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The Wayne Gretzky trade: How great was that?

It was 25 years ago this week when the Kings acquired the NHL's biggest star from the Edmonton Oilers and shook up the sport.

August 07, 2013|By Lisa Dillman
  • Wayne Gretzky shows off his new Kings uniform during a news conference after the trade.
Wayne Gretzky shows off his new Kings uniform during a news conference after… (Bruce Bennett Studios /…)

Imagine a room full of serious hockey people speaking a common language — lifers used to evaluating talent in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, on consecutive nights.

Then the polar opposite of a hockey lifer shows up and says that the Los Angeles Kings could be acquiring the game's greatest player, Wayne Gretzky. He tells the scouts that the franchise might have to surrender several draft picks … so plan for the upcoming entry draft accordingly.

Serious men, serious hockey people, thought then-Kings owner Bruce McNall could not possibly be serious that June day in 1988.

"They all looked at me like I was gone," McNall said. "A bunch of Canadian guys and they're looking at this kid from California: 'Yeah, you're going to get Gretzky. OK, fine, have another drink.' It was almost dismissed."

Twenty-five years later, McNall giggled his trademark giggle.

Laughter was not the prevailing reaction 25 years ago Friday, the day McNall and then-Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington turned what seemed wildly impossible into the biggest hockey deal ever — one that transformed the NHL.

Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley were traded from the Oilers to the Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft choices and $15 million.

Canada cried. So did Gretzky at his farewell news conference in Edmonton. Pocklington said he received death threats over the Gretzky trade, and Gretzky's actress wife, Janet Jones, was unfairly compared to a meddling Yoko Ono.

Los Angeles veered between shock, awe and curiosity.

Pundits scrambled for valid comparisons and were forced to leave hockey to do so. Babe Ruth's sale from Boston to the New York Yankees looked to be about the best fit. It's not often you can slip 1919 into a modern-day trade story.

"You hang the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, not some curio shop in downtown Lyon," Times columnist Jim Murray wrote.

"Gretzky will fill the seats. If he can fill the nets too he'll be the biggest bargain since Babe Ruth. The game needs glamour more than goals. He's already pulled the hat trick. He's put hockey on Page 1. In Los Angeles. In August."

So many years later, the trade is still creating front-page headlines and generating television viewership in Canada. This week, the cable network Sportsnet is running a five-part series on the trade.

Tuesday's offering included interviews with Pocklington, McNall, Carson, former Oilers executive Glen Sather and Luc Robitaille, who is now the Kings president of business operations.

There has been no shortage of literature devoted to Gretzky. McNall has written a book, and so has Pocklington, cheekily calling it "I'd Trade Him Again." (Gretzky wrote the foreword to the Pocklington book.)

Stephen Brunt, a Canadian author and sports columnist, produced a comprehensive offering, "Gretzky's Tears," in 2009, and noted director Peter Berg's ESPN documentary, "30 for 30: Kings Ransom," came out the same year. Gretzky cooperated with the Berg project but has not been widely available leading up to the 25th anniversary.

But that hasn't stopped most of the principals from offering their thoughts and memories of the landmark deal, retelling well-worn stories and providing lesser-known details.

The move to acquire Gretzky was set in motion years before by the late owner of the Lakers, Jerry Buss, who was McNall's predecessor as Kings owner. Buss, an avid poker player, sensed that that Pocklington's small-market hand was not a good one.

"What he saw was a team that had an asset — would he be able to keep that team together, or would the owner eventually want to rebuild?" said Jeanie Buss, Jerry's daughter and the Lakers' executive vice president for business. "He just kind of planted the seed, I believe, and a guy like Bruce would be the one to stay on it and deliver."

Buss, who died in February, was ahead of his time on the Gretzky deal. He just happened to make his pitch too early to Pocklington.

Jeanie Buss did have an impact on Gretzky's life. She had gotten Janet Jones tickets to a Lakers playoff game in 1986, at which Jones reconnected with Gretzky. The couple felt it was only right to invite Buss to their wedding in Edmonton on July 17, 1988, an event akin to a royal wedding in Canada.

"There were no limousines left in western Canada," said Buss, laughing.

By then, the Gretzky deal was moving forward, and around the same time McNall made a tough phone call to Carson, a young player he had told he would never trade. He told Carson that he might be sent to Edmonton for Gretzky.

Robitaille was the first name on the Oilers' wish list, but McNall drew the line and refused to include the future Hall of Famer in the trade. McNall tried but failed to keep Carson. Understandably, Carson's head was spinning. He had just purchased a house in Redondo Beach and it was fully decorated by McNall's wife Jane.

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