This week marked the 28-year anniversary of Wayne Gretzky having been traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, and The Great One joined NHL Network on Tuesday to reminisce.
There have been so many stories generated from that deal nearly three decades ago, but there are still misnomers floating around concerning various aspects of the transaction.
“I think the biggest misconception of all was that my wife Janet, who was pregnant at the time – we had our first daughter, Paulina, obviously – that she was the one steering the ship. That she wanted me to go to Los Angeles, and that so wasn’t true,” said Gretzky.
“I really believe at the end we got down to three teams. Mr. Snider was a good friend of mine, and Philadelphia was involved. Detroit Red Wings, of course. I grew up a Gordie Howe fan. I loved Gordie Howe and the Red Wings. And the Los Angeles Kings were involved.
“I really felt 24 hours beforehand that I was going to end up a Detroit Red Wing. Both Janet and I thought, ‘Okay, that’s the perfect place to go,’ because a) it’s a great hockey city and b) because of Gordie and everything that goes with that.
“It was really my dad that stepped in and said, ‘You know, there’s only one Gordie Howe. Detroit is Detroit. They’ve done everything. You should go to L.A. and put a new mark on life down there and do something so unique and so different.’ And he was the one who stepped in said, ‘You know, you should go and play in Los Angeles.’
“I remember sitting with Janet… we were like, ‘Okay. That’s where we’re going to go.’
“It was all really good (laughs) until the first exhibition game and we had 9,000 people at the game in the L.A. Forum. We finished 20th in the league out of 21 teams the year before and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. What have I got myself into?’
“I remember calling Mark Messier, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, (laughs) this might be something that – I might be in over my head here.’
“So there’s no question that was the biggest misconception. It was my dad that said, ‘You should play in L.A.’ So ultimately, that’s how I ended up there.”
So just how aware was Gretzky of the potential ripple-effect of his moving to California, being in the United States, and thus being able to help grow the game once he actually began playing in Los Angeles?
“At the beginning, I was so nervous just trying to get this organization straightened out as far as the goals of the players and the team and the organization that winning was everything,” recalled Gretzky. “I had learned that being in Edmonton with Sather and Messier and Kevin Lowe and Coffey and Grant Fuhr. That was the biggest focus for me, was to get those guys sort of (saying), ‘Alright, we’ve got to win here. We can’t be 20th out of 21 teams.’
“We had a good training camp. We came out of the gates pretty strong. As a team, everybody started to feel the same way. ‘Okay, we understand what winning means now. Winning breeds winning.’ Everybody sort of grabbed on to that.
“At the very beginning, we weren’t conscious of selling franchises as far as getting franchises in Anaheim, San Jose. That was so far down the road. We were trying to establish ourselves as a team that people wanted to come and watch. What happened that was really instrumental was guys like Luc Robitaille and Marty McSorley and people like Kelly Hrudey and the organization itself – guys like Jimmy Fox and Daryl Evans – they really, every guy to a man understood we had to do a little bit more than other organizations. That we had to sell our sport in our community.
“And Ed Snider had written this book about the Flyers and their success and what they did was promoting youth hockey, getting kids involved in playing the sport. That’s what we did in L.A.. Like I said, we were lucky. Guys like McSorley and Hrudey and Robitaille – they went out of their way to do so many more extra things after practice. Going to schools to do ball hockey tournaments. I think at the time when I went to L.A. there were four high schools teams. Four years in, I think there’s 125 high school hockey teams.
“So we as an organization, I got so lucky. And I said this all of the time – timing is everything. Brett Hull was in St. Louis. Mario was in Pittsburgh. Messier went to the Rangers. Yzerman was in Detroit. And all of those guys did everything they could to promote the sport and make the sport bigger than just the National Hockey League.
“And timing in life is everything. It just all worked out.”
Source: NHL Network/ Transcript: Nichols