The Wayne Gretzky trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988 is considered by some as the greatest transaction in sports history, both in international renown and for its lasting influence on the growth of the game of hockey in the United States. On the 30th anniversary of “The Trade,” Sporting News dipped into the archives to find the article from the first magazine edition published in the fallout of the deal.
The dynastic Oilers, two months removed from winning a fourth Stanley Cup in five years, pulled off the “unthinkable” and traded the Great One to the Kings in a five-player, three-draft pick blockbuster on Aug. 9, 1988, reshaping the NHL and sending shockwaves across two nations.
As Jim Matheson chronicled for SN, the story behind the trade was packed with enough drama and rumors that would put any modern-day trade deadline to shame. Almost immediately, there were conflicting accounts about whether Gretzky jumped or was pushed out of Edmonton.
Oilers owner Peter Pocklington and Bruce McNall, his Kings counterpart, had negotiated the deal’s framework through back channels, excluding their general managers from discussions. Pocklington was worried Gretzky had an eye on bolting in free agency and made a bold play to keep the Oilers relevant long term.
Gretzky, upset after finding out about Pocklington’s intentions through a call from McNall, would admit as much in an interview with filmmaker Peter Berg in the documentary “Kings Ransom”: “I was mad they were trying to trade me. So I left.”
Gretzky delivered his famous tearful good-bye in Edmonton and Los Angeles introduction hours apart. Oilers fans protested in the streets of Edmonton. Canadian politicians called on government intervention, floating wild (and serious) plans to secure Gretzky’s contractual rights and re-sell them to a franchise north of the border.
It turned out, Gretzky’s move to Southern California did more good than harm for the NHL. No. 99’s enormous crossover appeal is credited for spurning a new generation of hockey fans and the NHL’s subsequent expansion boom to so-called “non-traditional” markets in the 1990s.
Take a trip back in time and read Matheson’s behind-the-scenes account, re-published in its entirety from the Sporting News archives, including reactions from Gretzky, his wife, Pocklington, and other executives around the league from the days and weeks following the trade.
Original publish date: August 22, 1988
‘It’s quite simply unthinkable’: Story Behind Gretzky Trade Surrounded by Controversy
By Jim Matheson
EDMONTON — The rumors which had Wayne Gretzky being traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings couldn’t be true. At first, they seemed like a figment of someone’s imagination — some like Steven Spielberg. But then this wasn’t just another make-believe Hollywood tale.
The Oilers traded Gretzky, forward Mike Krusheinyski and defenseman-winger Marty McSorley to the Kings for center Jimmy Carson, left wing Martin Gelinas, first-round draft choices in 1989, ’91 and ’93, plus cash in excess of $10 million. The August 9 deal was the biggest trade in the history of the National Hockey League and perhaps, the biggest trade in all of sports.
Even the politicians in Canada had heard of Gretzky. One suggested that the government could have purchased No. 99, claiming him as a natural resource.
“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,” said Nelson Riis, a member of Parliament. “It’s quite simply unthinkable.”
Gretzky had been the No. 1 performer on the Oilers for 10 years. To many people, he represented Edmonton.
“It’s like ripping the heart out of the city,” said Mayor Laurence Decore.
The response wasn’t as vitriolic outside of Edmonton, where many fans hung Oilers Owner Peter Pocklington in effigy following the trade, but the shock was still evident in the voices of some NHL general managers.
“You don’t tamper with God,” joke Washington’s David Poile. “If there was such a thing as an untouchable in this business, you’d think it was Gretzky. But we all find out differently. It’s still a shock. You think it’s more of the Hollywood rumor when you first hear it. Then it happens.”
Calgary G.M. Cliff Fletcher said, “This deal was probably the biggest ever — in any sport.”
It may have been the biggest sports transaction since Babe Ruth was sold from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1920 for $125,000 and a $300,000 loan to Boston Owner Harry Frazee.
So why did Pocklington trade Gretzky, 27, the second-highest point producer in hockey history who is an eight-time winner of the NHL’s Most Valuable Player award and who won his second Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP in the playoffs after leading the Oilers to their fourth Stanley Cup in five years? Pocklington said it wasn’t his idea.
“I’d swear on a stack of Bibles that Wayne wanted to be traded,” said Pocklington.
Gretzky did not dispute that. However, there’s considerable proof that The Great One agreed to the deal only after he heard Pocklington was trying to trade him. Gretzky was going to become a free agent in 1992 and the Oilers wanted to reap the benefits now, while Gretzky was still the hottest commodity around.
While the true story may never be disclosed, several of Gretzky’s friends said he got mad when Kings Owner Bruce McNall called him with Pocklington’s blessing.
“He would have finished his career with us if he’d agreed to an extended contract or to take the free-agency clause out,” said Pocklington.
Gretzky apparently didn’t want to do that, so Pocklington started looking for the best deal.
“It’s part of being a businessman, an entrepreneur, to see the future,” said Pocklington. “I’d just as soon have a hot team 10 years or seven years or five years from now, rather than get zero in compensation for Wayne if he’d become a free agent.”
Until this summer, Pocklington had always laughed off feelers about Gretzky. Jerry Buss, who sold the Kings to McNall in February, reportedly checked in with Pocklington about every six months to see if he could pry No. 99 away from the Oilers. The New York Rangers also offered something like $18 million for Gretzky at one point a couple of years ago.
Earlier this year, Nelson Skalbania, who once owned the Calgary Flames, and Vancouver Canucks Owner Frank Griffiths sounded out Pocklington about a mind-boggling deal for Gretzky.
“It was $22.5 million, three players and three No. 1 draft picks for Wayne. But, (the) Canucks don’t have three players who could play on our team,” Pocklington said, facetiously.
Here’s where the stories get fuzzy. Pocklington said he wasn’t shopping Gretzky, but Rangers General Manager Phil Esposito said Oilers G.M. Glen Sather saw him at the NHL draft June 11 and said, “Gretzky is going to be moved. Are you interested?”
Shortly thereafter, McNall entered the picture in a big way. While Pocklington claimed he wasn’t shopping Gretzky, you don’t give another owner your big gun’s number unless you want to move him. The move angered Gretzky, according to to his wife, actress Janet Jones, who said her husband had been told all the stories about him being traded were rumors.
However, the rumors became reality when Gretzky received a phone call from McNall while he was honeymooning in Los Angeles.
“There was no call from Pocklington,” said Gretzky’s new bride. “I mean, you play for a man for 10 years and he doesn’t even have the courtesy to call you and tell you what’s happening.”
It was then, according to several of his close friends, that Gretzky became fed up with the runaround.
“He finally had enough and said, ‘OK, Peter, have it your way. Trade me to L.A.,” said Eddie Mio, a former Oilers goaltender and the best man at Gretzky’s July 16 wedding.
“I think hockey was No. 1 with Wayne. There’s no bloody way he wanted to go there (Los Angeles),” said Paul Coffey, who had a bitter contract dispute himself with the Oilers and was eventually traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins last season.
“The fans were good; they gave him his privacy. He would have played just about for nothing in Edmonton. But (management) got afraid of his wanting to test the free-agency waters. All you are is a piece of meat to them.”
Coffey said the stories he asked for the trade to be near his expectant wife in Los Angeles were wrong.
“He’s a small-town guy,” said Coffey. “I don’t care if he married the Queen of England. I kind of wished he hadn’t broken up (at a press conference in Edmonton the day of the trade), and maybe he would have told us what really happened. But he doesn’t do anything to rock the boat.”
If Gretzky didn’t really want to leave Edmonton, why didn’t he say so at the press conference? Pocklington hotly denied that any pressure was put on Gretzky.
“I talked to Wayne and said, ‘Wayne, you have an opportunity now to tell me you don’t want to go,'” said Pocklington. “I told him I’d unwind the whole deal. It was all subject to Wayne wanting to go.”
But Gretzky said, “If I was ever going to make a move, it had to be now, not when I’m 31, if I want a shot at winning a Stanley Cup in Los Angeles.
“Now I’m in a situation where I can help a team and help the game of hockey. Hockey is never going to be as popular in the United States as baseball, football and basketball. But it can be stronger.”
The sour feelings in Edmonton remain, however. Pocklington stuck his foot in his mouth the day after the trade, saying Gretzky “has an ego the size of Manhattan.”
“He’s a great actor,” said Pocklington. “I thought he pulled it off beautifully when he showed how upset he was. I think he was upset, but he wants the big dream. I call L.A. the Land of the Big Trip, and he wants to go where the trips are the biggest.”
The next day, Pocklington claimed his statement had been misinterpreted.
Although Gretzky wasn’t happy about Pocklington’s comments, he said, “I’m not going to get into a war of words with anybody in Edmonton.”
Gretzky will have enough trouble making converts in Los Angeles, which is not exactly a hockey wonderland. If anybody can do it, however, it will be him.
“You walk down the street in Los Angeles and ask who (Kings players) Luc Robitaille and Jimmy Carson are and maybe two out of 50 would know. You walk down the street and ask who Wayne Gretzky is and 50 people know,” said McNall, gambling that Gretzky’s magic will work on the Hollywood stage, too.
Gretzky joins a team that has never advanced past the quarterfinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs and last season was 30-42-8, finishing 31 points behind Edmonton and 37 behind the Smythe Division champion Calgary Flames.
The Kings, who averaged 11,306 fans per game last season, believe they will sell at least 2,000 more season tickets next season with Gretzky in their lineup. With the average ticket price about $17 per game, in additional to the increase in souvenir and concession stands income this season, the Kings figure to recoup about $2 million of the more than $10 million they paid to obtain Gretzky. There’s also a chance at more big bucks in the playoffs.
“From my own experience in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t take much to have fans take to hockey,” said Boston Bruins General Manager Harry Sinden. “I remember when we played the Kings a couple of times in the Stanley Cup playoffs in the late ’70s and people were standing in line to buy tickets.
“I can’t see how L.A. can’t win with Wayne Gretzky in the lineup. Hockey in the United States wins. And Edmonton is still the team to beat. For Los Angeles, this is a sensational happening. Wayne Gretzky is the best ambassador the game has ever had.
“I’ve never, ever seen a trade of this magnitude in all in years in sports. It’s not like Bobby Orr leaving the Bruins. That was not a trade. Phil Esposito for Brad Park? That was big, a superstar for a superstar, but not as big as this.”
“The future has to arrive some day,” said Calgary’s Cliff Fletcher. “It arrived today in Los Angeles.”
Winnipeg G.M. John Ferguson, like Fletcher, said he was glad to see Gretzky move away from Edmonton.
“Well, there’s one way to look at it,” he said. “It just brought the Edmonton Oilers one step closer to the Winnipeg Jets.”
But Detroit General Manager Jimmy Devellano thinks the Oilers could be even better in the long run with Carson, who had 37 and 55 goals in his first two NHL seasons, and what amounts to four first-round draft choices. He tipped his cap to Pockington.
“He’s trading a 27-year-old star, but he’s securing the next 12 years for his club,” Devellano said. “It was very, very smart. His payroll will be in line and he’ll have a great, competitive team for the next 12 years.”