If there’s an off-day in the sport of hockey that deserves acknowledgement on an annual basis, that day is today.
Well, arguably in any sport.
You may or may not remember August 9th, 1988, but you are surely living in it’s unprecedented effect on the world of sports, and the growth of hockey. “The Trade of the Century” they’ve coined it, and it brought absolute gold to a struggling Kings franchise and opened an unknown world to the NHL.
The trade of Wayne Gretzky didn’t just legitimize Los Angeles as a hockey city, it proved that the sport could survive across the country, and seeded homes for more than ten NHL clubs in locations that were once ignored fueled by doubt in believing those regions could support hockey.
Shall we go South?
The NHL did, and rapidly. In ten seasons (’91-’99), the NHL planted ten franchises in Southern locations. Highly regarded as a Northern sport, the league hit states like Florida, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, added to California, and the Carolinas. Out of those ten clubs, nine of them are still successfully operating.
Yep, I’ll count Phoenix.
Then and Now
The Kings made franchise history this season, winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in the club’s 45-year existence. It is, undoubtedly the greatest achievement and milestone in Kings history, which poses an intriguing comparison, if you will.
Putting the 1967 expansion season aside, 1988 and 2012 are the franchise’s two most compelling years, the effects of both were spectacular, but in complete different ways.
Sure, Gretzky could never bring a Stanley Cup to Los Angeles, although he was very close – and did lead the Kings to their only other Stanley Cup Finals appearance before this season in 1993. But, his arrival in 1988 could be the reason it was possible for the Kings to attain the glory they did this year.
The Kings were shuffling through ownership change and a long string of losing seasons before Gretzky was traded from Edmonton, which brought along extremely low attendance numbers and little publicity.
The franchise was far from dead, but it was heading in the wrong direction, with no imminent turnaround in sight.
You shudder to think it, and it’s almost impossible to say it. But, are the Kings still a franchise in Los Angeles today without Wayne Gretzky? Likely, yes. Then again, there’s a chance he was actually the savior, which is what feeds into the franchise’s current state of success.
Last season I sat down with Daniel Kim to get a local perspective on how Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles affected and shaped hockey in Southern California. Gretzky’s impact wasn’t just seen locally, but across North America.
The one thing that could trump Wayne Gretzky‘s influence on hockey in Southern California has done so, and that’s a Stanley Cup Championship. What Gretzky did, however, is more impressive.
Many youth hockey programs will likely see a boost from the Kings’ success this season, as will the overall sense of hockey in the area. It’s going to be a positive reaction, and if that reaction isn’t due or deserved, I’m lost at what is.
This will be a reaction that stems from a postseason run never seen before in hockey, and extremely rare in sports as a whole.
If you’re comparing that to one player, one name, one person, and a simple change in location for that figure, you’re talking someone and something that’s pretty damn special.
Special is something seen through your actions aside from your skill. Gretzky left the hallowed hockey grounds of Edmonton for a city that barely recognized his name or the sport. Gretzky left beaming success, coming off of his third Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers, only to join the second-worst team in the NHL. He didn’t do it for money, and he certainly didn’t do it for guaranteed success.
What he did was different, and the sport embraced it.
With Wayne Gretzky, the whole dynamic changed.