Arrival of a legend: Inside Gretzky's trade to L.A.
LOS ANGELES – He was the best. He may still be the best, the most exciting, the man who saved hockey, or at least the man who made it what it is today.
Friday, Aug. 9, will mark the 25th anniversary of the trade -- a quarter of a century since Wayne Gretzky, Canada's national treasure, became Los Angeles' golden god of hockey.
Young fans today don't remember it. Young fans today weren't even born, for that matter. Young fans today simply accept that hockey is played on ice in the arid desert of Arizona and on the sticky flatness that is Florida. They accept that the Kings won the Stanley Cup a year ago, that they were sniffing at the Finals again just months ago.
They accept it because in large part, Gretzky built it when he agreed to be traded to L.A. in 1988, not even three months after his team swept the Stanley Cup Finals and won their fourth championship in five seasons. Almost immediately, his presence in the land ruled by the Dodgers and Lakers caused not just a ripple, but an explosion. Maybe Gretzky and Kings president/owner Bruce McNall knew what they started all those summers ago.
Maybe, but it's hard to see how they could have understood the magnitude.
There are long-standing debates about what unfolded 25 summers ago, the many steps that brought Gretzky from Edmonton, a small city in the far reaches of western Canada, to L.A. There are the questions of whether he demanded the trade, his role in the negotiations, the motivations of Oilers owner Peter Pocklington. We may never know the truth; each player in the game has his reasons for his own version of the tale. And maybe the consequences are enough. Maybe it doesn't matter who demanded what, and when, and why.
Here is the story through the eyes and words of McNall, the man behind the trade, the man whose almost blind exploration of the slimmest of odds forever changed his team, his city and even his sport.
It started when I bought half interest in the team in 1986. Jerry Buss was my partner at the time. He mentioned to me, "I was trying to get Gretzky one of these summers." I said, "Yeah, yeah," and he laughed.
I bought the whole team at the end of 1987, and I said again to Jerry, "Are you serious? Did we really try to get him?" He said he'd mentioned it to Peter Pocklington, and he had kind of blown him off. But the fact that he'd mentioned it gave me an opportunity to bring it up any time I went to the various NHL meetings we had. I'd see Pocklington, and I'd say, "How about Gretzky? Let's make a trade." He'd laugh and say, "Get out of here. You could trade me the entire team and you wouldn't have him." He always blew me off, but I continued pressuring him all the time.
Sort of out of the blue, I believe in June of 1988, Pocklington called me. He said, "Are you coming to the Board of Governors meeting?" I said yes, and he said we should meet and talk. (The meetings were held in the third week of June that year.) I couldn't believe it.
So we met. He said right away that if I was really interested in Gretzky, he needed $15 million in cash. (Adjusted for inflation, that's $29.6 million today.) Now, this was impossible. We had to make it a trade. He said, "I want players and draft picks," and I said, "Done." I committed. One second. Done.
Pocklington has said he believed at the time that he had no choice but to trade Gretzky. He projected that the star center would command upwards of $4 million when his contract expired at the end of the 1988-89 season, and the small-market Oilers had a team payroll of just $7.5 million. Pocklington made efforts during the 1987-88 season to restructure Gretzky's contract, but nothing came of it, and by the summer, he was ready to act.
To this day, Pocklington has publicly maintained that the general public didn't understand what he was going through, and perhaps they didn't. In later years, however, the owner's financial troubles gave many reason to pause about his judgment in trading Gretzky; Pocklington refused (or was unable) to adapt to higher salaries, threatened to move the team and eventually operated it on a line of credit before losing it in 1997. (He later filed for bankruptcy, in 2008, and was arrested by the FBI for bankruptcy fraud the next year.)
From that moment, Pocklington and I began more serious discussions. I couldn't just buy Wayne. The first step, for me, was did he want to really play in L.A.? I really wasn't interested in getting him if he wasn't happy, so I asked permission to speak to him. I was not given permission.
For a couple of weeks I talked to them about players that they wanted. They wanted to have Luc Robitaille and three draft picks. We went back and forth, talked a little bit, and I kept pushing to talk to Wayne. Finally, they kind of hemmed and hawed a little bit. They didn't say no exactly; they didn't say yes. So I ignored them and spoke to Wayne anyways. (The call took place while Gretzky was on his honeymoon after his July 16 wedding.)
By that time I knew Wayne a little bit. He would come to L.A. during the summer months, and one time I set up a date with him and his (future) wife, Janet, at a Lakers-Celtics playoff game (in 1987). I sat with them at that time. So we knew each other.
So I called him up and asked him, would he be interested in a trade, and he said, "Absolutely not. I'm an Edmonton Oiler. I have no interest in moving. I want to stay right where I am. I'm happy."
This account differs from another long-held perspective, which was that Gretzky's then-fiancée, Janet, wanted out of Edmonton. An American actress, Janet reportedly wanted to be in Hollywood to further her career.
In addition, it has been long held that by this point in the negotiations, Gretzky was aware he was being shopped. According to multiple reports at the time, he learned of the trade rumors from his father as early as late May, almost immediately after his Stanley Cup win. McNall, however, remembers some element of surprise on the part of Gretzky when the two spoke mid-summer.
I told Wayne that Peter had approached me about the trade, and that he was really serious. I don't think that Wayne believed it, almost. I told him I thought he was on the block a little bit. Wayne now thought that if he did have to go somewhere, he wouldn't mind it being L.A.
Things loosened up a little bit, and Wayne and I had dinner a few times, really started getting into it, talking about what we could do to change hockey in Southern California, even all over the nation. He got kind of into it, excited, a little bit.
Throughout this process, McNall dealt with Pocklington only on the phone. They had met in person only at the Board of Governors meeting earlier in the summer, and so a random phone call to discuss an idea or tweak to the trade wasn't uncommon.
One day, Wayne was in my office, and we were talking about the trade. Pocklington called, and I put him on speaker. I wasn't even really thinking, frankly. I just put on the speaker. Peter said, "This thing with Gretzky, I need the money." I said I had to talk to Wayne about his situation, and Peter said, "Don't worry about that kid, he's just a whiny guy." He just threw him under the bus.
I hung up, and Wayne said, "We're done. I'm an L.A. King. Let's do it."
Then Wayne began to work with me to figure out the best trade. He said he wanted me to get Marty McSorley, to get (Mike) Krushelnyski if I could. He told me not to give them Robitaille, that maybe Jimmy Carson would work, that I shouldn't give three draft picks in a row and that we should spread them out. (The Kings ended up sending $15 million, Carson, Martin Gelinas and one first-round pick each in 1989, 1991 and 1993. McSorley and Krushelnyski went to L.A. with Gretzky.)
I had to then speak with Glen Sather, the general manager of the Oilers, to do the details. Sather was irate and furious. Pocklington had no right to do this, etc., etc. Sather didn't want any part of it.
Finally, after a little bit of time, he got on board with it. Then he was furious about the McSorley part. Eventually, though, it came time when things had to either move or not move. On Aug. 8, I got a call from Peter. We wired the money. We signed the documents. I called Wayne early, early on Aug. 9 and said, "Wayne, the deal's done."
He couldn't believe it.
Until the last minute, McNall thought the trade was going to fall through. There was so much criticism from all sides of Pocklington and the Oilers that McNall never knew if or when they'd pull out.
Some of the pressure came from inside the Oilers organization. Sather remained adamantly against the deal; in a 2009 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the trade, he said: "Wayne Gretzky was sold for $15 million dollars, five draft picks and a couple of players. I wouldn't have traded him for an entire organization."
Even the trade becoming official didn't quite quell McNall's nerves. Once it was announced, the Canadian government got involved, with the country's Democratic Party House Leader Nelson Riis delivering this public outcry:
"Wayne Gretzky is a national symbol, like the beaver. How can we allow the sale of our national symbols?"
"The Edmonton Oilers without Wayne Gretzky is like apple pie without ice cream, like winter without snow, like the Wheel of Fortune without Vanna White – it's quite simply unthinkable."
McNall's nerves continued to be tested as to when his grand plan might fail, right up to the point when he and Gretzky arrived in Edmonton for the Oilers' press conference.
Pocklington was getting so much heat. They hated him up there. They were burning him in effigy, and the federal government tried to pass a bill to buy Wayne back, so to speak, from me, to prevent the sale and give Pocklington the money, to keep him in Canada somehow. There was huge pressure coming down from all sides to stop the trade. I was always thinking it wasn't going to happen.
Pocklington and Sather met Wayne and I at the airport. They said to Wayne that they'd like to talk to him privately. I thought, oh my god, that's it. The papers had been signed, but still. Wayne turns to me, and he says, "Relax." He goes off and talks to them for a little bit, and he tells me they told him that if he wanted out, they'd cancel the thing tomorrow. Wayne told them, "No, I'm a King now. We're done."
At the news conference, Gretzky famously broke down into tears, and he cited his family as the reason he needed to make the move. Even so, he eventually brought the motivations back to himself during the press conference. "It was something that I felt could benefit myself," he ultimately told the press.
Pocklington said that day that losing Gretzky was "like losing a son."
That became a whole big scene. It was a big to-do. Wayne did the famous crying.
It was just the raw emotions of the whole scene, fans who were obviously shaken up by the whole thing. In Canada hockey is a much bigger event that we can imagine here. It was very emotional, and Wayne was very emotional about it all. He loved his teammates, loved the city. Leaving was a big deal; they'd just won four Stanley Cups.
Next came the L.A. press conference, which was held at a hotel near the airport. At the time, a typical Kings news conference involved two beat writers, maybe another journalist or two. For Gretzky, there were hundreds of people, both writers and fans, there to witness history.
When we went there, Wayne said to me, "Bruce, you probably don't realize how big this is." I knew the press conference up in Edmonton would be a big deal, but I didn't realize the one down here would be as big as it was. They stopped all the news, and all channels went right to this press conference. It was like wow, this was a big to-do.
The story of the trade could end with that news conference, but to do so would be to understate the massive change that Gretzky's eight-season tenure in L.A. brought about. At the outset, there were myriad changes for McNall and the Kings to make, everything from securing Gretzky for the long-term to beefing up their staff to accommodate for the increased attention.
The minute the trade happened, we were besieged by calls for tickets. There were more people hired to try to absorb the massive flux that was coming into us. We became a much bigger deal. Ticket prices obviously changed.
I should have done a lot more than I did, because I didn't own the building, so therefore I didn't have parking. I didn't have concessions. I had nothing. I should have made better deals with all those entities at the time, television and everything else. But there was no time because I had to make the deal that day. I really wasn't able to do what I should have done. If I had done that, I would have been more successful.
Next was Wayne's contract. I paid $15 million for him, and he was making about $1 million per year ($1.97 million in 2013 dollars) at that time. It's not very much, but he still was the highest-paid player in hockey.
I wanted to sign him to a longer-term deal, and I asked him what he thought he should get. He said, "I don't know." I said, "Well, I don't either. Let me check on it." I came back, and I'd checked on it, and I found out that the highest-paid player in L.A. at the time was Magic Johnson, and he was making $3 million per year. (It was actually $3.14 million in the 1988-89 season.) I said I'd pay Wayne $3 million per year, and he goes, "No, no, that's way too much. For hockey, that's too much."
Eventually they struck a deal whereby some of the money McNall had proposed went toward team bonuses and obtaining other players. However, McNall also told Gretzky's father that he would adjust his son's contract over time to reflect the growing salaries in the NHL; although it wasn't ultimately the case, McNall wanted to attempt to make sure that Gretzky was always the highest-paid player in the league. (He did reach that $3 million mark in 1990-91, and his salary remained at that level until a new, better, deal kicked in before the 1994-95 season.)
Once the money was settled, the fun – and the culture shock – began.
Right after the trade, Wayne wasn't really that settled in L.A. He was living at (Canadian actor) Alan Thicke's house. I had to go to a black-tie event for something in the film industry, and I asked Wayne and Janet if they wanted to come along. Wayne said he wasn't sure – he's a little shy that way – and I said, "Oh, come on." So we go there, and I remember there are movie stars all over the place, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks. Wayne is saying how he can't go in there; he's just a hockey player. But we go in, and I'm talking to some people, and all the sudden I hear a commotion over there. And the line, literally the line of movie stars getting his autograph. Major movie stars in line. I said, "Oh my god."
Wayne knew the trade was going to be really big. I knew it was going to be big, but not as big as he did. Very quickly once it happened and it exploded the way it was, we knew this was an opportunity.
In our training camps wewould tour around to different cities that didn't have hockey (for preseason games, starting in 1989): Phoenix, Dallas, Florida. All places that have hockey now. We wanted to expose that, and we would sell out. We would go to Tampa and sell 30,000 tickets. We went to Caesar's Palace (in Las Vegas), outdoors in the middle of summer, and sold out a million dollars in gate fees. It was crazy just to see what the reaction would be. It was a circus. It was an absolute circus.
We knew by exposing hockey to these other regions, there was a chance the NHL could expand. I knew we needed a national television contract, but we couldn't get one because it wasn't a national sport. There was one team on the West Coast: us. The closest team was St. Louis. How would national television people sell nationally a sport that's only played in some spots?
Gretzky's marketability went a long way in that plan. He was already a celebrity in Canada, but even before he came to L.A., his was a face that transcended hockey and even sports. People who weren't fans of the game knew who he was, and as such, he was McNall's greatest weapon. Beyond that, the Kings president also saw his new player as the consummate business partner.
Wayne got on board because of course he loves the game, and he wanted to do everything he could to exploit the game and make it exciting for everybody. I was very fortunate to have a partner like that. In essence, we were a partnership. I listened to him about players we needed and trades. You know, that's not done a lot. It probably shouldn't be. But if Wayne wanted a player, I fought to get him.
He didn't want the other players to realize that he had that kind of clout, but the players aren't stupid; they knew he had that kind of power. But as a player on that team, he didn't want to be the guy who could actually fire a player or hire a player himself. In that sense, though, there was a feeling that he could, and it was somewhat true.
All hockey players for the most part are pretty shy guys. Wayne's pretty shy. He's not out there like a basketball player. Also, it's very much of a team sport, which makes them harder to sell, frankly, because bad boys are much easier to sell than good boys are. Girls love bad boys. Guys with tattoos on their necks are a lot easier to market than a nice Canadian farm boy or somebody from Russia or Czechoslovakia who does speak English.
If the same thing happened today, getting Sidney Crosby here, it wouldn't have had anywhere near the impact. You could walk Sidney Crosby to the Staples Center and they wouldn't know who he is. Wayne was the only person ever that could market anything like that. In fact, people would ask me later on if there was another player (who could have been so marketable).
The answer was that there was no player in the world then who could possibly have done what he did. There hasn't been one since.