The enduring impact of the Wayne Gretzky trade
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 first of a six-part series that can 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 1: Where were you?
Terry Jones talks to The Great One and others about the enduring impact of the day Gretzky was sold
Most Canadians of a certain age remember where they were the moment they heard the news.
Most Americans remember where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Or when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.
On Aug. 9, 1988, Wayne Douglas Gretzky was sold to the Los Angeles Kings for $18 million.
For 25 years Wayne Gretzky has watched people come up to him, and has listened to their accounts of where they were and how that moment affected them.
“I still hear it. I mean, all the time,” said Gretzky in a lengthy and revealing interview with your correspondent two days after celebrating the 25th ‘Royal Wedding’ anniversary with wife Janet and family at their Idaho summer cabin.
“But the thing I get now is people coming up and saying, ‘My grandparents grew up watching you and they tell me you were pretty good.’ So when they ask me, it makes me feel older more than anything,” he laughed.
If there’s any Canadian who could best relate to the phenomenon, although with an entirely different set of emotions involved, it’s Paul Henderson.
When Foster Hewitt told hockey fans from coast to coast “Henderson has scored for Canada” to win the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union, people remember where they were and have been telling him that for 40-plus years.
“It’s an amazing phenomenon, it really is,” said Henderson.
“When I meet people, they don’t ask questions. They tell me where they were, what they were doing and how they felt. To this day, it keeps happening, as soon as I meet somebody for the first time. It happens all the time. I just came back from visiting with my neighbours and they had some friends over and they immediately told me where they were and their reaction.
“Forty years later and I’m still enjoying listening to their stories. People talk about broken noses, putting their head through the ceiling, their fists through the wall. They tell me how proud they were to be a Canadian at that moment.
“It doesn’t matter whether they are prime ministers, famous people, fans, hockey players or just people you meet around town. As long as they were old enough to have been alive at the time, the first thing they’ll tell you is where they were.”
Even Wayne Gretzky.
“Gretzky remembered being in school. I think he said he was nine at the time. He said he remembered that was the exact moment he went from dreaming of playing for one of the NHL teams to dreaming of wearing the maple leaf and playing for Canada.”
Gretzky, 25 years after his, er, event, says they’re hard to compare.
“The Henderson goal was unique because it was such a national phenomenon. It was the rallying of the entire country around the team and around the credibility of our game in Canada,” he said.
“When it came to me … as the years went along, it was mostly Edmontonians that came up to me to comment on it, or came up to me to talk about it.
“I never really got it so much in the United States. Not too many people in the U.S. would come up to me and go on that angle. I think the people in the United States looked at it from the beginning as a business deal or a hockey trade, or however they wanted to look at it, whereas the Edmonton people still probably look at it as, you know, ‘Why did that have to happen?’ That’s more what’s involved when I see people on a daily basis.
“It was a Canadian issue. But it was more an Edmonton issue as the years went along. And I’ve said this before, it’s such a great city because the fans were not just fans but it seemed like most of them became your friends. I met them through charity events, dinners, whatever, wherever.
‘‘I became friends with so many. The same people seemed to be the ones who were everywhere and the ones who went to the games. I often said that I could look in the seats and I knew the same people.
‘‘I knew when it was Christmas or spring break because I could see those people were away on holidays.
“Those are the people who still talk about it or want to talk about it, whereas most Canadians who come up to me now want to talk about, ‘It must have been fun being part of the Olympic gold medal in 2002’.
“It’s mostly transpired into an Edmonton sort of issue these days. But I still get people from Edmonton who come up to me and tell me about how it was for them that day.”
Twenty-five years ago today it impacted people like few other events in Canadian history.
Don Cherry, voted the seventh greatest Canadian on the CBC television special The Greatest Canadian, was at his home when the phone rang that day.
“I hadn’t heard of any of the rumours or anything. Someone called for my reaction and I simply didn’t believe it. I was flabbergasted.
“My first thought was that I couldn’t believe Glen Sather did it. Then I found out he had nothing to do with it.
“The only thing I was happy with is that Gretzky took Marty McSorley with him. That proved my point. I must have mentioned that 30,000 times.
“I loved going to work those Stanley Cup playoff games with Gretzky and the Oilers. That was Canada’s last great team. It was good for Canada. Now I’m left to pointing out that Boston has 15 Canadians and Chicago has 13.
“It seemed like I was there for so many of Wayne’s most memorable games, like the five-goal night to make it 50 in 39.
“Gretzky and that deal almost got me fired, you know. A guy by the name of Arthur Smith was the head of CBC sports and Hockey Night In Canada was making a big deal of Gretzky returning with the Los Angeles Kings to play the Oilers in Edmonton and we were all out there for a special edition.
“And I came on Coaches Corner and said, ‘Seeing Gretzky in a Los Angeles Kings uniform is like watching Secretariat at a state fair.’
“They all went nuts. They saw it as me running down the game and the league. The whole deal. I loved it when I got on the plane home the next day and your paper had the headline ‘Vintage Grapes Saves CBC.’
Even the Americans felt for Canada’s loss.
A Detroit newspaper ran an editorial-page cartoon depicting a solitary skater on the ice. On the jersey was No. 99. In the background a Canadian flag flew at half-mast. And right in the middle of the red maple leaf, a heart had been carved out. Look closer and the heart was actually a puck on the end of a stick.
Twenty-five years ago, Laurence Decore was the mayor of Edmonton.
“It’s like ripping the heart out of a city,” he said that day.
Today’s mayor of the last dozen years, Stephen Mandel, said he happened to be at home when it happened.
“I had heard the rumours and watched it all unfold on television. At the time I couldn’t believe we’d ship away our city’s most noted sports hero and celebrity. Looking back I think that sentiment hasn’t changed and the decision is as unpopular with Edmontonians now as it was back then.”
Current Oilers owner Daryl Katz was in his office in Edmonton when he was told.
“There had been enough chatter that I had sensed it was coming. But it was still a huge, huge shock. It was a tough blow for everyone.
“For me, personally, it was devastating both as a fan and because Wayne was a friend, but also for the whole city and for Wayne himself.
“It’s hard not to think about what might have been, but we were really lucky to have him for as long as we did.”
Bob Black, Katz’s right-hand man, now executive v-p of Edmonton Arena Corp., has a far more interesting recollection of where he was when the news broke.
“I was in just about the worst place possible — a law office in Calgary, surrounded by nine Calgary lawyers.”
There are thousands of anecdotes like that, just like there are thousands of people in Edmonton with treasured pictures of themselves with No. 99, and basement bars and man caves that are mini-museums to Gretzky and the glory gang of the ’80s.
GROWING UP IN THE GLORY YEARS
There were a lot of kids who had No. 99 sweaters and Wayne Gretzky O’Pee-Chee rookie cards, owned Wayne Gretzky autographs and even went to school carrying Wayne Gretzky lunch boxes.
And not just in Edmonton. All over the province. All over Canada. And scattered around the world.
Like Ryan Smyth.
“I was 13 years old and living in Banff. I was so devastated I locked myself in my room,” Smyth remembers.
“I didn’t think about it being hockey history or anything like that. I just felt so close to Wayne. I remember watching it on TV, surrounded by all my Wayne Gretzky stuff.
“I had a Gretzky sweater and a story I wrote for school about him and my dream of being an Edmonton Oiler when I grew up. I now have it framed together on my basement wall. I had hockey cards and magazine articles and newspapers.
‘‘Wayne even gave me a Titan hockey stick once. Being a kid, I cut it down and played with it,” he laughed.
“Wayne Gretzky was a big influence on me from the day I met him.”
That was in 1984 when Oilers equipment man Barrie Stafford gave him the job of being Team Canada stick boy at a training camp in Banff before the Canada Cup.
That experience would be hockey history in itself when Glenn Anderson backed his car over Smyth’s foot in the parking lot. But that’s another story.
“Barrie had me there that first day and he said ‘Come over here and I’ll introduce you to Wayne Gretzky.’ He was first-class. For one of the Canada Cup games, he sent out four tickets for me and my family to go to Calgary to watch the game.
‘‘My mom still has his note and the ticket stubs in her special memories box. It was pretty cool.
“When it happened, I just couldn’t believe it. All I could think of was that he was the Edmonton Oilers and that he was leaving Canada.”
Kurt Browning, who had skated in the Calgary Olympic Winter Games that February and would win the first of four world figure skating championships in short order, remembers his reaction.
“I was at home on ‘Skid Row’,” he laughed.
That’s what they called the apartment west of Whyte Avenue where the roommates were Sunil, Kurt, Ian and Dillip.
“I remember being confused. How could one person sell another?” said the skater who was a 22-year-old at the time.
“Wayne was someone I had met but not someone who had become a friend. But I knew him well enough to be happy with the potential for him with his marriage to Janet.
“All these years later? Honestly, I am just thankful that Wayne and the Oilers’ domination even happened at all. I know people thought ‘what could have been’ but let’s also remember how lucky we were as a city to have those memories at all.”
Warren Moon was the Edmonton Eskimos’ star quarterback, winning five consecutive Grey Cups during the early Gretzky years.He had caused his own angst in Edmonton when he completed his contract and departed for a full-meal-deal NFL career, which resulted in his being inducted in the Canadian and U.S. football halls of fame.
“I was in San Marcos, Texas, at training camp with the Houston Oilers,” remembers Moon.
“It was huge news, even down there. I followed it very closely. In a way, I was excited because L.A. was my home town. But I was also sad because Edmonton was the city we both had all that success in.
“We both won a lot of championships and were part of a lot of excitement. The players on both teams knew each other a bit because we couldn’t help but cross paths in that environment. We knew Kevin Lowe best, probably, because his brother Ken was our trainer at the time. I knew Grant Fuhr. And I met Wayne several times. But the truth is Wayne and I actually got to know each other more after he left Edmonton.
“Looking back, the thing I think of all the time is what a great era that was for sport in Edmonton. I was a young player and Wayne and all those guys were young players and they had a tremendous hockey club like we were a tremendous football club.”
Eskimos’ equipment manager of now 43 consecutive seasons, Dwayne Mandrusiak remembers the news breaking with the entire football team gathered around a TV in the dressing room.
“It stopped the whole locker room. Absolutely silenced it. It was like ‘Holy shit!’ I looked at my assistant Rob Strecker and he was crying.”
But what Mandrusiak remembers most vividly was the reaction of locker room attendant Joey Moss.
“I told Joey that Wayne got sold to Los Angeles,” said Mandrusiak of the brother of Gretzky’s former girlfriend, Vicki Moss. Gretzky found Joey Moss, who has Down syndrome, a job with the Oilers in the winter and the Eskimos in the summer.
“ ‘No he didn’t,’ said Joey when I broke the news to him.
“ ‘Yes, he did,’ I told him.
“ ‘No, he didn’t’ Joey said again.
“ ‘I’m sorry, Joey. He did.’
“ ‘No, he didn’t. He didn’t,’ said Joey very firmly.
“ ‘But Joey. It’s true. He did. He really did.’
“ ‘No he didn’t. I know he didn’t. You know why I know he didn’t?’
“I looked at Joey and waited for him to tell me.
“ ‘I know he didn’t because he didn’t tell me.’”
Your correspondent will always remember where he was. And it wasn’t in Edmonton where the story was. I wasn’t there. After covering most of the major moments in Gretzky’s career, that was the one I missed.
I was in the Ozark Mountains.
I’d taken Glen Sather’s emphatic denial of a trade at face value and taken my son Shane on a holiday from St. Louis to Branson to Silver City, en route to Kansas City for a homestand of his favourite baseball team, the Kansas City Royals. It was a combination of birthday and high school graduation present.
I don’t know why. Maybe I had a premonition. I wasn’t listening to the radio as I drove out of the Ozarks in the general direction of Kansas City. But when we stopped in the tiny town of Aurora, Mo., and my son wanted to play a video game, for no real reason I called the office. Assistant Sports Editor Phil Rivers informed me they were trying to find me in hotels in six different states when I called.
I jumped in the car, produced a notebook and a pen and gave them to Shane, who now covers Oilers games for the Canadian Press and writes for the Sherwood Park News, and dictated thoughts and notes while we drove to Joplin, Mo. There I rented a motel room, placed four or five very crucial phone calls and wrote my column while he listened to the Royals ball game on the car radio.
This is how I began “our” column that day ...
Shock. Outrage. Anger. None of those emotions quite cover it, do they? The emotions we’re dealing with here are not unlike the death in a family. A death not by natural causes,
Wayne Gretzky is more than the greatest player in the history of hockey. He’s more than the most dominant team sport athlete in history. He’s that to the world. But to Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky was our mark on the map. This morning our city can only be in a state of mourning.
Babe Ruth was once traded from Boston to the New York Yankees. I can’t think of anything else that can compare. And even that doesn’t do it. Babe Ruth wasn’t Babe Ruth then. He hadn’t put up the numbers that separated him from everybody else who had played the game. He hadn’t won the World Series four times yet. He wasn’t in his prime, at the very peak of his career.
This, unquestionably, is the biggest deal in hockey history. This, arguably, is the biggest deal in the history of professional sport.
Was it love? Or money?
How did it happen?
You can believe what you want. I know what I believe. With every bone in my body I know what I believe.
I know the first reaction is to finger the blushing bride. She stole our Wayne away. You can believe, if you wish, all the white knight stuff about doing what Wayne wanted. I don’t buy it. I believe the suggestion that the whole thing was Wayne Gretzky’s idea was quite likely a crock.
I wasn’t buying the popular ‘Jezebel Janet’ thinking. I went on to point the finger directly at Peter Pocklington.