Monday, August 9, 2010

August 9, 1988: The Trade

EDMONTON, Alberta - For Canadians, it was one of those shocking, heart-wrenching, jaw-dropping days in the nation's sporting history. It was so unexpected that it defied belief. Wayne Gretzky, the heart and soul of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, a Canadian national treasure, had been traded to Los Angeles

Canadians were outraged. They directed their anger anywhere they could; some went to Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, some to Gretzky's wife for "forcing" the trade with her desire to enhance her acting career, and some even to Gretzky himself for "abandoning" his home province and country. Even the government expressed its shock - a Canadian Parliament member moved to try to get the government to block the trade.

Pocklington approved the trade because he didn't believe he'd be able to afford to keep Gretzky when his contract was up. He had been losing money in various other business ventures and his profits from the Oilers weren't covering those losses, despite the Oilers winning four Stanley Cups in five seasons. So Pockington traded his best asset, trading Gretzky plus two bodyguards for two players, three draft picks, and $15 million in cash.

While stunned by the trade, the Oilers weren't devestated from a competitive standpoint. Two seasons after trading their captain, they won another Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, Gretzky's presence shot life into the previously moribund Kings franchise. The Kings were suddenly one of the marquee American-based franchises in the NHL. Seemingly overnight, America's second-largest city became a hockey hotbed.

While Canadians felt betrayed by Gretzky's willingness to be traded, Edmontonians bore no grudge. In his first game back as a member of the Kings, the Oilers saw the largest crowd in their franchise's history give Gretzky a four-minute-long standing ovation. They cheered loudly when he got two assists to make him the NHL's all-time scoring leader, and they cheered just as loud when new captain Mark Messier checked Gretzky into the boards.

Gretzky never won another Stanley Cup, making the finals only once as a member of the Kings. The Oilers won one more after trading him, but haven't won one since. With the talent that was in place at the time of the trade, it's reasonable to assume the Oilers could have won two or more additional Cups had Gretzky remained.

Instead, the Oilers dynasty ended, stopped not by an up-and-coming team beating them on the ice, but by an owner looking for a way to save some money.

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