Wayne Gretzky to Kings 'good for hockey': Cherry
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 fifth 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 5: The day that changed hockey
The game won — Gretzky had huge impact on growth of hockey in U.S.
Twenty five years later, even Don Cherry admits it.
“In the long run, I suppose it was good for hockey,” he told your correspondent the other day.
“There’s a lot of kids coming out of California now. And, while it’s not true in the southeast, those franchises are pretty solid there now.”
It was back in 2007, days before the Anaheim Ducks became the first California team to win the Stanley Cup, when then-Ducks manager Brian Burke sat in his office and marvelled at what was happening.
“I attribute this entirely to Wayne Gretzky,” he told your correspondent that day.
“He started it. And it’s not going to stop anytime soon.”
Burke wasn’t talking about what was happening on the Stanley Cup ice.
“Youth hockey is beginning to be played at an extremely high level in southern California. You are going to see a steady progression of California kids going to the NHL.”
Burke said there wouldn’t have been the Anaheim Ducks if Gretzky hadn’t been sold to the Los Angeles Kings.
Gretzky, of course, has also been blamed for so many sun-belt cities that are either dragging the league down with terrible attendance or are winning Stanley Cups, while Canadian teams have now gone 20 years since the last one, ironically when the Montreal Canadiens beat Wayne Gretzky and the Kings in the final.
“Tampa Bay has won, Carolina has won, Dallas has won, the Ducks have won and the Kings have won,” said Gretzky.
But there’s no denying what’s happened at the grassroots level.
“It’s the kids,” said Gretzky.
“When I came to Los Angeles in 1988, there were four high schools playing hockey. Fifteen years later there were 135 in the area. Even the school my kids go to now has a hockey team, which shocks me.”
USA Hockey had 186,511 registered players during the 1987-88 season. That number increased by 323,768 to 510,279 during the 2012-13 season.
“I’m ecstatic about it. Absolutely. Kids are playing hockey in California, Arizona, Texas and a lot of those places.
“Back when I went to Los Angeles, there were maybe six or seven good kids on most of the teams. Now, at almost every level there are teams which can compete at just about every level. There are teams which can compete with teams of that same level in Canada.
“And some are making the NHL. There is such a huge population in those areas and kids are playing the game. And when kids play the game they see how good it is. I’m proud of that.”
But Gretzky said it had nothing to do with anything that was in his head on Aug. 9, 1988 — The Day That Changed Hockey.
“A lot of people talk about it that I went to L.A. to make hockey in California and make hockey in the United States,” he says 25 years later.
“That never even entered my mind.
“I never even thought about that.
“I mean, I just played 10 years — four championships — with the Edmonton Oilers. If it was not the best team that was ever put together, no question it was the most exciting team that was ever put together.
‘‘And I was moving to a team which finished 20th of 21 teams in the league the year before.
“It was going from a team drawing 18,000 a game to a team that was probably averaging 8,000 a game and, quite frankly, wasn’t a very good team.
“I remember my first exhibition game when I got there, looking in the stands and there might not have been 8,000 people in the stands and I’m thinking ‘Wow. What did I get myself into?’
“But that was the challenge of it, trying to make it a better organization and a better team.”
HOCKEY'S U.S. SUCCESS
On a day like today, which is certainly a day to celebrate in hockey south of the border, Gretzky said the credit should be passed around.
“It’s great that hockey is doing well. It’s really come a long way. But you know, and I said this to USA Hockey, part of my success in L.A. is very simple and it isn’t just Wayne Gretzky. It’s other people.
“The people we had on the team that really went out of their way to push and promote, guys like Marty McSorley and Luc Robitaille and Kelly Hrudey, those guys were endless workers after practice.
“In places that don’t have to do that, guys would go home to their families or wherever. These guys would go to hockey clinics, they’d go to schools, they’d play inline hockey with kids. They’d really push it.
“And along with that, the timing of my going to Los Angeles couldn’t be any more remarkable in the sense that, for starters, Mario Lemieux was in Pittsburgh.
“Stevie Yzerman was just coming into his own in Detroit and turned around the franchise that had been struggling for so long. Then there was the trade with Mark Messier going to New York and rejuvenating hockey in New York.
“And maybe most importantly, the trade that Calgary made, trading Brett Hull to St. Louis and Brett doing what he did, and basically saved the franchise. That franchise was done had Brett Hull not been traded to the St. Louis Blues.
“So it wasn’t just me in L.A., it was the timing of me going to L.A. You had those other superstars doing what they were doing in those communities. And that helped take the sport from a regional sport to more of a national sport in the United States.
“So I was one piece of the puzzle. I was part of it. And my timing couldn’t have been any better.”
Like when it came to the Ducks.
“I think of all of us who were around back then see the Ducks as having been the success of our group,” said Gretzky.
“It came at the same time as the Disney movie Mighty Ducks. Mr. Eisner of the Disney Corporation came to all of our games.
“You could see the excitement and enthusiasm from San Diego all the way up to San Francisco,” he said of when the Kings made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, when the Ducks followed in 2003 and won it in 2007.
It was one thing for all the stars, moons and planets lined up for a California team to knock on the door every once in a while, but the door needed to be knocked down, said Gretzky.
“When we reached the finals with the Kings in ‘93, the excitement was truly remarkable. But it didn’t really carry forward. There were a few players who played over their heads that year. Then we missed the playoffs.
“The same things happened to the Ducks in 2003 in reverse. They were a seventh seed and missed the playoffs the next year. The year after that there was the lockout.”
When it came to the big picture with USA Hockey Gretzky said he’s had a front-row seat to watch it all, though.
“I got to practise with Cammi Granato all the time in L.A.,” he laughs of one of the women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame with the initial co-ed class of 2010.
“She was a young girl at that time. It seems like yesterday she was trying to get to college and get a scholarship through hockey and she went on to have a terrific career for the USA Olympic team.”
But it’s true. One of Wayne Gretzky’s greatest legacies is hockey in the United States. To the point that Gretzky continues to get asked a question that he almost resents.
“People ask me all the time. ‘Are you still Canadian?’ I say ‘Of course I’m still Canadian. I’ll be Canadian until the day I die. I won’t change my citizenship. I’ll never relinquish that. I’m very proud to be Canadian.’
“Friends of mine, around me, say that’s all I talk about. I talk about the history of Canada and the great people who contributed, not only in sports but all walks of life whether it be architects or singers or actors. The first thing I’ll point out is ‘That guy is Canadian.’ It’s kind of an ongoing joke around all my friends.
“On the other side of it, my kids are all Americans.
“My son Ty, who is now 23, he played hockey. Hockey is the game that he loved. Had he grown up in Edmonton his opportunities would have been much better and much bigger,” he said, admitting California hasn’t completely morphed into Canada yet.
“And when he did go, for one year to Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, I said this is something you have to do if you want to go to college for hockey, that I don’t want you at the age of 30 to look back and say ‘I should have done it.’ I’m very proud of the fact that he did it and he tried it and he decided it wasn’t for him. But all we ever talked about for him was USA hockey. That was his heritage and that was what he was sort of focused on as much as I’m focused on Canadian hockey.”
It’s been 25 years, but Gretzky wonders what it will look like in another 25 years.
“Listen, I tell this to people all the time. Two things: One, some of those cities in the NHL now are never going to be Edmonton or Toronto. They can’t be. The history and the years, not only of the teams but the history of the game itself goes back forever. You go into places like Carolina and Dallas … I mean, hockey started there 20 years ago.
“It takes time. And I don’t care what city you’re in, if you’re not winning, and especially in this day and age, especially with the economy the way it is, people aren’t going to spend the kind of money to go watch teams lose. I don’t care how much they love hockey.
“The second part of that is when the commissioner shut down the league in 2004, he wanted to create parity and he wanted the salary cap and he thought that was the best way, not only for franchises like Carolina and Tampa Bay to be successful, but places like Edmonton and Ottawa and Calgary. We’re at the point now if those organizations are well-run, they’ll be successful. They will draw. They will never be, as I said, Edmonton or Toronto, but they have an opportunity now. And I think some of those franchises are going to be OK.
“I said it to you earlier in the interview. My very first game in L.A, was an exhibition game and I don’t know if there were 8,000 people there. And now, after games on a Monday night, I can look at the paper on a Tuesday and see 17,500 at a Ducks game and 18,500 at a Kings game. That’s pretty good. That’s come a long way.”
Was Edmonton's loss in the Gretzky trade worth the future benefit to the NHL?
Yes, it helped the game grow a lot.
No! It should not have happened.