Closing Shot: ‘It changed everything’
Thirty years ago, on Aug. 9, 1988, a single trade shook the entire NHL.
Wayne Gretzky, perhaps already hockey’s greatest player ever at 27, was traded from the Edmonton Oilers, who had won four of the five previous Stanley Cups, to the Los Angeles Kings.
The fallout in Edmonton and across Canada was so strong that Canadian politicians tried to block the trade. Fans burned an effigy of Oilers owner Peter Pocklington outside of Northlands Coliseum.
But for the Kings, who joined the league in 1967 and were acquired by coin collector Bruce McNall in 1987, the trade skyrocketed the team’s popularity in Los Angeles. Gretzky’s arrival helped pave the way to success for hockey not only in Southern California but also fueled NHL expansion in several Sun Belt cities.
Gretzky came here, and we were the hottest thing in L.A. In markets that might have eventually found their way into the NHL, suddenly hockey made much more sense.
For Luc Robitaille, who was entering his third year with the Kings at the time of the trade and is now the team’s president, there’s only one way he can explain “The Great One’s” arrival. “It changed everything,” he said.
“The Kings had a good base of fans and a strong following, but the minute we got Gretzky it literally changed everything,” he said. “Suddenly we were the hottest team in town. Everywhere we went, people were talking about the Kings, and there was a literal who’s who in the crowd every game.”
Robitaille recalled road trips where the team was joined by actor John Candy, having Ronald Reagan sitting behind the bench and seeing people like Tony Robbins and Sylvester Stallone in the locker room before games.
The Kings’ success in California post-Gretzky helped prove the NHL could work in nontraditional hockey markets, leading to two more expansion teams in the state as well as two in Florida by 1993. The Kings played exhibition games in markets the NHL wanted to test for expansion.
“At the time, everyone said hockey couldn’t work in a Southern state; Gretzky came here, and we were the hottest thing in L.A.,” Robitaille said. “In markets that might have eventually found their way into the NHL, suddenly hockey made much more sense.”