Dancing in the Reign: Great Day – ‘Trade of the Century’
“I don’t think anybody really believed it would happen. And, when it did happen they (Canadians) were – you know, it was like the Prime Minister being sent to another country at that time.” – The same guy as Glen Sather
Where were you?: It happened 23 years ago today, a date that deserves to be celebrated for it’s colossal relation to our modern era of hockey. Whether it’s to honor the greatest transaction in Los Angeles Kings‘ history, or to honor the immense amount of positive change it rippled into the NHL‘s system, it’s a historical aspect of the game that deserves annual recognition.
Hold on now, there’s more: Wayne Gretzky put hockey on the map in Los Angeles and across the Southern half of the United States, which is why you’re getting hit with a THREE-PART SERIES to celebrate the occasion. We’re scoping out the trade itself in this article, followed by two interviews as I dig into the local LA hockey scene. Look out for an interview with the hockey manager at the Los Angeles Kings Valley Ice Center in Part II. Then, to top things off, I’ll profile a former ECHL player, raised in LA, who crafted together a stint in the pro’s in Part III. Keep them eyelids peeled, folks.
There’s no question, Wayne Gretzky‘s venture to Los Angeles planted NHL expansion to unfamiliar areas, the league hoping to feed off of the success the Kings’ franchise glorified in after the trade. If there’s anything to seriously symbolize the explosion of hockey in LA upon the Gretzky acquisition, it’s the Kings becoming the first professional sports team in Los Angeles to ever sell out it’s seats to every game in one full season. “KO-BE!” *Air Jumpshot* Air ball.
Expand, the NHL did, and in rapid fashion, which is probably why a few clubs on the map find themselves troubled. Am I the only one displeased that Round two in Atlanta couldn’t work out? Starting in 1991, three years after Gretzky arrived in LA, the NHL was planting teams on the Southern end of the country faster than your local nursery was potting tulips in April. Until 1999, a quick eight-year span, ten clubs were placed in the Southern half of the United States. Nine of the ten Southern clubs are still operating in their respective markets in a well-balanced group, some with a reputation of striking success, others scraping to stay afloat.
California, most notably, has had much success with the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, two teams residing in the region where the NHL was reborn. Raleigh, NC and Nashville, TN have embraced their teams from the start, validating those moves. Florida seems to be getting by just fine, no booming markets in Tampa and Miami by any means, but they’ve seemed to make ends meet since their expansion. Hockey in the desert is running dry, the Phoenix Coyotes having to reach out to the taxpayers in Glendale for financial support – just to survive another season. As for Dallas, attendance numbers have been ugly as of late, and ownership is in the process of trying to sell the Stars. Overall, not too shabby of a result to the Southern experiment.
Get on the Buss, Execute the Deal.
In attendance for the 1985 NHL Awards, former Kings owner Jerry Buss reached out to former Edmonton Oilers‘ owner Peter Pocklington to express interest in Gretzky. On the night Buss approached Pocklington, Gretzky was receiving his sixth consecutive Hart Memorial Trophy, fresh off of the best season of his NHL career. In ’84-’85, Gretzky notched 73 Goals, 135 Assists, totaling 208 Points. Disgusting. Inhumane. If you’re looking for good timing, or the right place, don’t look here. It’s like trying to be in the right place at the right time, to propose a trade for Wayne Gretzky, and you’re going to the ’85 Awards to do it. Not your best bet, by a long shot. But it’s a bold move, and that had to stick with Peter Pocklington.
This may have been a ‘one last shot’ ordeal for Buss as Kings’ owner, as Bruce McNall began to purchase shares of the franchise in the summer of ’85, ultimately taking over full ownership in 1988. McNall followed up with Peter Pocklington about Gretzky numerous times, building off of his predecessor. McNall finally struck serious interest from Pocklington in the summer of ’88, as relations between Gretzky and the Oilers were scuffling through unhealthy contract communications.
Pocklington wanted cash: the Kings had cash. Pocklington wanted draft picks: the Kings handed over a full-line’s worth. Marvelous work by McNall here, who cashed in on a vulnerable Pocklington, who was working in the midst of frustration and panic about Gretzky’s contract. Not even five years later, McNall pleaded guilty to five counts of fraud, swiping $236 million from six banks on defaulted loans. Nice. Great job getting Gretzky to LA, though, man.
“We went from having 5, 6, 7,000 fans a night, to all of a sudden being mobbed, sold out every game, having celebrities running around locker rooms, you have President Reagan calling me for seats on the ice. It was the place to be, and the place to be seen.” – Bruce McNall
“Maybe hockey’s not LA’s #1 sport, but all of a sudden there was so much notoriety about Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles, some people called up right after the trade and said: ‘I’ve never been to a hockey game before but I want four season tickets.’ Ticket reps replied with ‘I don’t know where you’ll be sitting’. ‘I don’t care, here’s my credit card number, put me down for four’.” – Bob Miller
He may have won his four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, but Wayne Gretzky‘s broad-based legacy will forever be seen through his history with the Los Angeles Kings. When a player and a certain team can combine to be larger than four Stanley Cup championships, it was something special, and it still is something special. The impact Gretzky had on the NHL and the game of hockey is astonishing, he didn’t just put Los Angeles on the hockey map, he made it a landmark. His involvement in the game is crucial; a position in the NHL is open when he’s ready, and don’t believe for a minute that the Kings haven’t thrown out the offer.
“It’s like selling the Mona Lisa. You think it’s yours, and suddenly he’s gone. Wayne Gretzky put Edmonton on the map.” – Jim Matheson
More than just Edmonton, Jim.