Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player in hockey history. When people talk about him, they usually talk about his immense skill, his accomplishments, or how he led the Edmonton Oilers’ 80’s dynasty. His time with the LA Kings usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
On August 9, 1988, the unthinkable happened. The Oilers traded Gretzky to the LA Kings. The trade was Gretzky, Marty McSorely (D) and Mike Krushelnski (C/LW), for Jimmy Carson (C), Martin Gelinas (LW), the Kings first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993, along with $15 million in cash.
The 1988-89 season
Gretzky made an immediate impact in LA. In his first season with the Kings, he scored 54 goals (fourth in the league) and put up 114 assists (tied with Lemieux for first). Overall, his 168 points finished second in the league and were good enough to secure him the Hart Memorial Trophy. His great play helped Bernie Nicholls (C/RW) have an offensive explosion, posting career highs in goals (70) and points (150).
Gretzky also received ice time with Kings legends Luc Robitaille (LW) and Dave Taylor (RW) in the 1988-89 season, and heading into the playoffs the Kings had the potential to make a run. In the first round, the fourth-seeded Kings defeated Gretzky’s former team, the Oilers in seven games. In the second round, the Calgary Flames swept LA, en route to their first (and only) Stanley Cup. He played on a line with Nicholls and Chris Kontos (LW) in the playoffs. He posted 22 points in 11 games, while Kontos scored 9 goals and Nicholls had 16 points.
Gretzky had a stellar campaign in his second season in LA, putting up 142 points (40 goals and 102 assists) in just 73 games played. His 142 points and 102 assists both led the league in each respective category, which secured him the Art Ross Trophy. His most impressive accomplishment was breaking Gordie Howe’s point record on October 15, 1989 (from ‘The Greatest Gretzky,’ The New York Times, 10/15/1989).
Nicholls was traded this season, despite having 75 points in 47 games, leaving Gretzky to play on a line with Tomas Sandstrom (RW) and Tony Granto (LW), who was acquired in the Nicholls’ trade.
In the first round of the playoffs, LA defeated Calgary in six games, eliminating the team that had knocked them out of the previous three playoffs. In the second round, the Kings were swept by the Oilers, who went on to win their only Stanley Cup without Gretzky. The Great One posted 10 points in the seven playoff games that he played in, and Granto and Sandstrom both had nine points in 10 games.
Gretzky scored 41 goals and added 122 assists for a total of 163 points. He only had 16 penalty minutes this season, which allowed him to win the Art Ross and Lady Byng Trophies. His linemates were once again Granto and Sandstrom, who acted as “the tough guys” of the line, both having over 100 penalty minutes. Sandstrom posted a career-high 89 points and Granto had 64. The Kings beat Vancouver in six games in the first round of the playoffs, but they once again lost to Edmonton, as the Oilers defeated them in six games in the second round. Gretzky posted 15 points in 12 games.
For the first time in his career, Gretzky posted less than 137 points. In the 1991-92 season, he had a league-leading 90 assists and posted 121 points. He won another Lady Byng Trophy after racking up just 34 penalty minutes. His linemates consisted of a combined of Sandstrom, Granto and Jari Kurri (RW), whom was brought in by the Kings in the off-season. (From ‘Kurri Joins Gretzky as a King,’ Los Angeles Times, 05/31/1991).
At the trade deadline, LA acquired another one of Gretzky’s former teammates, in one of the all-time great defensemen, Paul Coffey, at the trade deadline in a three-team trade. (From ‘Kings Go for Coffey in Trade,’ Los Angeles Times, 02/20/1992).
The Kings finished second in the Campbell Conference and met up with the third-seeded Oilers in the first round. Ironically, Nicholls led the Oilers to a win against his former team, as he put up 13 points in the six-game series. Gretzky was tied with Coffey and Robitaille for the team lead with seven points.
The 1992-93 season was arguably the most successful season the Kings had with Gretzky on the team. Although they finished third in the Campbell Conference, the Kings made a deep playoff run. Gretzky spent the season on a line with Robitaille and Kurri; however, he was injured for much of the season. In 45 games played, he had 65 points. Kurri put up 87 points, and Robitaille led the line putting career highs in goals (63), assists (62) and points (125).
In the first round of the playoffs, LA faced Calgary. Their high-scoring offense led them through this series, as the Kings scored 9 goals in both Games 5 and 6. Gretzky’s line dominated this series. Following a hit by Joel Otto, the Kings placed grinders in Warren Rychel (LW) and Tomas Sanderson on his line. (From ‘Former Hawk Rychel finds home on Gretzky’s line,’ Chicago Tribune, 05/23/1993). Gretzky, Rhychel and Sanderson were the Kings three leading point scorers in the series.
In the second round, LA upset the Vancouver Canucks in six games. Gretzky led the Kings in points with 13 in this series and played with a collection of different players.
In the third round, LA met up with the Toronto Maple Leafs in a seven-game classic. The teams split the first four games, and Toronto won Game 5 in overtime to take a 3-2 series lead. In Game 6, the Kings won off a controversial call. Gretzky high-sticked Doug Gilmour in overtime and the refs missed the call. A minute later Gretzky scored the game-winner to force a seventh and final game. In Game 7, Gretzky scored three goals and added an assist to lead the Kings to a 5-4 win over the Leafs, and to the Stanley Cup Final.
In the Stanley Cup Final, the Kings luck ran out, as they were steamrolled by the Montreal Canadiens in six games. Patrick Roy was unbeatable, posting a .929 save percentage in the series, which was unheard of in the 90s. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy for his efforts. Gretzky led the playoffs in goals (15), points (40) and was tied for first in assists (25) with Gilmour.
The Dark Days, 1993-96
Gretzky’s final three seasons in LA were highlighted by team failure with Kings missing the playoffs in all of these seasons. In 1993-94, they had a dismal record of 27-45-12. Despite this, Gretzky won the final Art Ross Trophy of his career, by posting 130 points and a league-leading 92 assists. His 20 penalty minutes also secured him the Lady Byng Trophy. He also broke Gordie Howe’s goal record on March 23, 1994, by scoring his 802nd goal. He spent the majority of the 1993-94 season on a line with Kurri and Robitaille.
In the 1994-95 season, Gretzky had 48 points in 48 games played. LA posted a record of 16-23-9 in the lockout-shortened season and missed the playoffs by a single point. Gretzky spent this season playing with a rotating roster of wingers, but he usually played with the Arizona Coyotes current head coach Rick Tocchet (RW) and Kurri.
1995-96 was Gretzky’s last final season with LA. He spent most of this season playing with Dmitri Khristich ( RW) and rookie Vitali Yachmenev (LW). Gretzky put up 81 points in 62 games with the Kings. On February 27, 1996, he was traded to the St. Louis Blues for a first-round pick, Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif and a fifth-round pick in 1996.
Gretzky’s Time in LA Was Very Important
Gretzky’s time in LA was primarily good for the organization. Upon his trade to the Kings, ticket sales went through the roof. By the time he was dealt by the Kings, two more NHL franchises existed in California; the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the San Jose Sharks. He won numerous awards with the Kings and led them to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance. Although his tenure wasn’t as successful in LA as in Edmonton, he did tons for the game of hockey in California and the United States, while achieving great personal success.