FRIDAY JULY 21, 2017
 
Blog THROWIN SMOKE
THE DAY HOCKEY DIED
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It was 25 years ago today that Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to the L.A. Kings. We revisit this Nov. 29, 2009 column from an Oilers fan who still tears up at the memory.

I am not a crier. I don’t cry during sad movies or for defenceless baby seals. My heart is a tiny, black lump of coal. It has been confirmed.

But show me five minutes of Wayne Gretzky playing for the Edmonton Oilers followed by the press conference announcing his trade to the L.A. Kings, and I weep like a baby.

For those of us who lived in Edmonton during the glory years, it truly was the day hockey died.

And courtesy of Peter Berg’s tear-jerking documentary Kings Ransom, which aired last Wednesday night on TSN, all those emotions from 22 years ago came flooding back as if it was happening all over again.

In the documentary, Berg accurately portrays the sense of love and loss in the city of Edmonton prior to and following the trade, with excellent, candid interviews with all the key players in the drama, including Gretzky, Kings owner Bruce McNall, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington and Gretzky’s wife, Janet Jones.

Do we remember where we were when we heard the news that Gretzky had been traded? Yes we do. I was in a Volkswagen Rabbit on my way home from Kingsway Garden Mall. I was in disbelief, nauseated. It was that feeling you get when you know everything will never be the same again.

Do we remember the date? Yes we do. It was August 9, 1988. The date is tattooed on our brains. Do we still mourn? Absolutely. Many of us will wear black every August 9 in memory of that dark day and the Stanley Cups that could have been.

When Pocklington traded Gretzky, he traded away the city’s identity. Gretzky put Edmonton on the map, and just as quickly it turned back into a northern outpost with a giant shopping mall.

gretzky_trade_inset1.jpgWere we aware of all the facts? Maybe not. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention at the time but it was news to me when Gretzky said in the documentary that he wanted to be the league’s highest-paid player and he wasn’t willing to negotiate his contract until the end of the 1989 season. That did put Pocklington into a tight spot. With salaries escalating, he didn’t have the cash to re-sign Gretzky to the most expensive contract in hockey. So it made business sense to try to get something for the league’s best player rather than to risk letting him walk away for nothing as a free agent at the end of the year.

Does that mean we can forgive Pocklington? No. Never. I don’t care if it means bringing in a deep-pocketed partner or doubling the price of tickets, you don’t sell the soul of your franchise and your city for $15 million US and Jimmy Carson.

gretzky_trade_inset2.jpgPocklington didn’t just trade Gretzky to Los Angeles, he traded hockey to the United States. Within 10 years, there was hockey in Florida, San Jose and Anaheim, and no hockey in Quebec City or Winnipeg. Even the Oilers were on death’s doorstep until a 37-member conglomerate stepped in, preventing the sale of the team to an ownership group in Houston.

Today, Edmonton is the smallest market in the NHL. Big-name players like Chris Pronger and Dany Heatley have refused to play for the small-town Oilers. Since Gretzky left, the team won one Stanley Cup and played for another, but has missed the playoffs nine times in the past 16 seasons. It has endured rebuilding season after rebuilding season, and has never had a star one-tenth the calibre of Gretzky.

In the documentary, Berg asks an older, wiser, weathered Gretzky if he’d ever thought of the number of cups he could have won had he stayed in Edmonton.

“Yeah. The whole time.”

So do we, Wayne. So do we.


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