It was a trade that defined the NHL for an entire decade and transformed the league in a way many never could have imagined as on August 9, 1988 the Edmonton Oilers traded hockey icon Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. The trade would see the Oilers win another Stanley Cup and the Kings coming close to winning one of their own in 1993 when they ran into the Montreal Canadiens in the Cup Final, the closest Gretzky would ever get to winning another title outside of Edmonton.
The move would be most influential off of the ice as Gretzky’s impact in growing hockey in the United States led to a short spike in hockey’s popularity in the early 90’s. L.A.’s rapid rise led to the expansion of the league to several sunny U.S. locales such as Miami, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Anaheim, and Phoenix in the 1990’s as the league attempted to ride the wave that the Great One created in coming to a U.S. market.
That ride would crash however as the NHL foolishly locked itself out instead of compensating the players directly after the massive coverage they got in Los Angeles and the New York Rangers making the Cup Finals in back to back years, with New York famously ending their “Curse” with a Game Seven win over the Vancouver Canucks in 1994. The lockout compounded with Mario Lemieux’s health issues and the Kings bubble bursting as Gretzky’s prime passed after the lockout with the Great One being traded to the St. Louis Blues effectively ended the wave that the NHL was riding on in the early 90’s.
Gretzky would play out a short stint pairing up with Brett Hull in St. Louis before signing with the New York Rangers, ending his career with former Oilers teammate Mark Messier at Madison Square Garden.
The impact of the Gretzky trade on the NHL might not have been evident on the day he retired, when the NHL was going through another set of growing pains that led to their second lockout in the mid 00’s. Players were being paid too much and the move to put NHL hockey in Sun Belt markets was still being figured out and potential replacement stars like Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, and Paul Kariya were all about to see their careers hampered by injuries, the league not exactly being on top when #99 left the game.
Now the impact is clearer. Gretzky returned to the league to coach the Phoenix Coyotes, a team that came to the league because of the excitement of having Gretzky play in Los Angeles. All but one NHL Sun Belt expansion franchise is still playing in their original city and the Kings themselves recently one the Stanley Cup in 2012 with the NHL’s Pacific Division led by San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles being one of the most competitive divisions in the league in the past few seasons, filling the building during the majority of their home games.
Some of the impact of Gretzky’s trade has been negative and the over expansion of the league has put some of those Sun Belt teams on life support. But in California, where Gretzky’s trade exploded the popularity of hockey, the game is still as popular is ever and more and more youth get into hockey as the United States has turned into a consistent hockey power in the 00’s, finishing second in the Olympics in 2002 and 2010.
Some of that is thanks to the Great One, whose arrival in Los Angeles will never again be captured. An unknown superstar athlete from Canada growing a game on ice in sunny Los Angeles and turning the sports world on its head one stride at a time.