sure about it before, he was sure of it now that becoming a Los Angeles King was the right thing to do, and one day he would get his revenge on Pocklington.

(photo credit to the latimes)
(photo credit to the latimes)

At first the Oiler fans were furious at Wayne’s wife Janet, blaming her and her acting career as the true reason why Gretzky was being traded away to California. In their eyes, she was hockey’s version of Yoko Ono, but as the full details of what really happened with this trade started emerging from the Canadian press, Edmonton fans were now realizing that it wasn’t because of Gretzky’s wife at all, but because of Peter Pocklington. He was the true villain. They now started to see him as an evil, greedy corporate devil, who cared more about money than the good of their team. Oiler fans revolted. They were ready to get their hands on him and lynch him, and some actually tried as Pocklington had to hire bodyguards to protect his life after he started receiving death threats, and after some angry fans were trying to get at him when he was in public.  Many fans even made life-sized mannequins with Pocklington’s likeness on them, only to burn them in front of his home, or outside the main entrance of the Northlands Coliseum (aka Rexall Place) where the Oilers played.  It was pure chaos.

Meanwhile in Southern California, the arrival of Gretzky to play for the Kings took the area by storm and became an explosion that had everyone’s full attention.  The level of the media frenzy that was there was unheard of for hockey in LA at that time, and it wasn’t just confined to Los Angeles, but also to the other southern regions of the United States. All of a sudden, many newspapers and news stations, who normally couldn’t care less about the sport of hockey or the Los Angeles Kings were providing full coverage of every move that Gretzky or the Kings made! The city of Los Angeles fully embraced the “Great One” with open arms, and he was heavily marketed everywhere imaginable from television, radio, ads, interviews, billboards, magazines etc. He was the hottest ticket in town and everyone wanted to be a part of it. The upcoming King’s games for the 1988-89 regular season were sold out immediately, and many of the top celebrities of the time, like Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Tom Hanks etc, were contacting and bothering, even begging McNall for tickets to the games.  Wayne Gretzky fever had arrived.

(photo credit to sports illustraded)
(photo credit to sports illustraded)

If great players like Rogie Vachon, Butch Goring and the “Triple Crown” line of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer kept the Kings alive by keeping their heads above water since the expansion team`s arrival to the NHL in 1967, the arrival of Wayne Gretzky put the LA Kings officially on the NHL map and solidified the franchise on stronger ground. The Kings were now being taken seriously and new Kings’ fans from LA and around the world were being born and added to the Kingdom. To also add to his already legendary legacy, Gretzky even scored on his very first shift, on his very first shot, in his very first regular season game with the Kings! The Forum erupted as if they had just won the Stanley Cup! The Kings won that game and finished that season strong in second place of the Smythe division with 42 wins and 91 points, which was 12 more victories and 23 more points than they had the previous season. Gretzky finished the regular season with 54 goals and 168 points, and was awarded his ninth, (and final) Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

And as if this story couldn’t get any more epic, in a plot line and twist that only the great Hockey God script writers could come up with, the Kings qualified for the playoffs and in the first round they had to face Gretzky’s former team, and defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Edmonton Oilers.  This was truly going to be a story worthy of Hollywood! With the whole hockey world watching and anticipating what was going to happen next, playing against the Oilers, his friends, his family was extremely tough on Wayne. It turned out to be just as tough on the Oilers as well as the intense pressure that both parties were feeling was almost crippling. Gretzky didn’t want to go up against his friends, and neither did Messier and company, but the battle lines were drawn and the battle needed to be fought. Wayne Gretzky was this unstoppable force and he was about to collide with Edmonton, the immovable object and only one of them could win and go on. For the Oilers, they had to show the world that there was more to them than just Wayne Gretzky, while Gretzky had to show the world that he truly was great and it wasn’t just because he played on the Edmonton Oilers. Wayne knew what needed and had to be done. His Kings’ were not an experienced bunch, but they had talent. There was left wing sensation Luc Robitaille, sniper Bernie Nicholls, who finished the year with a team record breaking 70 goals. There was also the Captain and former “Triple Crown” line member Dave Taylor, and former Islander’s goaltender Kelly Hrudey in net. It wasn’t going to be easy, especially considering that the Oilers were the reigning Stanley Cup champions, but Wayne needed to put his friendships, and his wonderful memories of being with the Oilers aside if the Kings were to have any hope of defeating the Oilers in a seven game series. And most importantly of all, Wayne did not want to give Pocklington the pleasure and satisfaction of winning this series, just so he could tell the world, “See, I told you so.” Wayne was disgusted by that idea. From that point forward, it was game on!

(photo credit to nhl.com)
(photo credit to nhl.com)

The champs were able to squeeze out a victory against the Kings in a tight first game 4-3, but Gretzky and the Kings bounced right back with a 5-2 victory to even things up. Annoyed by the loss, the Oilers showed their true strength by taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series after winning back to back games 4-0 and 4-3. With their backs against the wall, the Kings could have gave up and lost the series in five games, as they had done in the past, but Gretzky wanted none of that. He was determined to still win this, even if it looked hopeless and impossible. They had to take control of this series, even if it meant that they had to do it one game, or even one period at a time, and fight back tooth and nail. Gretzky’s confidence and his refusal to accept defeat was inspiring to his Kings’ teammates and this helped them finally bond as a true team. With everything on the line, the Kings fought back, and hit the Oilers with everything they had in the tank. Gretzky`s play was breathtaking, like a general on a battlefield of ice but with a strategy of a seasoned champion chess player. He teammates like Robitaille, Nicholls, Steve Duchesne and Hrudey shined along with him, even some unlikely heroes were created in Mike Allison and Chris Kontos. The Kings went on the win game five with a strong 4-2 victory at home, before doing the impossible by beating the Oilers IN EDMONTON 4-1, in front of a rabid and then shocked Oiler`s crowd to tie the series up at 3-3! The hockey world could not believe what they were seeing! Pocklington could not believe what he was seeing! Sather knew what he was seeing because it was what he feared the most when he first learned that Gretzky was being traded to Los Angeles, but like with the trade, he was powerless to stop it. Then, in true Hollywood fashion, the underdog Los Angeles Kings, with their leader Wayne Gretzky, the Edmonton Oilers’ banished son, completed the impossible in a way that made people feel ashamed for ever doubting him in the first place, and eliminated the reigning Stanley Cup champions in game seven, 6-3 at the Great Western Forum, shockingly winning the series 4-3. Gretzky`s revenge on Pocklington was complete.

The Kings went on to lose to the Calgary Flames by a sweep in the next round, (the Flames then went on to win the Stanley Cup) but the shockwaves from Gretzky’s arrival and his team’s Hollywood like comeback victory over the Oilers in that first round series was still rippling throughout the hockey world and everyone was listening to that message loud and clear. Wayne Gretzky being traded to the Los Angeles Kings and the success he created there was not just a hockey business transaction. No, it was much, much bigger than that. Gretzky’s arrival to Los Angeles was like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaur’s and helped usher in the dawn of humankind. This was a new damn in the sport of hockey. It wasn’t something that anyone was thinking of or planning or expecting at the time of trade, or by end of the 1988-89 season. It wasn’t created on purpose, but once everyone caught on to what was truly happening, it couldn’t be stopped. In time the trade’s true impact on the sport would reveal itself and be understood when the NHL starting expanding with new teams in California and all around the United States, (you’re welcome San Jose, Anaheim and Phoenix!). Grassroots hockey was being planted as well and a new generation of fans outside of Canada and the North Eastern region of the United States had awoken to the greatness of the sport. Gretzky was also finally paid what he was worth and when other players found out that money like that could be made by playing in this sport, they demanded that they got a raise as well, hence the pieces that led to today`s salary cap era. The sport of hockey was reaching a level that it had never achieved before or even dared to dream of reaching in all of its rich history, all thanks to the Gretzky trade, but all of that is a story for another day and time and not what we are here for.

We are here for the Kings and in the summer of 1989, two things were of common knowledge. One, new captain Wayne Gretzky was truly a Los Angeles King and two, he automatically and instantly made the Kings’ true Stanley Cup contenders. He made them legit and he made them feared and we loved him for it. The Kings would go on to battle some more with the Oilers and the Flames in the playoffs to come, before finally getting the opportunity to break though the second round and make a serious attempt to try and win that shiny, majestic chalice, so with that said, let’s head back home to 2017 so we can recharge those time machine batteries, because our next stop is the year 1993, to see our beloved Los Angeles Kings, complete with `The Great One` Wayne Gretzky go on a long awaited and hoped for epic run … straight to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time ever!!!

STAY TUNED!!!

zzzzcowley11

About Jeff Duarte

Born and raised in Canada and surrounded by the sport of hockey for as long as he can remember, there is nothing Jeff loves talking about more than the past, present and future of his beloved Los Angeles Kings.

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