THE TRADE: AN OUTSIDER’S LOOK

Twenty-five years after the sale of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in a deal orchestrated by Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, there are still plenty of hockey fans in this town who speak with a great deal of passion about Aug. 9, 1988. Is it any wonder?

I, however, am not one of them. By the time I arrived in Edmonton in December 1989, Gretzky, the best player ever to take a twirl in the NHL, was long gone. The Oilers were Mark Messier’s team. There was a fifth Stanley Cup to come for Pocklington’s Gretzky-less Oilers. I missed all the fuss.

When I did get here, it was as a relatively young sportswriter. I was sent to follow future HHOF writer and long-time Oiler beat man Jim Matheson around what was then Northlands Coliseum as his back-up on the hockey beat. I had no history with the Oilers, no road stories to tell about the Boys on the Bus. I was an objective observer, writing sidebars all the way through that fifth Cup, learning as I went under Matheson, who knew everything and had history with absolutely everybody on that team.

My memories of the Oilers as a fan, in the days before I stopped cheering for anybody — around 1982 when I entered journalism school — was of Gretzky and his pals beating my hometown Vancouver Canucks for fun. Not long after getting into the NHL, they were way too good for the Canucks.

The Oilers were way too good for a lot of teams, except save the New York Islanders, for a few years at least. And that Gretzky kid, the one Nelson Skalbania handed over to Edmonton, well, it was obvious he was something special, that he’d live up to the hype, even as a rookie. Oilers fans saw that up-close-and personal. I saw it, and the talents of No. 99’s supporting cast, only when Edmonton came to wax the Canucks or, once in a while, on TV.

GREATNESS FROM AFAR

While the sale of Gretzky sent shock waves through the entire sports world, including the newsroom at the Kamloops Daily News, Gretzky’s teary farewell at Molson House alongside a stone-faced Pocklington didn’t move me even a bit. While outraged fans in Edmonton burned Peter Puck in effigy, The Trade was nothing more than a news event, albeit a big one, to me.

I only got to know the Great One after he was gone – as a reporter interviewing him with Bruce McNall’s Kings, during his cup of coffee with the St. Louis Blues and with the New York Rangers, who won a Stanley Cup with a bunch of old Oilers before Gretzky arrived for his swan song in Manhattan. I knew Gretzky as a coach in a forgettable stint with the Phoenix Coyotes. Through all that, Matheson, who was waiting when Gretzky arrived in Edmonton as a pimply-faced teenager, filled in the blanks.

I’d chat with Gretzky at morning skates or we’d have a coffee here or there, like when we bumped into No. 99 at our hotel in Phoenix during a road trip or when he came through Edmonton for his jersey retirement or for the Heritage Classic. By then, all the magic fans here witnessed on the way to those first four Cups was a warm and fuzzy memory in the rear-view mirror for the Great One. My recollections of Gretzky and most of the stories about him come after the fact. I missed all the fun.

It’s for all the above reasons that, as fans mark the 25th anniversary of The Trade, your perspective is far more pointed and passionate than mine. I’ve never tortured myself with what could have been. You have. How many Cups would the Oilers have won had Pocklington not sold Gretzky? I’d like to hear your stories, your angle, your perspective on what unfolded Aug. 9, 1988 and what it’s meant to be an Oilers fan since then.

From Gretzky’s point of view, there’s a quote in a recent piece in The Hockey News by Adam Proteau from No. 99 that sums up pretty well his feelings about being the centerpiece of the Glory Days in Edmonton as an Oiler.

“Listen, Edmonton became a home for me,” Gretzky told THN. “Mark Messier is an Edmonton boy. He was their son, and I’d say I was their adopted son. Really at no time over my career there did I consider people to be fans; I know they’re fans, but I became more friends with the people. They were always good to me.

“In the whole unfolding of this thing, as is the case in a lot of these instances, the people who got hurt the most are the people who were the most innocent – and that’s the third party, the fans. So from that point of view, it was difficult for me. I love everything about hockey, but the one thing I hated in my career was playing as an opponent in Edmonton. It was always very difficult for me.”

READ ALL ABOUT IT . . .

The Edmonton Journal, as you’d expect, is doing a take-out on the Gretzky trade and a lot of what you’ll read comes from Matheson, who knows No. 99 better than any scribe still toting a notepad. If you want to access the electronic version of the section, you can link to it AFTER 12:01 a.m. tonight here. The link won’t be live until then.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • Reg Dunlop

    I remember that Aug 9th day alright…being at my place when the news came o TV there was a big press conference shortly…”Wayne Gretzky was just traded to the Los Angeles Kings”!!!!

    Being a complete type Oiler fan from since 1979-80 onward, I then swore, screamed and shouted….and without thinking…I threw a cup of coffee I was holding… against the wall.

    Then in stunned silence I sat down to watch an agonizing press conference. Man o Man I was pissed at that smug face of pocklngton’s on the TV and I pretty much called him every damnation type thing that my mind could think of.

    I know that many, many people did the same…and then some…on that dark sports day in history. Oh yeah, I did have a few beers later on that night…and my friends and I cursed Pocklington and even Sather (to a point for not fighting this deal hard enough).

    But,…instead of changing teams to cheer for, I kept my allegiance to the Oilers. I still followed Wayne’s individual accomplishments while always wondering what could have been had he stayed…but I was then extremely happy to watch another Cup come home in 1990 with Mess leading the team.

    Now…after all these years, I just cherish all that I saw those early years back then with Gretzky and Oilers…like the Cups, his many Oilers earned league records and the true sports legend and the gentleman he became.

    As a hockey fan, I still fully bleed Oiler Blue and Orange, (plus copper) and I wish to see more Cups come home…the sooner the better.

    In the end, though, I do have to say that while Gretzky being traded to L.A had opened doors to other american market teams, it clearly hurt best type market teams too (like Quebec and Hartford) and it has since diluted the product (player talent pool) with too many teams, too many wrong market teams.

    Anyways, Let’s Go Oilers for 2013-14

  • Leef O'Golin

    Can we mark an anniversary for his accomplishments as an Oiler?

    That would be a nice change. We should reflect with all he’s done with the Edmonton Oilers.

    Instead of wonder what could have been… We know what he did do and that’s win 4 Stanley cups and much much more. Wayne Gretzky never had that same feeling again of winning a Stanley Cup anywhere else besides Edmonton and that right there folks is something only Edmonton and Wayne Gretzky got to share and no one else.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8GIsX26Stw

    Cheers Oilers fans!

  • Rocket

    Wow, 25 years ago. Feels like yesterday. I’m really digging all the media coverage on the anniversary.

    I’m totally gonna pop in a VHS tape of 80’s Oilers moments I recorded & remember what it was like to cheer for a team that won consistently in Edmonton.

  • 2004Z06

    I was 17 at the time and this was not the last of Pocklingtons influence in my life. After meeting Wayne on several occasions as a kid, one could not help but think of him as family. My brother and I were devastated that day as Oiler fans but a little less than 2 years later, Peter puck struck again. My father, a supervisor for Swift’s meats, lost his job along with hundreds of others. In 1990, the provincial government took over the company after Pocklington defaulted on a $6-million loan. The province sold the company, including the Swift’s facility on 66th Street, to Burns Meats in 1994.

    On another note, anyone else remember the “Puck the plastic dragon” song?

    • The Soup Fascist

      That was an amusing little ditty. Best part of the song…

      “Little Waynie Gretzky, loved that rascal Puck,

      And Puck loved Wayne, but not as much as 18 million bucks!”

      Gotta see if I can find a copy of that baby somewhere …….

  • Bucknuck

    Worst. Day. Ever. I thought my step-dad was pulling my leg, until he started really swearing. It was a scary day to be in my house. If Peter Puck would have opened the door to our house that day, he would have been murdered.

  • 719

    I love Gretzky as much as the next guy, still idolize him, but Gretzky wanted to be traded to L.A.

    Facts:

    1. Gretzky would not sign an extension, he wanted to see what his value on the open market was.

    2. He was in Bruce McNall’s office right after the Oiler’s won the stanley cup. Why would he be there? Bruce McNall himself said this when he said Gretzky was in his office when Peter Pocklington just happened to call.

    3. Gretzky helped Bruce McNall structure the deal, he got his protectors included in the deal. So he knew the deal was going down very early and was working on it with McNall.

    4. Gretzky married a girl from California, and its obvious he liked the lifestyle down there (still lives there).

    We always blame Pocklington, but Gretzky also shoulders the blame. In the end we won another cup and Gretzky never did, we won the trade IMHO.

    • D

      This is the type of information that has been passed around by quite a few people for a long time and has been refuted by McNall and to an extent, Pocklington himself.

      1. Gretzky would not sign an extension. This is incorrect – Gretzky would not sign an extension without a no trade clause, which of course Pocklington would not give because Pocklington had other plans. http://coyotes.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=428208

      2. In McNall’s office right after the Oilers won the Cup. Incorrect. It was well into the summer, and after Walter told his son that the Oilers were trying to trade him hours after they won the 88 Cup. Even then, Gretzky did not want to go to LA – by Bruce McNall’s own admission. It was only after that telephone call, and Pocklington bad-mouthing Gretzky on the speaker-phone, that Gretzky decided that he would move to the Kings. http://www.edmontonjournal.com/sports/hockey/edmonton-oilers/gretzky-trade/he-would-still-trade-him-again/index.html

      3. Gretzky helped McNall structure the deal. Yes – after the writing was on the wall.

      4. California lifestyle. That didn’t stop Gretzky from leaving for St. Louis and New York – neither of which has any likeness to the California lifestyle.

      Would Gretzky have left Edmonton eventually? With an owner like Pocklington, in all likeliness, yes. But if you are so certain that Gretzky also shoulders the blame, I would ask this question: If Daryl Katz was the owner of the Edmonton Oilers in 1988, would we even be having this discussion?

    • Quicksilver ballet

      The part of seeing what he’s worth is accurate. The part about wanting to be traded isn’t. It wasn’t till Wayne found out he was being shopped that he began to think it was a possible reality.

      Wayne would’ve remained an Oiler if Pocklington had remained patient and see what he was worth that summer. He got 8 from the Kings, but i’m sure he would’ve given the Oilers/Pocklington the hometown discount. 6.75-7 per season, probably would have kept him in Oiler colors another 5 yrs, me thinks.