In light of Lebron James’ impending return to Cleveland after a successful run in Miami where he won two NBA titles, through his “essay” he felt that is was “his mission” to bring “one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.” The return was touching, and many fans in the state of Ohio are anticipating the return of one of their own, back where he belongs.
So what would’ve happened if Wayne Gretzky, the most coveted legend in the game of hockey, decided to return to Edmonton to finish his NHL career? Everyone, myself included, was affected by what happened on August 9 ,1988. The unthinkable had happened. Gretzky got traded, more like sold, to the Los Angeles Kings. The landscape of hockey as we knew it would change forever.
If Gretzky returned to Edmonton, would he have made a difference? Perhaps not so much. Unlike Lebron who started his NBA career without much player support on the talent front from the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Oilers already had a stacked group of talented young players who would become legends on their own terms. He had Messier, Kurri, Coffey, Lowe, Fuhr and Anderson on the roster. In the best years of his hockey career, Gretzky had a team, his team. He collected four Stanley Cups with this group, the only four championships in his NHL career.
Lebron’s homecoming situation is different. He left a Miami Heat team stacked with Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and other stars. He left a team that won two NBA titles and could’ve won two more. He will get some help after the Cavaliers opened their wallets and traded first picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love. How Lebron will do with the Cavs from now and in the near future is anyone’s guess.
Had he remained in Edmonton for the rest of his career, Gretzky would’ve collected a few more Stanley Cups. And when he was traded away that fateful summer, the team he helped build was slowly tearing itself apart. Despite winning a fifth Stanley Cup in 1990, one-by-one the supporting cast left town for greener pastures elsewhere. Most of the former Oilers won Stanley Cups with other teams, most notably with the Messier-led New York Rangers in 1994.
Meanwhile, the Oilers were going through a depressing decade of lowered expectations and disappointing playoff droughts. On the ice, they had some young guns like Jason Arnott, Doug Weight, Todd Marchant and Jarret Stoll that slowly developed under a shaky period in Oiler history. It’s real ironic that after these players left Edmonton, some went on to win Stanley Cups in their own right (Arnott in 2000 with New Jersey, Weight with Carolina in 2006, Marchant for Anaheim a year later, and Stoll twice for LA in 2012 and 2014.)
Off the ice, owner Peter Pocklington and the Oilers were financially in a bind. With the team losing money year after year, and Peter Pocklington borrowed funds from the provincial treasury branch that he couldn’t pay back. When the Alberta government intervened, he was forced to sell most of his money-depleting assets, which included putting the team for sale on 1998, ten years since he orchestrated the Gretzky Trade. Despite his empty threats of moving the team to either Hamilton or Minneapolis where the latter city was fresh off from losing the Stars to Dallas, the Oilers were eventually sold to a local ownership group by March, but just barely.
Entering Bizarro World: Wayne Returns to the Oil
(The following is a fictional account of the alternate/parallel universe. And if you don’t know what an alternate/parallel universe is, you need to watch Star Trek.)
The date was August 9, 1998. Just a couple of months before the start of the 1998-99 season, rumors started to swirl about an impending major announcement. Although unconfirmed, sources were saying the Wayne Gretzky, then of the New York Rangers, is on the move after only two seasons in Manhattan. With the Rangers losing the legendary Captain Mark Messier to the Vancouver Canucks, followed by a disappointing season out of the playoffs in 1997-98, Gretzky made a bold announcement:
“It’s been exactly ten years since I left Edmonton. Since that time, I have played my best in three major hockey cities: Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York. I accomplished a few personal bests and achieved much being the all time points and goal leader. Although I haven’t won a Stanley Cup in the last ten years, my desire to win my fifth one has never changed.
“After some time contemplating in the long off-season, I spoke with my family and received support for the decision I am making today…
“There comes a time when…when it’s time to come back home. I am returning to play for the Edmonton Oilers.”
The move wouldn’t come so easy for the Oilers. Gretzky was still under contract with the Rangers. And when he says he wants to move, there was no way Rangers General Manager Neil Smith could refuse. With that in mind, the Rangers will want to pick from the bumper crop of young Oilers to compensate for the loss of the legendary scorer. Oilers President and General Manager Glen Sather was only happy to oblige, having giving up on the Great One (in reality, it was Pocklington’s order to make the trade in 1988), and the two managers would open discussions for a trade prior to the start of training camp.
There was one problem: The local ownership group that had just bought the Oilers from Pocklington, may not be in a position to trade for the Great One. Since Gretzky left town ten years before, player salaries have skyrocketed. With the weak Canadian dollar to contended with, and coinciding with the losses of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques, for the Oilers, getting Gretzky back in Edmonton proved to be a financial challenge.
After running through the Oilers roster, Neil Smith was focused on one man: Doug Weight. After being traded away from New York in 1993, Weight proved to be a leader on the young team during those dark times. He finished on top in the 1997-98 season with 70 points. Sather knew his value well and wasn’t so hesitant on giving him up. But with the lack of resources to compensate for Gretzky coming back, Sather had no choice but to accept the trade. Neil Smith wasn’t done however. He wanted someone else to sweeten the deal, in particular Todd Marchant. Sather didn’t want to lose him either, so after some intense discussions, they accepted trading Jason Arnott to the Rangers instead.
At the start of training camp, crowds filled the practice rinks, standing room only at times. Almost every media outlet was camped outside the Oilers facilities waiting to interview him. While Gretzky was humble about his return to the Oilers, he was mostly concerned about fitting in. Kevin Lowe, who has just retired and became the Oilers’ Assistant Coach under Head Coach Ron Low, assured him that the team will do their best to work with him.
Easier said than done. Even with Gretzky back on the Oilers roster, the team couldn’t gel together between the legend and young upstarts. Steady goaltender Curtis Joseph signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and suddenly their defensive strength was depleted. The Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Detroit Red Wings were still the dominant teams, and throughout the season, the Oilers had trouble. Gretzky started on the first line but it was soon apparent that he would have to juggle with different linemates, trying to find the right chemistry. Bill Guerin, Pat Falloon and Josef Beranek tried but were moved between the first and second line. Young Ryan Smyth however was able to thrive at times under the Great One’s tutelage.
While ticket sales returned to positive levels since Gretzky’s return, the team was still in the red. In order to lost some salary, the Oilers made some trades. Edmonton traded Boris Mironov & Dean McAmmond to the Chicago Blackhawks for Ethan Moreau, Christian Laflamme and Chad Kilger. They also traded with Toronto for Jason Smith, who would prove to be a steady defenceman. And getting Tommy Salo from the New York Islanders helped compensate for the loss of Cujo.
Gretzky finished third in team scoring with only 13 goals, 61 assists and 74 points. It would be his points total in a full season over 41 games. The team as a whole managed to squeak by and finish eighth in the Western Conference. But what made it even more shocking than that was this announcement at the end of the regular season:
“After much discussion with the family and with my long time friend and assistant coach Kevin Lowe, I have made the decision to retire from the NHL as soon as the playoffs are over. I would like to thank the Edmonton Oilers Organization for giving me the opportunity to finish my NHL career back to where I started.”
Their first round opponent would be of the Dallas Stars. This would be their third postseason meeting in a row. The Stars who had won the President’s Trophy were heavily favored to win the Cup. Game One in Dallas was a blowout, 7-1 Stars. Gretzky was only on the ice for 23 minutes, zero points. Game Two was somewhat of an improvement but the Oil still lost 4-2. Gretzky collected one assist on the Oil’s second goal.
When Game Three opened in Edmonton, there was so much electricity everywhere in the city. Fans paid top dollar for a chance to see their hero one last time. The rink was packed and the team fed off their passion and was energized. Despite this, they lost 3-2 in a very intense match with Gretzky scoring the second goal, his last. When he scored, the crowd at the coliseum erupted.
That feeling would continue in Game Four. With the Dallas Stars leading three games to none, the chances for the Oil to come back would be bleak. Unlike the Oilers of the past, the current squad had little to no chance against a stacked championship contender that had Mike Modano, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brett Hull and Ed Belfour. Gretzky led the way in his final NHL game like he always had. And although the outcome wasn’t what he wanted, 3-2 Stars win to sweep the Oilers, the fans and both teams applauded and saluted the Great One.
Wayne Gretzky retired an Edmonton Oiler.
The ending in Bizarro World went something like this…
A former novice/atom player, timekeeper and fan of the game, Peter has lived and breathed hockey throughout his life, covering hockey happenings in Edmonton, Vancouver, and currently in Saskatchewan. He is now a contributing writer for the Hockey Writers.