On this date, August 9th, 1988, 33 years ago, a trade that became known in hockey circles as “The Trade,” took place. It’s a trade that still gets talked about every year on its anniversary. The Edmonton Oilers did the unthinkable and dealt Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings for a haul that included three 1st-round picks and $15 million. It was a day the rocked the hockey and sports world, left Oilers fans (and Gretzky) in tears and forever changed hockey in the United States.
Bruce McNall (owner of the Kings at that time) said he didn’t seriously believe he could get Gretzky as he’d bugged Peter Pocklington forever about the greatest player in the game. While Pocklington continually laughed it off and said he wouldn’t trade Gretzky for the entire Kings roster, something changed when the Oilers owner called McNall and asked if he was still interested. He said of course and when he was told he wanted $15 million, a bunch of picks and some players. McNall said, “Done.”
Most will identify the start of the Oilers organizational downward slide as the day the Oilers traded away the “Great One”. At the time, he was still widely considered hockey’s best-ever player. He changed the sport and the city of Edmonton.
From 1979-1999, Gretzky played 22 seasons in the NHL. He finished his career the leading point-producer in the NHL’s history and surpassed 200 points in a single season on four separate occasions, scored 100-plus points in 16 seasons (14 consecutive) and has more assists over his career than any other one player has points. When he retired in 1999, he held 61 different NHL records. As an Oiler, he led the franchise to four Stanley Cups in 11 years.
The phrase you now hear so often muttered around the NHL is that “if Gretzky can get traded, anyone can get traded”, but at the time, no one would have ever imagined trading arguably the best professional hockey player to ever live — especially in his prime. It would be the equivalent to the Oilers trading Connor McDavid today.
This year, it seems especially fitting to look at Gretzky and what he means to the game because there’s a player who just days ago signed an extension in Alex Ovechkin who has a chance to break Gretzky’s goal scoring record before he retires as a member of the Washington Capitals. A few years ago, no one would have imagined that being possible. It’s more than possible now.
Ovechkin may break Gretzky’s record when all is said and done. That said, Gretzky will still hold the top spot in the sporting landscape, across any sport, as the most unlikely trade ever.
Gretzky Was Something Special
I’ve since heard the stories about how Gretzky was acquired by the Oilers (or at least the rumours about a chess game for his rights) and I’ve only heard people talk about remembering Gretzky’s 50 goals in 39 games. Stories are legendary around Edmonton that if you selected Gretzky in your fantasy hockey pool, you could only take his assists or his goals, but you couldn’t have both. As a kid, I knew Gretzky was a special player, even if I didn’t really understand how special.
Looking back, one glance at the history books or the back of any Gretzky hockey card shows you that no one will ever do what Gretzky did. Through reading and research I’ve come to realize what I missed is also more than just the numbers. Still, revisiting history is not the same as having experienced it in person and the closest I’ll ever get, as both a hockey fan and as an Edmontonian, is hearing the stories of others. If I’m lucky, maybe Gretzky himself will be a bit more open about those years of his life now that he’s taken a position with TNT as a studio analyst for the upcoming season.
Oilers Hoping to Relive a Little Pre-Trade Gretzky Magic
The Oilers were never the same after Gretzky was moved. They managed one more Stanley Cup in 1990, but for 32 seasons since, have been struggling to get deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, making the Finals once during the 2005-06 season.
From 1992-96 the team ended their seasons with a losing record. Eight times in fourteen years following their final Stanley Cup victory, the Oilers made the postseason, but on four of those occasions they were ousted in the first round. The most recent playoff appearances by the Oilers over the past two seasons has resulted in the same outcome.
Gretzky is no longer with the Oilers organization but his presence is still felt and he’s a massive part of the franchise. This season, Edmonton has invested heavily in the core leadership group that consists of McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse. Some have made comparisons to a time when the Oilers banked on Gretzky, Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe to be the leadership core that led the team to multiple championships. The Oilers are hoping history repeats itself.
Can the Oilers find that young group of stars to usher the organization towards the biggest prize in hockey? They have a four-year window where all three players are guaranteed to be together. Ironically, the Oilers window could have been a lot bigger in the 80s and 90s if not for a trade that sent Gretzky away.
If Edmonton is successful and McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse are the catalyst to some winning hockey, you can bet there’s no haul in the world big enough to get the Oilers to trade any of those players now, especially McDavid, who could be one of the few other players to get close to or break some of Gretzky’s incredible records.
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