Those crazy dog days of summer just like to drag right along don’t they?  Not much hockey to watch on television except for maybe some classic Montreal-Boston matches on the NHL Network.  Then just when I thought I’d have to wait until September to have anything constructive to write about, it happened.  Thanks to the late night sports highlight show, I was reminded of a little piece of hockey history.

This week marks exactly fifteen years since “the trade” turned the hockey and sports world upside down.  Without even mentioning the names involved, you all know what I’m talking about.  It was the trade to end all trades, the end of an era, or as Don Henley once crooned, it was “the end of the innocence”.

There used to be an unwritten law in hockey and in sports whereby if you were a superstar on any given team, you never got traded unless circumstances warranted it.  If you as an athlete showed up, gave 110% every practice, every game and had the statistics to prove it, you were as good as a given return on any team.  This all came crumbling down with the announcement of the trade.  I’m certainly not suggesting players were never traded before, because we all know they were.  Was there ever as big a trade prior to this?  Perhaps there was.  Has there been as significant a trade since?  Probably not.  If there was, we wouldn’t still be talking about it. 

So why are we still today making such a big deal over all of this?  What really happened?

Of course I’m talking about the deal which sent Wayne Gretzky along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Los Angeles Kings.  In return, the Edmonton Oilers got Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, who was just a rookie at the time, three first round draft picks (one of which is still playing, Martin Rucinsky), and a significant amount of cash. 

I’m not so sure if anybody at the time realized the magnitude of the trade and what it would mean to the game and the industry leading into the following season, let alone five years later, ten years later, or even now.

As soon as the announcement came amid the shock and disbelief among the players and the fans, the finger pointing started.  Wayne had recently married Janet Jones, and immediately blame was shifted towards the wife.  Even I was guilty of this one.  What was I to think?  Here I was, fifteen years old, my favorite team had won the Stanley Cup again, and the greatest player to ever lace on skates was going to a team I could care less about.  Blame the wife, she lured him out of Edmonton to the sun and surf of California.  Yeah that’s it!  Yoko Ono has been reincarnated!  So what if it wasn’t true?  It made me feel better about the whole thing (which wasn’t much of a consolation when the Oilers were beat out by their arch rival Calgary Flames the following year).

Then Wayne came out and told us all to stop blaming his wife, as he himself was the real reason behind the trade, he had requested it and he’ll take the heat.  Seemed too fishy of a story to me, but why would we not put our trust in the Great One?  He’d never let us down before, why now?

I’ll tell you the real reason behind the trade.  We like to refer to it as the root of all evil.  Wayne was probably the first player ever who was able to command an obscene amount of money and get it, because he was worth it.  This isn’t to say any other player prior to him wasn’t, but few players can fill any rink, anywhere, anytime, and especially if they aren’t playing.  Wayne was always worth the price of admission, on skates or off. 

For some unknown reason, Peter Pocklington of the Edmonton Oilers organization wasn’t prepared to pay him what he was worth and therefore decided he would either trade him or lose him to free agency.  When you can make more money on one trade than your entire team would make all of the next season, why not?  At the time Bruce McNall of the L.A. Kings, was throwing money in Edmonton’s face, and all they could say was “if you can make it happen, you can have him”, meaning if they could somehow convince Wayne to leave a Stanley Cup winning team, move to Los Angeles, and sign on the dotted line, then the deal was all but done.  Yet, his wife Janet will tell you this was all done behind his back, without even consulting him.  Wayne heard about the trade from Bruce before he heard it from Peter.  Certainly not what one would expect having given ten years of their best to an organization, but this was how the cookie crumbled.  No matter how many ways you position it, no matter how many arguments you make about it, no matter how many times you deny it, it was all about the money, plain and simple.  Such is the life of professional sports.  If you build it they will come, and if anyone could sell hockey, it was Wayne.  If you can’t afford it, get out while the getting’s good.

A silver lining would be found in all of this.  Although Gretzky would never win another Stanley Cup, he brought the game of hockey to new heights, to new levels, to places we never thought it possible to make ice.  Once Los Angeles had the fan support behind them, all of a sudden folks in places such as Anaheim, Tampa Bay, San Jose, and Nashville all wanted a team, and they got it.  St. Louis was the beneficiary of a few months of Wayne’s skilled play, as they got to play rent a player with him in 1996, before he would sign on Broadway with the New York Rangers.  And I doubt very much I need to mention the countless records and achievements.

Had it not been for the trade, would the NHL as we know it even exist?  Scary when you think about it, isn’t it?  Wayne always said one player is not bigger than the game, but he was simply being his humble self.  He also said he owes everything he has to the game of hockey, and in reality, even though he’ll deny it over and over again, hockey owes a great deal to Wayne Gretzky, or at least more than handful of teams do anyway.  He’s been retired for four years but still we look over his career and are in awe with everything he’s accomplished, both on and off the ice.  Maybe one of the reasons we still look back on the trade is because his legacy is not yet finished.  He heads up a great ownership team in Phoenix where they’re dying to make the Coyotes into the championship team they should have been in Winnipeg.  He’s already helped lead Team Canada to Gold in Salt Lake City, and he’ll be there again in 2010 when they hold the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, I’m certain of it.  Let’s also not forget about the World Cup of Hockey which will take place next summer, which he’ll also be a part of.  He’ll lace them up one last time as an Edmonton Oiler when they hold the heritage game on a football field this November.

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, another big one would go down weeks removed from “the trade”.  Chris Chelios would pack his bags for Chicago, and Denis Savard would take his place in Montreal.  Question is, did it impact anybody outside the fan base of Montreal or Chicago?  This is open for debate.  What I do know is the Gretzky trade proved anybody can be traded at anytime under any circumstances, no matter what the sport, and fifteen years later we can still look back and reflect on it as though it only happened yesterday.  Outside of this column most folks have long forgotten about the Chelios trade, not because he didn’t have an impact on his respective teams and not because he isn’t a great player in his own right, but because the innocence had already been broken, the dreams of players and fans shattered.  The realization was if Wayne can be traded, anyone can, because nobody is bigger than the game, but consider this: if nobody wanted to play the game, there wouldn’t even be a game.  My only hope is this is realized sooner rather than later, but for now I can only look back and thank Wayne for the memories.


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