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TSN 25: The trade that shocked a nation

Scott Cullen, TSN.ca

7/9/2009 4:58:28 PM

In honour of TSN's 25th Anniversary, TSN.ca is taking a look at some of the top sports stories over the last 25 years. Next up, the Edmonton Oilers' trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.

On August 9, 1988, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington shocked the sporting world when he traded superstar centre Wayne Gretzky, along with defenceman Marty McSorley and left winger Mike Krushelnyski to the Los Angeles Kings for centre Jimmy Carson, left winger Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft picks (in 1989, 1991 and 1993) and $15-million in cash.

The trade sent shockwaves through the sporting world.  Not since Babe Ruth had the best player in the game been sold off in his prime and the fan outrage was immediate; not just from Oilers fans, but from Canadian hockey fans in general, who felt that a national treasure was being lost as a result of the trade.

In the aftermath of the deal, Gretzky's wife, actress Janet Jones, who Gretzky had married in an extravagant ceremony less than a month before, was labeled as the Yoko Ono to Wayne's John Lennon; the public assuming that Jones was responsible for pulling Gretzky away from his team in Edmonton and down to Hollywood, a location that was more advantageous to her career.

In hindsight, economics were at the heart of this trade, as Pocklington was swimming in debt and knew that selling Gretzky, his most valuable asset, could help him in that respect. 

Conversely, Kings owner Bruce McNall was a mover and shaker in NHL circles and saw the potential of Gretzky as an investment.  (Of course, McNall had his own financial troubles, but those wouldn't come to light until years later.)

The fallout of the Gretzky trade has, not surprisingly, been dramatic.

One of the obvious realizations that came out of the Gretzky trade is the knowledge that if the best player in the league can be traded, then anyone could be moved. 

"There's no player in any sport that isn't trade bait," said McNall, and that principle now comes up seemingly every year as high-profile players simply can't dismiss the thought that they could be traded. 

After all, if Wayne Gretzky could be traded, it takes a special kind of audacity to think that would make a current player exempt from that same kind of treatment and that may, in some small way, be the incentive for so many current NHL players to seek no-trade or no-movement clauses in their contracts.

Perhaps the most notable long-term result of the Gretzky trade was providing the impetus for the NHL's southern expansion, with new teams in Anaheim, San Jose, Dallas, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, Atlanta, Nashville and Phoenix all owing some measure of thanks for their existence in the league to the profile that The Great One brought to hockey in Southern California.

"I remember the first weekend I was in L.A.," Gretzky 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."

While the success of the southern expansion is certainly fair game for debate, there's no denying that Gretzky's impact in L.A. was the reason it has gained any traction whatsoever.

The trade of Wayne Gretzky, just months after the league's best player led his team to its fourth Stanley Cup championship, also disillusioned Canadian sports fans to the point that it could be considered the sporting equivalent of the JFK Assassination a generation before - everyone seemed to recall where they were when the heard the news.

For all the major trades that have occurred in sports over the last 25 years, there isn't another that comes close to resonating the same way for so many people.

So, where were you when you found out about the Gretzky trade? How did it make you feel?  What has been the long-term effect?  Have your say using the Your Call feature.