On a warm Tuesday in the summer of 1988, Canadians went off to work expecting it to be a regular day. Little did they know that the day would bring a shockwave across the nation and forever change a national sport.
On Aug. 9, the front page of the Edmonton Journal covered the 8888 Uprising in Myanmar as students there led a nationwide protest against the one-party regime. The first night game at Wrigley Field in Chicago was splashed on the sports page, and the birth of Princess Beatrice, the newest grandchild of Queen Elizabeth II rounded out the day’s news.
By the next morning, one story would dominate those pages. And it all started with an announcement at the Molson Brewery in downtown Edmonton.
As news crews assembled, a man with short hair and a striped shirt walked in.
In Edmonton, he was nothing short of a living legend and hero because he put the city on the map and brought more glory than many could have ever expected. His eyes were bloodshot, and as he wiped tears away, he confirmed the rumours.
He was traded.
The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player to ever live, announced his departure and in doing so rocked a nation and forever changed the NHL.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
Edmonton was a great place to live if you were a sports fan in the late 80s.
The city’s CFL team now called the Edmonton Elks had won five straight Grey Cups from 1978 to 1982, and another in 1987.
Then, there were the Edmonton Oilers.
Originally the team was part of the World Hockey Association, a rival league to the NHL that is until 1979 when they joined the NHL alongside the Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets.
When the team joined the NHL there was a young player named Wayne Gretzky in the roster.
The Edmonton Oilers and Gretzky would go on to reshape the game by winning four Stanley Cups in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988.
Visitors to Edmonton were greeted with the slogan “City of Champions”.
As for Gretzky, he had won eight consecutive Hart Trophies for league MVP from 1980 to 1987, seven consecutive Art Ross Trophies as the league’s leading scorer, along with two Conn Smythe Trophies for playoff MVP.
That’s partly because he scored 1,669 points in only 696 games.
To put that in perspective, the all-time points leader in NHL history at the time was Gordie Howe with 1,851 points in 1,767 games.
Gretzky was only 182 points behind Howe’s record at the time, and he got there in 1,000 less games.
There was no greater hero in the city than Gretzky and fans were expecting to see him dazzle on the ice for Edmonton for years to come and bring home many more Stanley Cups along the way.
But the Oilers had other plans
On Aug. 9th, 1988, in front of gathered reporters at the Molson Brewery in Edmonton began with Oiler’s owner Peter Pocklington, leaned into the microphones and said,
“It is with mixed emotions and a heavy heart for our community and our hockey club, but I guess with delight and sincere best wishes for Wayne Gretzky that I announce, and more important confirm, that the Edmonton Oilers have agreed to trade Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles.”
With that, the rumours were confirmed.
The Great One was leaving Canada.
Gretzky was then handed a prepared statement from the Oilers, but he threw it away, and instead spoke from the heart. Photos of him wiping away tears in front of two dozen microphones were plastered on front pages across Canada the next day. Joining Gretzky in the trade to the Los Angeles Kings were f Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski. In return, the Kings gave the Oilers $15 million, three first round draft picks, as well as players Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas.
While both players were good, as Oiler’s owner Peter Pocklington said, you could not replace Wayne Gretzky.
He brought Gretzky to Edmonton, and built the championship teams, so why was he trading him away?
Known as Peter Puck, Peter Pocklington had been a very popular man in Edmonton prior to that fateful day in August 1988.
He bought the Edmonton Oilers in 1976 and co-owned it with Nelson Skalbania, until 1977 when he bought the team outright.
Skalbania then bought the Indianapolis Racers and on that team, there was a 17-year-old phenom named Wayne Gretzky.
Needing cash, Skalbania offered Pocklington the rights to Wayne Gretzky, which Pocklington accepted.
On Jan. 26, 1979, Gretzky’s 18th birthday, on centre ice at the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, he signed a 10-year personal services contract worth $3 million, with an option for ten more s to play for The Oilers.
A few months later, the Oilers joined the NHL, and a legend was born.
After the Oilers won their fourth Stanley Cup in 1988, Pocklington began to think about a clause in the contract that stated Gretzky could become an unrestricted free agent at the age of 31, the great one was 27 at the time.
Which meant as soon as he turned 31, he could go to any team he wanted, without Edmonton getting anything in return and Pocklington worried that Gretzky would do just that.
In 1990, Gretzky disputed this in his autobiography saying he wanted to retire as an Edmonton Oiler and wanted to have a no-trade clause in his contract. Whether that is the case or not, Pocklington saw his star asset aging, and his own bank account dwindling.
So, he thought about a trade offer that Jerry Buss, owner of the LA Kings and LA Lakers made him in 1985.
At the NHL Player Awards, where Gretzky won four awards. Buss tapped Pocklington on the shoulder and offered him $15 million and some players for Gretzky. Pocklington said no at the time, it was too soon, but maybe he would reconsider down the road.
Four years later in 1988, the LA Kings were owned by Bruce McNall, a millionaire who had initially made his fortune as a coin collector.
McNall knew about the offer Buss made at the awards show. He wanted to bring the greatest player in the game to Los Angeles. So, he reached out.
On the surface, it appeared that Gretzky nearing free agency was the main reason for the trade, but underneath there were more serious problems for the team’s owner.
Throughout the 1970s, Pocklington built up a business empire thanks to an oil boom. He had massive real estate holdings in Alberta and Ontario, and owned several companies including Fidelity Trust, Palm Dairies, Canbra Foods, Green Acre Farms, Gainers and Magic Pantry. But then the economy took a hit in the early-1980s.
Prime interest rates rose to 18.5 per cent, and oil prices sagged. Finally, the collapse of the real estate market due to declining property values took down Fidelity Trust. On top of that, in the mid-1980s, his company, Gainers, a beef and pork packaging company, went through a labour dispute that lasted six months. Pocklington brought in strikebreakers to keep the plant operational during the strike, which was widely criticized by Canada’s labour community.
Eventually, he agreed to settle the strike and rehire the striking workers. The Alberta Government helped this along with a $55 million loan at 10.5 per cent interest. The debt-servicing cost crippled the company, as it drowned in debt. Eventually, the company was sold for one-twentieth what Pocklington paid for it. So, Pocklington needed money, FAST and he had the greatest hockey player in the world in his back pocket
Enter Bruce McNall.
Now, before we go any further, there are different accounts of what happened, so we’ll never know for sure. Pocklington said the trade was a sound financial decision he made for the good of the Edmonton Oilers.
In his words, Gretzky was a depreciating asset that would lose value over time. Selling him at the height of his career would reap the largest reward for the team and help keep the Oilers viable in a small market in the NHL.
According to McNall Pocklington was desperate to sell Gretzky for cash and he wasn’t sure about the trade until one call changed everything, (PAUSE)
Gretzky was in McNall’s office when Pocklington called. He put him on speaker, and not knowing Gretzky was there, Pocklington said Gretzky was not good for Edmonton anymore. He said The Great One had become impossible to deal with since he began dating Janet Jones who first met Gretzky when he was a judge on Dance Fever in 1984.
The couple were newlyweds, they got married on July 16, 1988, in a lavish ceremony at St. Joseph’s Basilica that was broadcast live across Canada.
Upon hearing this, Gretzky apparently agreed to be traded to the Kings. Pocklington refuted this claim, stating he had only good things to say about the couple. The day after the trade announcement on Aug. 10, he criticized Gretzky in the newspapers, and said the former center for the Oilers had an ego the size of Manhattan, and added, quote “He’s a great actor. I thought he pulled it off beautifully when he showed how upset he was. I think he was upset, but he wants the big dream. I call LA the Land of the Big Trip, and he wants to go where the trips are the biggest. “end quote
No matter the reasons, no matter who said what, Wayne Gretzky was now King, and he left Canada in a private jet right after the press conference.
As news of his departure spread, Knowlton Nash began The National nightly newscast with the following,
“The biggest name in Canadian sports, the man hockey fans called The Great One, is going to the United States.”
In Edmonton, fans were distraught. All 21 telephone lines at the Oilers’ front office were jammed with callers threatening to cancel their season’s tickets.
When the Edmonton Journal asked fans to call in and leave a message describing how the trade impacted them, or to say thank you to Gretzky, they received over 1,500 calls. The first eight pages of the paper’s sports section on Aug. 13 were filled with those messages.
Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore had a few opinions as well,
Fans wanted answers and they set their sights on Janet Jones, Wayne Gretzky’s wife. As I mentioned, the couple were newlyweds, they had just tied the knot in what was called Canada’s Royal Wedding, because the ceremony was broadcast nationwide on CBC.
Jones had appeared in The Flamingo Kid, A Chorus Line, American Anthem and Police Academy 5 and Canadians believed she had convinced Gretzky to move to Los Angeles so she could pursue an acting career. Oilers fans began to call her hockey’s Yoko Ono, comparing her to John Lennon’s wife who was wrongly blamed for breaking up The Beatles. Michael Farber of the Montreal Gazette wrote,
“You loved her in The Flamingo Kid. You cheered her in Police Academy V. You leered at her in the pages of Playboy. Now watch Janet Jones as she takes on the most challenging role of her career. Yoko Ono.”
Immediately, reporters wondered if the marriage, and the fact that Jones was pregnant with the couple’s first child, was a factor in the move.
Fans in Edmonton openly criticized her on the news. Joy McKenna, a citizen of Edmonton, was interviewed in downtown Edmonton and said,
“It would be interesting to know whose initiative it was. Ask him who wears the pants in the family.”
Gretzky immediately denied it and said,
“If we were going to raise a family, she would have had just as much fun raising it in Edmonton.”
The couple went on to have five children, Jones has even said she would not allow herself to become, in her words, ‘barefoot and pregnant for the next eight years’ if she were intent on pursuing her own career.
It was later revealed that Jones, knowing that Gretzky was being shopped, wanted him to look at Detroit so she could be closer to her family in St. Louis.
Detroit was also where Gretzky’s idol, Gordie Howe, had played for most of his career.
While fans were intent on blaming Jones, no one received more hate than Peter Pocklington.
They burned him in effigy in Edmonton, and many local companies refused to support his businesses.
Maxwell Taylor’s Restaurants in Edmonton announced no food products from any of Pocklington’s companies would be used to prepare food for about 2400 customers per day.
Local businessman Dean Campbell took out a half-page advertisement in the newspaper that was titled People Against Pocklington. In it, he called for the boycott of the first Oilers home game.
Several people also called the Edmonton Journal asking for a list of the companies Pocklington owned so they could boycott them.
But it wasn’t just Edmonton that was outraged by the trade. The debate over Gretzky made it all the way into the House of Commons.
Nelson Riis, the NDP House Leader in the House of Commons put forward the idea that the government block the trade based on the importance of Gretzky to Canada. He wanted Gretzky to be labelled a national treasure.
This wasn’t as outlandish as it sounds. After the 1958 World Cup when European soccer teams began to pursue Pele, widely regarded as the greatest soccer player ever, Brazil’s government declared him to be a national treasure and effectively blocked Pele from playing anywhere outside of Brazil.
“Wayne Gretzky is a national symbol like the beaver, Pierre Berton and Harold Ballard. How can we allow the sale of our national symbols.”
Not surprisingly, nothing came from the idea. At the Alberta Legislature, NDP leader Ray Martin and Liberal leader Nick Taylor argued that Pocklington surrendered the right to deal Gretzky’s contract when he pledged him as collateral with the Alberta government to back his loans.
“The government should hold up the deal until they’ve investigated to make sure the taxpayers aren’t being honked.”
The Gretzky trade was also used during the contentious negotiations over free trade with the United States.
The Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement was signed on Jan. 2, 1988, by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan and was a highly debated topic in Canada at the time.
Liberal leader John Turner was highly critical of the agreement. At one point, he attacked the sitting Prime Minister by saying,
“Sold out. Like what happened to Wayne Gretzky. What Peter Pocklington is to Edmonton, our prime minister is to Canada.”
The free trade agreement became a major issue in the Nov. 21, 1988, federal election and there were questions over how the trade would impact the ruling Progressive Conservatives chances of re-election. Sociologist Neil Snarr said of the trade
“I’m not saying the Gretzky trade to Los Angeles will kill the U.S.-Canadian free trade treaty, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen.”
In the end, the Progressive Conservatives won the election and Canada moved towards free trade with the United States. When Gretzky returned to Edmonton for his first game against the Oilers as a King on Oct. 19, 1988, the sold-out crowd gave him a four-minute standing ovation.
They cheered during his first shift, his first touch of the puck, for his two assists, and when Oilers captain Mark Messier body checked him into the boards. After the game, Gretzky said,
“I am still a proud Canadian. I didn’t desert my country. I moved because I was traded and that is where my job is. But I am Canadian to the core. I hope Canadians can understand that.”
One year later, a life-sized bronze statue of Gretzky holding the Stanley Cup above his head was erected outside Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton
That’s the end of the story of the Gretzky trade but not the end of the story for the people who were part of this iconic moment in hockey?
Gretzky continued to dominate the hockey world he scored 1,188 points in 791 games in his post-Oilers career with the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers. But his award-winning days seemed to be behind him.
He almost won another Stanley Cup, in 1993, but lost to the Montreal Canadiens in that Final in what remains Canada’s last Stanley Cup victory to this day.
When he retired in 1999, he held 61 records and his iconic #99 was retired across the NHL. He was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and remains seen as the greatest hockey player to ever lace up skates.
As for the other players who went to Los Angeles with him, they had varying degrees of success.
Marty McSorley recorded 295 points in his post-Oilers career with Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York, San Jose and Boston. He even came back to the Oilers in the 1998-99 season for 46 games. Mike Krushelnyski had 227 points after the trade, but by 1994-95, was out of the NHL and playing in Europe.
The players the Oilers got in the trade did well for the most part. Jimmy Carson, the best player, found the pressure of replacing Gretzky too much and in November 1989, he demanded a trade out of Edmonton. In his subsequent career with Detroit, Vancouver, Hartford and a time back with Los Angeles, he had 354 points in 466 games. Martin Gelinas, despite never playing an NHL game when the trade happened, proved to be a major get for the Oilers. He left the Oilers after the 1992-93 season and scored 660 points in 1,273 games over the course of his career.
The trade picks the Oilers received didn’t do much. One was traded to New Jersey in 1989, and Martin Rucinsky was selected in 1991. He had a decent career but only played two games with the Oilers in the 1991-92 season. The other pick, for the 1993 NHL Draft, didn’t pan out as Nick Stajduhar played only two games for the Oilers in the 1995-96 season.
As for the team… they fared pretty well, the Oilers, won the Stanley Cup in 1990 with the remaining core team from the Gretzky glory years but by the mid-1990s, the team sold off most of those stars and was sinking to the bottom of the standings as they attempted to rebuild.
The team t came close to another Stanley Cup in 2006 when they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in the final. There is still hope that the Stanley Cup will return to Edmonton now that the team has another hockey phenom on the roster named Connor McDavid.
As for the Kings, they never won a Stanley Cup under Gretzky and eventually he left the team in 1995-96 for St. Louis, before finishing his career with New York. The biggest thing Gretzky did was show that hockey could be popular in the southern United States, where ice was only served in drinks prior to 1988.
By the end of the 1990s, the NHL expanded to Tampa Bay, Miami, Phoenix, San Jose, Anaheim, Nashville, Atlanta and Carolina.
Peter Pocklington sold the Edmonton Oilers in 1998 and declared personal bankruptcy in 2008.
He was then charged with bankruptcy fraud a year later. A plea bargain saved him from prison, as he served his sentence under house arrest instead.
The city of Edmonton appears to have forgiven him. In 2014 during the reunion of the 1984 Stanley Cup championship team, Pocklington received a standing ovation from fans as they honoured his legacy. He may have traded away hockey’s greatest player, but for Edmonton, he also built one of the greatest teams the NHL has ever seen.
Meanwhile, LA King’s owner Bruce McNall was convicted for two counts of bank fraud, one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy. It was discovered he had scammed $236 million out of six banks over the course of ten years. In 1994, he sold his controlling interest in the Kings.
He later spent four years in prison and was released in 2001.
He remains friends with Gretzky to this day. When the Kings wanted to retire Gretzky’s #99, Gretzky refused until they allowed McNall to attend the ceremony.
As for the young eight-year-old Oilers fan who saw the greatest player in history be traded away. Well, he continues to cheer for the Oilers to this day, through thick and thin, and always will.
Oh, and the Great One… He returned to Edmonton…In October 2016, became a minority partner and vice-chairman of the Oilers’ parent company, but left in 2021 to become an analyst on Turner Sports’ NHL coverage.
Information from CBC, Edmonton Journal, NHL.com, A Kings Ransom, Ottawa Citizen, Sportsnet.ca, OilersNation, Owen Sound Sun Times, Vancouver Sun, Kingston Whig Standard,
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