Gretzky's dad warned Wayne of waning Oiler days
On Aug. 9, 1988, Wayne Douglas Gretzky was sold to the Los Angeles Kings for $18 million, a handful of players and the hearts and minds of a nation. Twenty-five years later, legendary Edmonton Sun hockey scribe Terry Jones re-visits the day the NHL, and Canadian hockey, changed forever. Below is the third of a six-part series that can be read in full in Friday’s Edmonton Sun – or online across Sun Media sites Aug. 9. Check out the live chat Jones hosted Thursday afternoon.
Part 3: Wedding and Whispers
Father Knew Best — Gretzky’s dad warned Wayne that his Oiler days were numbered
It was Wayne Gretzky’s wedding day. And Eddie Mio was doing his duty, getting the groom to the church on time.
Mio, the goaltender who came to the Oilers with Peter Driscoll and a 17-year-old Gretzky in the deal with the Indianapolis Racers in the final year of the World Hockey Association, remembers the moment vividly.
“We were on the way to church when Wayne looked at me,” said Mio.
“ ‘Eddie, I’m getting traded out of here. I’m not going to be here,’ Wayne told me. On the way to the church!”
Twenty-five years later, after celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary with wife Janet and three of his five kids at his summer place in Idaho two days earlier, Gretzky told the story.
In one of the most lengthy and engaging of the long list of incredible interviews your correspondent has ever had the pleasure and privilege conducting with him, Gretzky began with the back story leading to that moment.
“I’ll be quite candid with you,” he began, and went back 25 years in time to set up what led to the darkest day in Edmonton sports history.
“We’d just won the Stanley Cup. When you win the Stanley Cup you are mentally and physically exhausted. I don’t care if you win it four straight or seven games, it’s tiring. I remember I went back to my apartment after a couple hours with everybody the night we won it and … by the fourth Cup you learn. It’s enjoyable but you still need to get some rest.
‘‘I was kinda tired and went back to my place.
“My mom and dad were staying there. I remember my mom was cooking something to eat and my dad said, ‘You know, there’s a chance you’re going to get traded’.
“I thought he was kidding me. I remember saying ‘Oh come on, what are you talking about?’
“And he said, ‘I knew a month ago.’ Or, ‘I heard it a month ago.’ Or something to that effect.
“I didn’t believe him.
“The next morning my phone rang at about 7 a.m. and it was Nelson Skalbania,” he said of the Indianapolis Racers owner who sent Gretzky to the Oilers with Driscoll and Mio only eight games into his WHA career.
“And Nelson said ‘How would you like to play in Vancouver for me?’ “
Gretzky, with cobwebs in his head from celebrating his fourth Stanley Cup the night before, couldn’t believe that phone call.
“I said ‘Well, first of all, Nelson, we just won the Cup. Second of all, you don’t even own Vancouver. And quite frankly, I’m not even thinking of something like that.’
“And he said, ‘Because of your contract situation, don’t be surprised if you get moved and I can put a deal together’ and etc., etc.”
Gretzky said it kind of went away, as the subject had so often before. But soon his dad Walter entered the conversation again.
“Janet and I had become engaged and we wanted to have a family, so we talked about it and decided it was probably best if I sold my apartment and bought a house.
“I knew I would miss Millie Singer, a widow who lived one floor below me. She would bring me up cookies every second day,” he laughed.
“But it made common sense to buy a house so we looked at houses in the Old Glenora area and I remember we found a couple that we really kind of liked. And I remember telling my dad we were looking at these houses and he said, ‘Whoa, I wouldn’t do that.’”
WALTER GRETZKY HEARD
Walter said it was all telegraphed to him.
“I knew Wayne was getting traded before he did, because Nelson Skalbania phoned me and asked ‘How much does Wayne make?’ ” Walter said of the former Oilers WHA co-owner with Peter Pocklington.
“I asked Nelson why he wanted to know,” said Walter.
“He said ‘Because Peter is shopping him to the highest bidder.’
“I said ‘No he’s not.’
“He said ‘Yes he is.’
“That was during the 1988 Stanley Cup finals.
“Then a couple days after they won, Wayne said ‘You know dad, I’m shopping around for a house in Edmonton.’
“And I told him ‘You better forget that. They’re shopping you.’
“He said ‘No they’re not.’
“I said ‘Yes they are.’ “
Twenty-five years later Wayne said obviously his dad was right.
“So as the next few weeks went along, the trade talks were heating up and Peter had communicated and talked to me about it,” he continued.
“At that time Peter told me he’d trade me to Detroit or New York or L.A., or wherever I wanted to go. And I really had nobody to talk to about it other than my dad.
“In the car on the way to the church on my wedding day I told Eddie it was a possibility.”
Wayne had been to Hawaii with Janet, the Messier family and Kevin Lowe and others after they won the Cup. But it was never mentioned.
Mio remembers what he told the groom.
“‘Wayne, you’re getting married. Don’t even think about it. Enjoy the day.”
Mio wasn’t buying.
“I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think it was possible to take Wayne away from Edmonton. I just didn’t think anything like that could happen. No way.”
It wasn’t as if it hadn’t all come up before.
“Where there’s smoke there’s a little bit of fire and I think some of it was out there,” Gretzky looks back now.
“I think one of the best rumours or stories I ever heard was in 1980. At that time, before Mike Ilitch bought the Detroit Red Wings, Bruce Norris had offered to trade franchises with Peter to move the Oilers to Detroit and the Red Wings to Edmonton, because Norris thought it would be good for hockey.
The Detroit franchise hadn’t been successful in 20 or 25 years. They were going into a new arena, Joe Louis.
“So I heard that rumour. I don’t know how true it was.
“And one of the things I heard was that Peter said no to Norris and then, I don’t know if this is true or not either, that Peter thought that was a great idea and thought ‘I could move this franchise to Toronto and maybe Harold Ballard will go for this’ then offered that same deal with Ballard and wanted to switch the Toronto and Edmonton franchises, and I think Harold told Peter to take a hike.
“Like I said, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But it’s one of the things I heard.”
The first time the selling of Gretzky came up was, indeed, after his first year in the league. Just days earlier he’d won his first Hart Trophy.
“He ain’t for sale,” said Pocklington that day.
“I’ve had huge offers from from U.S. teams for Wayne. It doesn’t matter. You can’t put a price tag on him. He isn’t for sale.
‘‘He’s Edmonton property and hopefully the longevity of his career will match Gordie Howe.”
Howe had retired a week earlier at the age of 52.
The year Gretzky won his first Stanley Cup, in 1984, the story was back again.
The headline over my column that day was ‘Broadway Wayne?’
Wayne Gretzky to the New York Rangers for $18 million so Peter Pocklington can save Fidelity Trust? That’s the rumour. Repeat, rumour.
Gus Badali, Gretzky’s agent, was tipped on it from a source in Calgary who called his Toronto office. Badali reacted by putting in a call to Pocklington.”
Mike Barnett of the Sierra Sports Group, which manages Gretzky’s endorsements, said he’s heard it “six or eight times in the last 48 hours.”
Pocklington, at the time, was running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in an attempt to become prime minister of Canada.
“Nonsense,” he screamed at the reported rumours.
“Wayne is more valuable than the family jewels. I’d never sell him. Never is a long time in my life but I’d never sell him.
‘‘It’s absolutely false. I promised Edmonton on Day 1 that Wayne Gretzky would be here for 20 years and nothing has changed. Trade Gretzky to New York for $18 million, eh? If I traded Gretzky out of Canada nobody would vote for me.”
The story went away for another day.
It came back again a few days after Gretzky had hit the 1,000 point mark.
This time it came from Harold Ballard, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I asked how much Gretzky would cost and I was told $18 million,” Ballard had no problem telling your correspondent for publication.
“I know they tried New York. Pocklington will deny it. But I know they tried New York. And he asked me once.”
Pocklington denied it.
“Happy Harold has obviously lost all his marbles,” said the Oilers owner. “Wayne belongs to me and always will. It’s absolute rubbish.”
Twenty-five years later Gretzky looks back and said he was mostly in denial.
“I guess that 10 days after the wedding it really heated up. During those next 10 days is when it really unravelled.
“At that time I still didn’t believe it was going to happen either. I mean, I was part of it and I still thought it was inconceivable it could happen .”
The thing is, in all those previous stories, there was one constant. Every time the story surfaced the number was always $18 million.
The last time the story was emphatically denied was also under my byline on Aug. 4, 1988.
The rumour has been running rampant for days. Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings for $18 million.
That was my first paragraph.
It was followed by the usual denial paragraphs.
“There’s nothing to it,” said Glen Sather.
“Every summer there’s a different rumour. This one goes in the same bin as all the others. Put it in with the ones about him going to the New York Rangers, the Vancouver Canucks and the Calgary Flames. I don’t even know where Wayne and Janet are. If there was anything like that I assume Peter would let me know. There is nothing to it.”
Five days later …