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.