As the world's greatest hockey player, Wayne Gretzky already knew all there was to know about composure.
He had it as a six-year old playing on a team of ten-year olds in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario. He had it when he played under the spotlight with the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Racers and Edmonton Oilers. And he had it when he led the young and promising Oilers into the National Hockey League.
But on this day 20 years ago, The Great One - for one moment in his career - just couldn't hold it together. The 27-year-old, who had spent almost his whole life fending off jealous hockey parents, tough opponents and harsh critics, broke down after reading off just a few words at Edmonton's Molson House.
"For the benefit of Wayne Gretzky, my new wife and our expected child in the new year, I thought it was beneficial to all involved if they let me play with the Kings," he said to the shock of everyone in the room. "It's disappointing having to leave Edmonton, but there comes a time when."
With that, Gretzky wept behind the mess of microphones, coming face-to-face with the reality that he was no longer an Edmonton Oiler. "I promised Mess I wouldn't do this," he said sheepishly as he wiped his eyes. Just three months after leading them to their fourth Stanley Cup in five seasons, the only NHL team Wayne Gretzky ever played for, the team he loved, had traded him away.
On August 9, 1988, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington did the unthinkable when he traded Gretzky, along with defenceman Marty McSorley and forward Mike Krushelnyski to the Los Angeles Kings for centre Jimmy Carson, winger Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft picks and $15 million in cash. It was a move that stunned the sports world and numbed hockey fans across Canada.
For Pocklington, it was strictly a business move for an owner who needed more cash than championships. At a time when Canadians knew little about the boardroom's side of hockey, however, it was nothing short of an emotional letdown. Canada's favorite son was gone.
In Edmonton, fans marched to Northlands Coliseum burning Pocklington in effigy. Tabloid papers grilled The Great One, calling him a traitor and dubbing his wife, 'Jezebel Janet' amid their own speculation that he engineered the deal to move to Hollywood to further her acting career. 'The Trade' even made it to Question Period at the House of Commons, as NDP House Leader Nelson Riis demanded that the Mulroney government block it from happening.
"At the time I was doing it, I don't think I really got it," said former Kings owner Bruce McNall, who helped orchestrate the trade. "Looking back, now I see it had a big, big impact."
For the NHL, the deal gave the league that much more exposure south of the border. With No. 99 in the lineup, the Kings were an instant draw at home and on the road - and a winning team. They made the playoffs for four straight seasons, culminating with their first Stanley Cup Final berth in 1993. Gretzky also continued to re-write the NHL's record books. Wearing the Kings' black and silver, he broke Gordie Howe's NHL record of 1,850 points (in Edmonton of all places), became the first player to break the 2,000-point plateau, and passed Mr. Hockey's career mark for goals.
But The Great One also took great pride in being a big factor off the ice.
"I remember the first weekend I was in L.A.," he told TSN. "I was going by these tennis courts and I stopped the car and told my friend, 'If we were in Canada, people would be playing inline and ball hockey here.' A year later there was a sign on the fence that read, 'No Inline Hockey Allowed.' It's come a long way; there are minor hockey teams in California now and in Arizona that can compete with the top teams in Canada and they're very good. There aren't as many, but we are getting to that point."
The trade, arguably the biggest ever made, also reinforced the notion that nothing is forever in professional sports. Recent deals involving superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Shaquille O'Neal and even Brett Favre are certainly surprising, but not that shocking to most sports fans. If Gretzky could go, anyone could go.
"There's no player in any sport that isn't trade bait," explained McNall.
TSN.ca commemorates the historic deal as Ryan Rishaug looks back at the day that The Great One said goodbye to Edmonton and the Oilers dynasty.