August 9th, 1988 is one of the most significant dates in NHL history. That was the day that Wayne Gretzky, superstar and arguably the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of skates, held a press conference in Edmonton to announce to the world that he had just been traded to the Los Angeles Kings. This was the equivalent of Tom Brady being traded from the New England Patriots to the Cleveland Browns today. The Oilers were back-to-back Stanley Cup champions and had been crowned champions of four of the last five seasons. The Kings, meanwhile, were considered a novelty franchise with no winning pedigree to speak of, except for the Miracle on Manchester (coincidentally against Gretzky’s Oilers) in 1982. The move seemed unthinkable.

Despite the loss of Gretzky, the Oilers had an incredibly talented roster. After one season of learning how to play without ‘The Great One,’ The Oilers returned to Stanley Cup glory in 1990. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Gretzky accomplished the impossible: he made Californians care about hockey. Once the Kings surrounded him with enough pieces to compete, Gretzky led the Kings to the Finals in 1993, ultimately losing to the Montreal Canadiens in five games. While he never brought the cup to LA, Gretzky’s move to one of the biggest markets in the U.S. allowed the sport to gain popularity like never before. Gretzky ultimately finished his career in 1999 with the New York Rangers, leaving an indelible mark on the game.

After many years, Gretzky has reconciled his relationship with the Oilers and is now an executive with the team. Being back in Edmonton must bring back memories, especially with the team’s return to the postseason this spring. As he watches Connor McDavid bring life to the city unseen since the 1980’s, Gretzky must wonder to himself, what if I never left?

Setting the Stage

In a world where Gretzky never has his tearful press conference, August 9th, 1988 is just another day for Gretzky and the hockey world. With a loaded Oilers supporting cast, Gretzky would continue to torment opposing teams, easily eclipsing the legendary career statistics for which he is known in reality. The Oilers continue their dominance, winning another two Stanley Cups, bringing their total to four consecutively, and five in the last seven years. While Gretzky and the Oilers flourish, the same cannot be said for the NHL as a whole. The league has failed to gain traction in southern markets, and continues to be overly reliant on traditional hockey markets to keep business afloat. The NHL looks destined to fall behind even the MLS in terms of U.S. popularity. Californians think “Gretzky” is something you do in Aspen.

Gretzky’s Legacy

Wayne Gretzky’s resume cannot be disputed. During his illustrious NHL career, Gretzky scored 894 goals and had 1,963 assists, making him the league leader in career goals, assists and points. For all his on-ice achievements, Gretzky’s move to Los Angeles marks the beginning of his off-ice career. Playing in the entertainment capital of the world, Gretzky’s fame began to transcend hockey fandom, appearing in many commercials with other superstar athletes like Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan.

Had Gretzky spent his entire career in Western Canada, it is hard to see him rise to the level of global icon he is seen as today. While his status in Canada, where Hockey is more religion than sport, would have only been greater (as a Canadian and native Montrealer, I can verify this), his worldwide stature would surely be diminished. In the pre-Twitter sports era, an athlete needed to be seen live or on TV to be truly appreciated. This was all the more relevant for someone like Gretzky, whose moves on the ice, and particularly behind the net, seemed almost inhuman. Had Gretzky been exiled in Edmonton his entire career, so many people would have been deprived of seeing his talents. While remaining in Edmonton would allow Gretzky to finish with even more points and championships to his name, the name itself would be far less valuable.  Gretzky remains the greatest NHL player of all time. However, far fewer people care.

Oilers Dynasty

In Gretzky’s nine seasons with the Oilers, the team contended for the Cup every season, ultimately winning four championships. The team was overflowing with talent, all of whom had grown together, giving them the kind of chemistry you simply can’t teach. Once Gretzky was traded, the remaining Oilers became desperate to prove that their fate did not depend on Wayne Gretzky alone. After losing to Gretzky’s Kings in seven games the previous season, the Oilers got their revenge in 1990, sweeping the Kings on their way to claiming the Stanley Cup. That was the last time the Oilers won the cup. Soon after, the team’s stars began departing for richer contracts and new opportunities.

Had Gretzky remained with the Oilers, the Oilers would remain the most dynamic team in the NHL. No stars could depart for greener pastures and none would exist. Already proven winners, it is reasonable to envision that if Gretzky were to stay, the other key players that formed the Oilers’ nucleus, like Messier, Jarri Kurri, and Grant Fuhr, would have stayed as well. Had that occurred, Edmonton would consistently be at or near the top of the Western conference, continually posing a threat to the league’s other franchises. With talent like that, the Oilers’ dominance would have been downright unfair. It’s hard to see them losing the next two Stanley Cups. In fact, it’s not hard to see them contending for the next five or six. The Oilers would have the greatest Dynasty in sports history… but you’d have to be in Canada to know it.

Alternate NHL Universe

If Gretzky had spent his entire career in Edmonton, the NHL as we know it would look completely different. When Gretzky left the Oilers, numerous stars followed suit, landing on new teams and making massive impacts. None more so than Mark Messier, who joined the New York Rangers and channeled his Inner Joe Namath, guaranteeing and ultimately delivering on a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals where the Rangers beat the Vancouver Canucks. Without Messier’s leadership, the Rangers’ Cup drought is celebrating birthday number 77 this spring. Messier and Gretzky retire together in a joint press conference in Edmonton at the end of their careers, combining their talents to win the Oilers franchise nine Stanley Cups.

Looking to the bigger picture, Gretzky spending his career in Edmonton would have stunted the growth of the NHL and inhibited its ability to recruit fans outside the northeast. Gretzky’s move to Los Angeles brought ice hockey to the Sun Belt region. Seeing the positive reaction, new commissioner Gary Bettman made aggressive expansion in the Sun Belt region a top priority:

YEAR TEAM ADDED
1991 San Jose Sharks
1992 Tampa Bay Lightening
1993 Florida Panthers; Mighty Ducks of Anaheim;

Dallas Stars (Via Relocation of Minnesota North Stars)

1996 Phoenix Coyotes (Via Relocation of Winnipeg Jets)
1997 Carolina Hurricanes (Via Relocation of Hartford Whalers)
1998 Nashville Predators
1999 Atlanta Thrashers

Aside from the Thrashers, who relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, the other eight franchises still reside in the Sun Belt region. Further, the Stars, Lightning, Hurricanes have even won Stanley cups, reaching this peak in 1999, 2004 and 2006, respectively. Nashville is coming off a loss in the Stanley Cup Finals that generated so much excitement and press it is almost hard to see it as a loss. Needless to say, the NHL’s foray into the south has been relatively successful. But, none of it is possible without the spark provided by the Great One.

If Gretzky stays in Edmonton, the prospect of expanding southward never really seems feasible. The NHL focuses on building the strong foundation that already exists in Canada and the northeastern United States. Every province in Canada has its own team, including three in Ontario and two in Quebec. Imagine the Regina Renegades? Or how about the Prince Edward Island Pirates? The NHL would additionally look to expand into some northern states, where hockey is among one of the popular sports. The North Dakota Northerners would have the nicest jerseys in the NHL. The Wyoming Wolverines would have a large contingent of X-Men fans in costume at every game. The NHL would have focused its expansion in small markets with dedicated fan bases – an equation that would be unlikely to yield a team in Las Vegas.

The Gretzky trade in 1988 sparked a new generation of NHL franchises who would appeal to fans in the southern United States. With Gretzky’s face everywhere, the game was able to grow into the healthy 31 team league we see today. Gretzky has done so many incredible things for the sport of hockey that it is impossible to list them all. But, despite everything he accomplished, despite all of his records and endorsement deals, perhaps his greatest contribution was simply being traded. While it is tempting to think of the dominance that might have resulted from him remaining with the Oilers, ultimately, Gretzky’s move grew the game. True fans are forever grateful.

 

 

 

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