August 9, 1988. A day that most Canadian hockey fans will never forget. It was when Edmonton Oiler and icon of Canada Wayne Gretzky was traded to the States with the Los Angeles Kings. A sense of mourning swept across the Great White North, especially in Edmonton, as the country was losing it’s biggest sports hero to a team from sunny California.
Canadian government tried to intervene, something unheard of and would never happen again, and Oilers owner Peter Pocklington became the pariah of Edmonton. People burned effigies of Peter Pocklington, his wife had to leave town for a few days, and Pocklington became Canada’s Public Enemy #1.
I know this next statement will garner a lot of negative comments, but let me explain, the trade wasn’t Peter Pocklington’s fault and should be defended.
First and foremost, the Edmonton Oilers would have never been an NHL team, or even Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton, if it weren’t for Peter Pocklington. In 1976, Peter Pocklington bought a partial ownership of the Edmonton Oilers, then of the WHA. Shortly after, Pocklington bought out his partner, Nelson Skalbania, and became the sole owner of the Oilers. Skalbania would later own the Indianapolis Racers, Gretzky’s first pro team.
In 1978, Skalbania dealt the rights to Wayne Gretzky to Peter Pocklington and the Edmonton Oilers, a deal Pocklington didn’t hesitate to accept. When the WHA merged with the NHL, Pocklington used the signing of Gretzky as leverage in being one of the teams included in the merger. Thus a franchise was born.
One problem that Pocklington had, and could tell it was going to be a big problem, was the growing players’ salaries. Gretzky was just coming off winning four Stanley Cups in five seasons and his contract was up in two years. The only two options Pocklington really had were to trade Gretzky or try to lock him into an extension early, something Pocklington said Gretzky didn’t want to do.
Gretzky himself said that he wanted to be the highest paid player in the NHL and deservedly so. Gretzky was the greatest player in the NHL at the time and was worth more than what the Oilers were paying him. The Oilers, after all, were a small market team and really can’t compete with some of the larger market teams with deeper pockets.
Pocklington had to pull the trigger on the trade in order to get some sort of value back for Gretzky. There was no guarantee that Gretzky was going to return to Edmonton at the conclusion of his contract, so, it made sense for Pocklington and the Oilers to trade Gretzky at his prime to get a handsome return.
‘The Trade’ Helped Keep the Team in Edmonton
The Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s were a huge success and one of the greatest NHL dynasties of all time, but success came with a price. The success of the Oilers were slowly killing them as well.
The Oilers had won four Stanley Cups in five seasons and the players were worth more than what they were making. Pocklington’s business ventures weren’t doing so well and he needed the money to keep the team afloat, a claim that Pocklington himself has denied.
In trading Gretzky, the Oilers received young players to help rebuild and $15 million in cash that Pocklington needed to help his financial situation. It was needed to keep the Oilers in Edmonton.
A few years later, a couple of other small market Canadian teams relocated due to financial situations. The Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix and the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver, Colorado. The Canadian dollar in the mid 90s was getting weaker and weaker and Edmonton so easily could have been one of those teams that could have moved.
Keeping Gretzky and the other key players on the roster could have stretched the payroll so thin that time might have had no choice but to move. This trade helped keep the team above water financially.
Gretzky said in the ESPN documentary, “King’s Ransom”,
“I was mad that they were trying to trade me, so I left. I look back on it now. I totally understood why they had to make the move that they did… because I had a year to go on my contract, and they wanted to sit down and renegotiate or add on to my contract, and I said, “No”. I wanted to play the year out”
When director Peter Berg asked him if he put the Oilers front office in a box, Gretzky responded,
“Yeah, and now as a sort of business and management side, I understand why they said, “We can’t do that”. At the time I thought, “You know what? You’re crazy. I don’t want to leave, but I also want to get paid what I’m worth.”
The Oilers just simply couldn’t pay Gretzky what we wanted, and deserved. Hockey is a business after all and trading Gretzky was for the best for the future of the Edmonton Oilers.
Gretzky Wanted the Trade to Happen
Wayne Gretzky loved Edmonton and the fans, no question about it, but he also wanted this trade to go through. It all started when then Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky met to talk about a possible future in Los Angeles.
During the meeting, Pocklington called McNall not realizing Gretzky was meeting with McNall. Pocklington admitted that he wanted to trade Gretzky, with Gretzky listening in, he was hurt and angered by Pocklington’s words. According to Bruce McNall, that was when Gretzky decided that he wanted to be traded to the Los Angeles Kings.
Gretzky even negotiated the deal himself, asking McNall to include Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski in the trade. Gretzky called Pocklington and informed him of his desire to be traded to the Los Angeles Kings. Edmonton Oilers general manager-head coach Glen Sather never wanted the trade to happen, in fact Sather wept openly during the press conference announcing the trade.
Just before his press conference announcing that he will be leaving Edmonton, Pocklington and Sather pulled Gretzky aside and told him that if he wanted to stop the trade and stay in Edmonton all he had to do was say the word. Gretzky didn’t and he was off to Hollywood.
The Lasting Legacy of ‘The Trade’
When Gretzky was traded to the Kings, they were the only team located in the Western US. Since ‘The Trade’, the NHL was expanded with two more California teams, the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks, and the Phoenix Coyotes.
Gretzky helped expand the game to the Western United States. People at first just started to attend games because of Gretzky’s name, but soon enough fan bases grew and the NHL felt comfortable to expand into markets that previously the NHL wouldn’t have even considered. It was all because of a Canadian moving to the West Coast.
Since ‘The Trade’ in 1988, the NHL has expanded from 21 teams to 30 teams and Gretzky’s appearance out West is a big reason why the game has expanded. So, in a way, Peter Pocklington can be thanked for the NHL expanding.
It’s easy to blame Peter Pocklington, but it isn’t really his fault. A lot of things happened in a short period of time, but in the end, the trade was necessary for Gretzky, if he wanted to be the highest paid player in the NHL, and the Edmonton Oilers, to keep the team afloat.
What are your thoughts on ‘The Trade’? Comment below or send me a Tweet, @MarkWGraham
Mark Wallace Graham has been a writer for TheHockeyWriters.com since March 2013. Growing up in New England, Boston Bruins hockey was in my blood. Follow me on Twitter, @MarkWGraham