Trades happen all the time in North American sport. A lot of the time, when they happen, they’re only important enough to merit a short write-up in the middle of your local paper’s sports section. Some are big enough to make front-page headlines… and very occasionally, some make headlines across an entire country.
The Wayne Gretzky trade is one such deal. While there had been blockbusters in hockey before, there was never one that could shake the foundation of the entire sport. Here was the greatest player in the game, being effectively sold off for cash. Sure, there were players involved, but none of that really mattered to Peter Pocklington. But while it was a tragic event for Edmonton fans, and Canadians in general, it was also the start of a hockey boom in the United States for a short while. With the Great One, the man set to inherit several all-time scoring records in just a year or two, now in one of the biggest cities in the United States, it was enough for many across the country to begin paying attention to the game.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the Gretzky trade to Los Angeles, in which Gretzky, Marty McSorley, and Mike Krushelnyski were dealt to the Kings in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three 1st-Round Picks (1989, 1991, 1993), and $15 million in cash. Though I normally like to post on the first Sunday of each month, for this topic, I couldn’t possibly resist holding off until the anniversary itself.
August 9th, 1988
“I promised ‘Mess’ I wouldn’t do this…”
Wayne Gretzky, despite the promise, couldn’t hold back the waiting tears. The continuous trickle of emotion had come following one of the most shocking announcements in the history of hockey, possibly even in the history of sport. “The Great One”, a man who had stood head and shoulders over the entire league in the scoring race for so many years, and a man who had led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups – including one in the season that had concluded two months earlier – was off to Los Angeles. Gretzky, along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, would join the Kings in exchange for young centreman Jimmy Carson, prospect Martin Gelinas, 1st-Round Picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993, and $15 million in cash.
It was a trade that would alter the very future of hockey, both in Canada and the United States. And strangely enough, had it not been for one final call from Wayne himself, it may not have happened.
On the day of the press conference in Edmonton, Peter Pocklington and Glen Sather privately talked to Gretzky before the conference was set to begin, telling him that if he so desired, the deal could be called off. Sather, despite being the GM of the Oilers, had refused to get involved in negotiations, wanting nothing to do with any deal for the man considered the greatest player in the game. Pocklington, the owner, was struggling for cash, and the money that would come over in the deal would certainly give him an easier time dealing with any financial battles he would have in the future. Even considering the money issues, he still understood the impact that Gretzky had on the city of Edmonton, and Canada as a whole.
The negotiations between Gretzky, Pocklington, and Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall had opened up wounds in the relationship between the former two, and Wayne was more than prepared to make the leap from Edmonton to Los Angeles. He declined to turn down the deal, instead taking his seat at a table at the Molson House, and delivering the teary-eyed statement that would echo across the hockey world to this very day. But it is entirely possible that Gretzky, a man who wore his Oiler colours with great pride, decided that he wanted to work things out if Edmonton instead?
WHAT IF WAYNE GRETZKY CALLED OFF THE TRADE TO LOS ANGELES?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: Wayne Gretzky was a proud Edmonton Oiler, but the seeds have already been planted for him to leave the team. Negotiations between Gretzky, Pocklington, and McNall led to some tensions. According to McNall in the “Kings Ransom” documentary, Pocklington had complained about Gretzky’s decision to move to Los Angeles with his wife-to-be Janet Jones, and mused that Gretzky “wasn’t good for Edmonton, anyway”. Gretzky, being in McNall’s office during the phone conversation that led to those comments, had heard Pocklington’s words on speakerphone, and immediately became more receptive to a trade. But even leading up to the day it was announced, if Gretzky were at any point to say “no”, it was his prerogative. He was, after all, the best player in the world at the time, and could certainly afford to negotiate his own terms for the deal.
One unavoidable reality at the time was that Gretzky, having renegotiated his “personal services” contract with Peter Pocklington into a standard NHL contract, had an out clause following the 1988-1989 season. Should he so choose, he could become an unrestricted free agent, allowing him to negotiate with any team he wanted. And even if he wanted to negotiate with Edmonton, Peter Pocklington simply couldn’t afford him. Furthermore, if Gretzky wasn’t going to accept a trade to Los Angeles, it would be extremely unlikely that he would say yes to a deal anywhere else.
So, what could happen differently for Wayne to abandon the idea of being traded to Los Angeles? Well, all it really takes is for Gretzky’s attachment to Edmonton to override his desire to move. The thought of Wayne wanting to play in Edmonton for the rest of his career can be traced all the way back to his original “personal services” contract, which was signed in 1979. The contract was set for 20 years maximum, and thus would expire in 1999 – the year which, as it turned out, Gretzky would end up retiring. Even at the age of 18 at the time, he was more than comfortable with the idea of playing in the city for the rest of his career, and as time went on, his attachment to Edmonton would only grow. The thought of him nixing the deal at the last second was rather unlikely considering all that had happened in the previous couple of months, but it was at least plausible.
At the Molson House in Edmonton, a throng of reporters have been gathered since morning, awaiting what would be a historic press conference, announcing the trade of Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles. Media outlets across North America have already stated that a framework for a deal between the Oilers and the Kings is in place, and once Gretzky gives his approval, it will go through. The conference, however, is delayed. Journalists are left in the dark for a brief period of time, as none of Peter Pocklington, Glen Sather, or Gretzky himself show up. But eventually, the three would emerge for the conference, ready to answer the question that has been keeping Edmonton fans awake at night: “Is Wayne Gretzky going to be traded?”
In his statement, Gretzky discloses that while a deal looked to be in place, he has gotten in contact with Bruce McNall and informed him the deal is off. He admits it was a last-minute change, a decision he made on the plane trip to Edmonton that day. He also states that the first priority in his hockey career is to make the Edmonton Oilers a Stanley Cup winner year after year. The conference ends after a few questions to each of Sather, Pocklington, and Gretzky, but with one major answer: Wayne Gretzky is staying in Edmonton, if only for now.
FROM EDMONTON’S PERSPECTIVE
The immediate reaction in the city of Edmonton is one of great relief, but some lingering tension. Though the Great One is still in Oiler colours, there is still the matter of his contract, which has an out clause in the 1989 off-season. With Paul Coffey and Andy Moog having already been shipped out in the past year or so, and more players looking for higher salaries, Peter Pocklington would now be in a huge bind. One reported aspect of the potential Gretzky deal is that the Oilers would receive $15 million in cash, which could go a long way toward securing Edmonton’s long-term future. If Pocklington couldn’t have Gretzky on his team, he could at least make sure he could pay other players.
Playing on what is technically a contract year, Gretzky does his best to try and keep Edmonton competitive, and puts up 168 points, an improvement of around 20 from the previous season. The spectre of his impending free agency looms large as the Oilers are caught in a dilemma – do they see what they can get for Gretzky at the deadline, knowing that his future with the team is uncertain, or do they hold on to him and make a bid for a fifth title in six years? In the end, Gretzky finishes the regular season in Edmonton, with the plan being to make one more run this year, and hope that Gretzky is willing to forego free agency completely.
Edmonton, with Gretzky in tow, manages to finish second in the Smythe Division (and third overall) with 97 points. The Oilers’ finish puts them in a first-round battle with the Los Angeles Kings, the very team that had nearly acquired Gretzky almost a year ago. The series starts of well for the Oilers, who manage a 3-1 series lead early on, and Game Five proves to be decisive. In the first overtime period, Esa Tikkanen fires home the winning goal, giving Edmonton the victory and the series. The Oilers go on to face the Calgary Flames in a heated provincial battle; despite being much more competitive with Gretzky in the line-up, Edmonton has to scrap for their victories, and when they lose, they lose BIG. Game Six ends up being a demoralizing 10-1 loss for Edmonton, who have to watch Calgary go on and claim their first-ever Stanley Cup that year.
The Oilers’s natural draft pick that year ends up a #19 in the 1st Round. Wanting some future goaltending help, the team selects Olaf Kolzig, the first-ever West German player taken in the opening round of the draft. The Johannesburg-born Kolzig is no stranger to North American hockey, having played two seasons in the Western Hockey League, the second with the Tri-City Americans.
As nice as it is to have their goaltending future secure, the immediate concern is with Wayne Gretzky. Wayne made a tough decision to call off the move to Los Angeles, against the advice of his father, and also in spite of the fact that he and his wife live in L.A. in the off-season. His decision to nix the trade was made out of loyalty to Edmonton, but the loyalty would only extend so far. Despite pleas to renegotiate his contract, Gretzky would only be met with silence from Peter Pocklington, who simply did not have the money to do it. Wayne would exercise his out clause, making him a free agent. Having built such a rapport with Bruce McNall back in the previous off-season, Gretzky makes the move he could have made a year earlier, agreeing to terms on a $4 million per year contract.
The move, naturally, is met with fury from Oiler fans, who see the move as a betrayal of loyalty from the Great One – a move made with the influence of another owner, and his wife, who was continuing her acting career. Though at first, the outrage is directed at Gretzky, that anger eventually gets directed towards Peter Pocklington after news emerges that of the twenty-one teams in the NHL, only two failed to make offers, with the Oilers being one of them. Though “Peter Puck” tries to defend the lack of an offer by pointing to the money the team had been losing, his explanation isn’t enough to quell Edmonton’s rage. Many within the Canadian sports scene speculate about the trade that nearly happened a year earlier, and wonder what the team could have gotten from the Kings if they had actually made the deal.
When last year, the major story was the impending free agency of Gretzky, the story now is the utter lack of Gretzky. Though fans (at least, those who still choose to go to Oilers games) wonder how bad the team could get without their former superstar, players in the locker room are not willing to throw in the towel. Mark Messier has a fantastic season, setting career highs in assists and points, and playing his way to his first Hart Trophy as league MVP. Even with their long-time coach Glen Sather replaced by John Muckler, the Oilers remain competitive all year, and finish with 89 points, good for second in the Smythe Division.
The Oilers are given a first-round match-up with the Winnipeg Jets, and it looks as if the Oilers have a pretty comfortable series win in front of them. Winnipeg, however, does not want to make it so easy, and starts the series with a key 7-4 win. After a big goal by Brent Ashton in Game Two, the Jets don’t look back. They take their two home games, completing a four-game sweep of the Oilers, and eliminating Edmonton from the playoffs. Edmonton ends up with the 17th Overall Pick in the 1st Round, selecting centreman Scott Allison from the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL.
The off-season problems would continue to mount up for the Oilers in 1990, as not only did they lose Jari Kurri in a contract dispute, but also lost Grant Fuhr, who would be suspended for 60 games for substance abuse. With the team deteriorating by the day, discontent would grow in the Edmonton locker room, as it was becoming clear that the dynasty days were over. For the first time in years, the Oilers would finish with a sub-.500 record, managing only 71 points. Of course, considering there were only 21 teams in the league at that point, a playoff spot was virtually assured, and Edmonton would get in to the post-season in third in the Smythe Division.
Edmonton was now pitted against another Canadian rival, being seeded against the Calgary Flames. This installment of the Battle of Alberta proved somewhat competitive, as Edmonton did their all to win against their provincial adversaries. Unfortunately, the Flames proved just strong enough, taking the series in six games. Given the 9th pick in the 1991 Entry Draft, the Oilers select Patrick Poulin from the QMJHL. Poulin had just finished his second year with the Saint-Hyacinthe Laser, managing 70 points in 56 games.
If the last few years were the dismantling of the Oilers’ dynasty, the 1991 off-season was the blow that caused the foundation to give way. Just prior to the season, four core players were dealt out; Mark Messier would be dealt to the New York Rangers, while Grant Fuhr, Craig Berube, and Glenn Anderson would all be shipped off to Toronto. With almost all of the most important players from the teams of the 80s moved out, it was time for the Oilers to focus on the future, but for fans in the city, it was time to start looking for the exits. For the first time since their very first year in the NHL, average attendance at the Northlands Coliseum would fall below the 16,000 mark, as supporters found going to games much, much less worthwhile.
The continuous drain of energy from the Northlands Coliseum was not only felt in the stands, but in the locker room. Though there was some good, young talent on the team in the likes of Vincent Damphousse, Bill Ranford, and Craig Simpson, they just didn’t compare to Gretzky, Messier, and Kurri. Edmonton would continue to free-fall in the standings, finishing 4th in the Smythe with 75 points. They would be matched up against the Vancouver Canucks, led by young captain Trevor Linden and Russian defector Pavel Bure. Though Edmonton would give a damn good effort in taking the series to seven games, the Canucks would prove too strong in the decider, being the third team to send the Oilers out in as many years. Edmonton would select 9th Overall in the 1992 Entry Draft, selecting Czechoslovakian winger Robert Petrovicky.
The 92-93 season would see two more players from the glory days given their leave, as Kevin Lowe and Esa Tikkanen would both be dealt out in separate deals with the New York Rangers. Promising young centreman Doug Weight was the price for Tikkanen, giving the Oilers a potential cornerstone down the middle for years to come. Their previous man in that position, Vincent Damphousse, was traded out to Montreal in a deal that saw Shayne Corson (and other players) go the other way. With all of their big-name talent now gone. The Oilers’ destruction was effectively complete; Edmonton would, for the first time in their NHL history, fail to make the playoffs entirely. They would finish 5th in the Smythe Division with 56 points. Looking for a forward to play alongside Doug Weight in the near future, the Oilers would pick up Russian Viktor Kozlov at #6 in the 1993 Draft.
With Gretzky and Krushelnyski long gone, the final remaining piece left in Edmonton from the scuttled trade of 1988 was Marty McSorley, but he, too would be headed out the door in the off-season, dealt to Pittsburgh for Shawn McEachern. Oddly enough, the two would be traded back to their old teams halfway through the season, with Edmonton getting Jim Paek, and Pittsburgh getting Patrick Poulin in the second deal. Though McSorley was certainly a fan favourite, he alone could do little to slow the steady drain of enthusiasm from Edmonton, as fans braced for a truly horrible season. The Oilers were left with very little talent to work with, and would finish dead last in the Western Conference with 51 points. Thanks to a trade with Winnipeg late in the season, the Oilers would have picks #4 and 5 in the 1994 Entry Draft, using them to select Ontario-based forwards Jason Bonsignore and Jeff O’Neill.
With the Oilers steadily becoming one of the league’s basement teams, it was almost fortunate for the team that the 1994-95 season would be delayed due to a lockout. The reduced schedule made the season a little bit less painful for Oiler fans – or, at least, those who showed up at the Northlands Coliseum. One of the few bright spots for Edmonton was their usage of young talent; of all the players that played more than ten games, only three were 30 or older, the oldest of whom was Dean Kennedy at the age of 32. The future was looking brighter and brighter, and Edmonton was at least competitive, to an extent. They would finish with 38 points, just four out of a playoff spot. The Oilers would end up with the #6 pick in the 1995 Entry Draft, using it on Prince Albert forward Steve Kelly.
Though the on-ice situation was looking a bit better, the off-ice situation was beginning to crumble. Peter Pocklington, who had been losing money at a heavy rate, was beginning to feel the fire lit under him by the Alberta Treasury Branches. Having already defaulted on loans for his company Gainers Foods back in the 80s, it wasn’t long before the ATB came after his other assets. Chief among those was his hockey team, which he was partly financing with a line of credit. The ATB would finally make their move in 1996, calling in his loan. Unable to immediately pay what was required, Pocklington would instead have his companies taken from him, and put up for bids. The Oilers were now for sale, to whoever wanted to make a bid.
With the Oilers now in limbo, the team on the ice was horribly distracted. Even being a young, promising team wasn’t enough for a city that had been treated to the greatest player in the game just a few years ago, and the rigors of a full season were proving too much for a team that had a reasonable shot at playoffs a year back. Though some new talent was brought in to make the team more competitive (in particular, goaltender Curtis Joseph), it was still not enough to give the team a post-season spot. Marty McSorley would once again be traded out of Edmonton, this time to New York in a deal that sees Ray Ferraro, among other assets, dealt back to the Oilers.
Edmonton would once again finish well out of a playoff spot, managing only 60 points. This total would put them second-last in the Western Conference, and 4th-last overall. This was only slightly better than their attendance ranking, as they finished 3rd-last in the league with an average attendance of around 11,800, their lowest ever. Edmonton would use their 1996 1st-Round Pick on Alexander Volchkov, a winger who had played the previous year with the OHL’s Barrie Colts.
With the team now in serious jeopardy of relocation, a season ticket drive was organized by a local group (including businessman Cal Nichols) to show the NHL that the team still belonged in the city of Edmonton. Though originally topping out at around 6,000, the season ticket drive would be boosted heavily thanks to the work of the organizing committee, eventually managing about 12,500 sales. This news meant very little in the face of a sale, as the ATB was still looking to collect money from Peter Pocklington. If investors in the area wanted to keep the team in the provincial capital, they would have to act quickly, as Leslie Alexander, the owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, was preparing a bid for the Oilers. Speculation was rampant that he would move the team to Houston upon completion of the sale, ending a rich history of hockey in Edmonton.
If there was ever a time for both fans and team to step up, the 1996-97 season was it. The fans certainly did their part, showing up to bring average attendance back to a respectable level – just under 16,000 per game. The team on the ice responded to this by putting in serious efforts game after game, and the young talent that had been bubbling up to the surface was finally beginning to hit their boiling point. Viktor Kozlov would break the 40-point mark for the first time in his career, and players such as Andrei Kovalenko, Jeff O’Neill, and Mariusz Czerkawski would also chip in with good offensive years. With the likes of Ray Ferraro and Curtis Joseph providing important veteran leadership, the Oilers would finish in 8th in the West with 80 points, making the playoffs for the first time since the 91-92 season.
The Oilers’ prize for making the post-season was a date with the Colorado Avalanche, fresh off of a Stanley Cup in their first season since their move from Quebec. Whether it was due to fatigue or arrogance, the Avs would lose three of the first four to a resilient Edmonton team, who were playing with incredible cohesion and spirit. The Avalanche would wake up in Game Five, recording a 6-1 win, and from then on, they wouldn’t look back, taking the series in seven. It was a major sign of progress for the Oilers, who were now on a serious upswing. They would get the 13th Pick in the 1997 Entry Draft, using it on Daniel Cleary.
The Alberta Treasury was ready to make their move, and had agreed in principle on a deal with Leslie Alexander for the sale of the Edmonton Oilers, provided that a local group could not put together their own bid in time. A group of 38 investors, Cal Nichols chief among them, would extend an offer for the club, and it would be accepted on June 14th, 1997. The long struggle for the future of the Edmonton Oilers was finally over, and the team that had been so powerful a decade ago was no longer in danger of moving to Houston.
Finally, all of the off-ice questions were answered. Now, Edmonton could simply look toward the future, and focus on becoming a competitive team again. Trouble hits the Oilers quickly, though, as Ray Ferraro spends much of the season on the injury list. Looking for a better prime scorer, the Oilers also ship out Viktor Kozlov (and defenseman Bryan Muir) to New Jersey, getting Bill Guerin and Valeri Zelepukin in return. As with last season, the Oilers find themselves treading water for much of the season, but when all is said and done, they sit above the cut-off line, if barely. Edmonton would finish in 8th place in the Western Conference once more, racking up 77 points.
In 1997, the Oilers were given an extremely tough test, and managed to hold their own against the Colorado Avalanche. This time around, their first-round match-up was against the Dallas Stars, who had clinched the President’s Trophy with 109 points. And unlike in the previous year, Edmonton starts off weak, only to get worse. Curtis Joseph is pulled in Game Two, and sits out Game Three entirely in favour of Olaf Kolzig, who doesn’t exactly impress in his lone start. Joseph is back in net for Game Four, only to get pulled once more in an 8-1 loss. The Stars’ dominant performance would cap off a four-game sweep, and the Oilers were left to mourn another early exit. They would get the 12th pick in the 1998 Entry Draft, using it on centreman Alex Tanguay.
The 1998 off-season would start with a huge decision, as the Oilers would elect not to renew the contract of Curtis Joseph, who would instead sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. With his poor playoff performance a year prior, and the emergence of Olaf Kolzig, the Oilers felt the time to make a change had arrived. Kolzig, who had done very well as a back-up last season (9 wins and a .920 SV% in 16 games), would prove to be acceptable, if not stellar in his first season as a starter, managing a .900 SV% in 64 games. He is helped greatly by a strong defense in front of him, which allows few shots. (Note: Because of Kolzig becoming the starter, the Oilers never make the trade with New York that brought Tommy Salo over.)
The Oilers benefit greatly by being in the “weaker” conference, and are especially helped by the re-alignment of the league, which sees the divisions increase to six (three per conference). Edmonton barely manages a .500 record, but playing with much poorer teams means that they finish in a much better position than they would were they an Eastern team. The Oilers end up in 6th in the West, managing 87 points; they are tied with St. Louis, but just lose out on tiebreakers. Their finish means that Edmonton is once again destined to face a strong team in the first round, as they are given a match-up with the two-time defending Stanley Cup winners Detroit. Expected to lose handily, the Oilers instead revert to their 1997 form, and give the Red Wings a major test; incredibly, the Wings fail, losing the series in five games.
After their spectacular upset victory, the Oilers are now the centre of attention in the hockey world for the first time in a decade. Fans are flocking to the Skyreach Centre in great numbers, as Edmonton registers several sell-outs. Playoff tickets, especially following the Red Wings series, are scarce, and the atmosphere inside the arena is comparable to the Gretzky days. The Oilers would need all the energy they could get, as their second-round match-up was with the Dallas Stars, the team that so handily eliminated them a year prior. This time around, the Oilers are not going to go away quietly, and force Game Seven. Once again, Edmonton prevails, winning 4-1 to send the Stars packing.
Having already dispatched the two-time Stanley Cup Champions and the two-time President’s Trophy winners, the Oilers’ next test is a Conference Final match-up with the Colorado Avalanche, who knocked the Oilers out of the 1997 Playoffs. Genuine talk of a spot in the Stanley Cup Final is beginning to emerge, as the Oilers look like the “little team that could”, thanks to their two major upsets. Colorado, however, has planned for this, and is in no mood to be the next team that gets toppled by the Oilers. The Avs storm out of the gate, taking the first two games of the series, then return to Edmonton and win two more, finishing a sweep.
Even as the final seconds of Game Four tick down, the crowd at the Skyreach Centre is on their feet for the Oilers, who have put together a fantastic run to the Conference Final against all odds. For half a decade, Edmonton’s hockey team was a league punching bag, and was almost in danger of being moved, just as their fellow WHA cross-overs Hartford, Winnipeg, and Quebec had. But with this great post-season, the follies of the mid-90s look to have been erased. Edmonton would get the #16 pick in the 1999 Entry Draft, using their selection on American blue-liner David Tanabe.
THE OILERS FROM 1988-1999: Obviously, losing the top player in the league would have an effect on any team. But without the compensation package they got for Wayne Gretzky, the Edmonton re-build would be set back a bit. Many of the pieces they got from the Jimmy Carson trade in real life would be key pieces in helping the team win a Stanley Cup in 1990, and without those players, Edmonton never gets that far. It also hurts not to have the three 1st-Round Picks, as while Jason Miller and Nick Stajduhar never really made much of an impact in the NHL, Martin Rucinsky would end up being an All-Star. (Of note, Miller was selected by the New Jersey Devils after the pick was traded for Corey Foster, while Rucinsky spent one year in Edmonton before being traded for Ron Tugnutt and Brad Zavisha in the OTL.)
With fewer assets available, the down years become that much more painful. The Oilers are never the very worst in the league, and don’t get the opportunity to grab top draft picks, and many of those that they do select end up busting; one of those busts is Jason Bonsignore, who the Oilers selected in real life with one of their two picks in 1994. Edmonton also gets Steve Kelly at #6 in 1995, and then Alexander Volchkov, who would play all of three games in the NHL as a #4 pick in 1996. But despite the misses, there are some hits, including 1989 selection Olaf Kolzig, who would blossom into a genuine NHL starter by the end of the 90s.
Another major facet of the Gretzky trade was the $15 million in cash that Peter Pocklington was given by Bruce McNall. The money helped Pocklington go on a little longer without having his assets taken from him by the Alberta Treasury Branches, but eventually, the time would come when the Oilers would have to be sold off in order to pay back what was owed. In this timeline, the sale comes up a year or so earlier, as Pocklington’s coffers are even emptier than they were in the OTL. Though he does muse about moving the team to Minnesota to replace the North Stars, or to Hamilton, Pocklington lets the team be sold to a group of Edmonton-area investors who look to keep the team in the city. Again, this is the way it happened in real life, only with the timeframe sped up a bit.
So, with all this in mind, what does the Edmonton line-up look like on opening day of the 1999-2000 season?
Alex Selivanov – Doug Weight – Bill Guerin
Mike Grier – Alex Tanguay – Jeff O’Neill
Mats Lindgren – Todd Marchant – Rem Murray
Georges Laraque – Ian Laperriere – Paul Comrie
Boris Mironov – Roman Hamrlik
Tom Poti – Janne Niinimaa
Jason Smith – Mattias Norstrom
Because of the change in draft positions, the Oilers get both Jeff O’Neill and Alex Tanguay in the 1st-Round, missing out on the likes of Ryan Smyth and Michael Henrich. Henrich is no major loss, but Ryan Smyth would go on to become the face of the club for years. O’Neill is good, no doubt, but losing Smyth is a huge blow for the Oilers’ locker room. Laperriere and Norstrom come over from the Marty McSorley trade, which the Rangers now make with the Oilers instead of Los Angeles. Mironov stays with Edmonton instead of being traded to Chicago; because the Oilers already have Dan Cleary, and do not have Dean McAmmond, the deal (which involved all three of Mironov, Cleary, and McAmmond, four other players, and a switch of 2nd-Round Picks) could not be made. Finally, Kolzig is the late-blooming 1989 1st-Rounder that Edmonton drafts instead of Jason Soules. He would spend a few years as a back-up, before finally getting his chance to start in 98-99 following the departure of Curtis Joseph.
The blue line is packed to the gills with talent, as Mironov, Hamrlik, Poti, and Niinimaa can all pitch in offensively and defensively. Smith and Norstrom make a formidable shut-down pairing that can stifle many a forward. Offensively, the team could use a little bit of firepower, but they would get some in the following year. Not only would Alex Tanguay have a great rookie year (51 points), but Jeff O’Neill would have a breakout season (61 points). And in goal, Kolzig would return to the form of the 97-98 season, managing a .917 SV% in 73 games, while notching 41 wins en route to a Vezina Trophy. If those numbers hold up in this new timeline, this team could be far more dangerous than expected, and the Conference Final run of a year ago might not look like an outlier for long.
FROM LOS ANGELES’ PERSPECTIVE
Bruce McNall’s constant barrage of swearing could probably be heard within a five-mile radius in downtown Los Angeles. The Kings were this close to having the Great One in L.A., but instead have to rely on what they still have, and hope that Gretzky exercises his out clause in 1989. What they have, however, isn’t too shabby. They have the young duo of Jimmy Carson and Luc Robitaille, who have combined to put up over 380 points in their first two seasons of NHL play. They have Bernie Nicholls, a multi-time 30-goal scorer, and Steve Duchesne, a young offensive defenseman with a ton of upside. Even if they didn’t have Gretzky, there was still some good talent with bright futures ahead of them.
The development of Carson and Robitaille continues, as they have another season playing together on Los Angeles’ first line. Their totals do regress a tad, as they manage 95 and 93 points, respectively, but Nicholls pitches in with 100 points flat. The Kings’ respectable offensive numbers keep the team reasonably competitive, as their goaltending proves to be barely below average. At the end of the season, they have a dogfight for 3rd place in the Smythe Division with Vancouver, but the Kings just barely manage to claim the spot on a tie-breaker with 74 points. This put the Kings directly in the crosshairs of the Edmonton Oilers, Gretzky and all. The Oilers prove to be more than Los Angeles can handle, winning the series in five games. L.A.’s 1st-Round Pick in 1989 would be the 9th pick, which the Kings would use on blue-liner Jason Marshall out of the BCJHL’s Vernon Lakers.
The loss to Gretzky in the playoffs only infuriated McNall further, and he felt that the 1989 off-season was the best time to take his revenge. Knowing that Gretzky would not return to Edmonton, and instead elect to go to free agency, McNall positioned himself to be the one that managed to get the Great One’s signature on a new contract. A bidding war kicked off, with 19 of the 21 teams involved offering contracts, but the Kings simply would not be denied. Wayne’s wife Janet Jones was already living full-time in Los Angeles, and Gretzky himself would join her in the off-seasons, which gave the Kings a massive advantage. Being familiar with the city already, he could have the opportunity to call it home permanently, and be with his wife more often. It was thus no surprise that on July 3rd, 1989, Gretzky would choose to sign with the Kings on a $4 million/year contract through 1998.
The Great One, after a false alarm, was now in Los Angeles for real. The signing would be front-page news in the Los Angeles Times, and by the end of the week, the Kings would have people from all across Hollywood begging for season tickets. Even names such as former President Ronald Reagan were calling McNall looking for seats at the Great Western Forum. When once, the team was an afterthought in the greater scope of the sport, it was now the centre of the hockey universe. Los Angeles had always had stand-out players, but none of them could compare to the Great One himself.
Immediately as the season began, the increase in attention being paid to the Kings could be noticed. Some players certainly enjoyed it, but others didn’t. The added media presence was extremely noticeable on Jimmy Carson, as he privately discussed a deal out of Los Angeles with General Manager Rogie Vachon. Carson felt extremely uneasy in the locker room thanks to the throng of journalists who were now present, and stated that he “couldn’t cope with the added pressure”. Vachon would grant him his wish, dealing Carson and Jay Miller to the Detroit Red Wings for Petr Klima, Joe Murphy, Adam Graves, and Jeff Sharples.
In his first season in Los Angeles, Gretzky lived up to the hype. He wasn’t exactly in his early-80s form, but he still racked up 102 assists and 142 points, leading the league in both categories. He would also take over the all-time NHL scoring lead from Gordie Howe, managing his 1851st point in October – against, oddly enough, the Edmonton Oilers. Despite Gretzky’s impact, the team around him seemed to be unable to keep up, save for a few select players. The Kings would still make it into the playoffs, but could not manage even a .500 record, finishing 4th in the Smythe Division with 77 points. They would be matched up with the defending Stanley Cup champs from Calgary, with many expecting an easy Flames win. The Kings would buck the expectations HARD, winning the series in six games, including a massive 12-4 win in Game Four.
In their first playoff test with Wayne Gretzky in tow, the Kings had succeeded. Next in their sights would be the Winnipeg Jets, who had eliminated the Oilers in the first round. Winnipeg would prove to be a much tougher opponent, as the teams traded wins. Both sides would earn a split on the road, and the home team would win the next two, leaving the series 3-3 going into a deciding game. The offense would flow in Game Seven, but strangely, Gretzky himself would not factor into any of it. The Great One was left without even a point, while names like Pat Elynuik, Paul MacDermid, and Thomas Steen would all grab at least four, as the Jets won 10-5. The Kings would get the 8th Overall Pick in the 1990 Draft, using it on defender Derian Hatcher.
The Kings may have been knocked out in the second round, but it was still considered a successful season, with room to build. This was a side that had managed to knock out a great team in Calgary, and took Winnipeg to a seventh game. They still had some good young talent, and of course, Gretzky. A Stanley Cup was now in the cards for the Kings, and with every game in the 1990-91 season, they would show more and more that the idea of the Cup in L.A. was more and more likely. Far from the team of a year back, the Kings would ransack the Smythe, finishing first in the entire league with 109 points. Wayne Gretzky, who had taken the all-time NHL points lead a year prior, would be the first player in league history to record 2000 points with an assist against Winnipeg on October 26th. He remains the only player to reach that milestone.
When last year, there was somewhat mixed feelings from fans going into the team’s first-round series against Calgary, there was now a palpable sense of excitement. This was a team that could truly win it all. Their first round series would be against the Vancouver Canucks, a team that had missed the playoffs completely the previous year. Vancouver would be brushed aside in a sweep, paving the way for a second-round re-match with the Calgary Flames. The Flames had a chip on their shoulder from the previous year’s loss, and with Soviet star Sergei Makarov in tow, they were not going to be as easy to beat this time. The two teams would split the first two games in Los Angeles, and the Flames would take the next two at home, taking a 3-1 lead. Though L.A. managed to win at home, Calgary would do the same, claiming Game Six, and the series, with a 7-5 victory. As the President’s Trophy winners, the Kings would have the last pick in the 1991 Entry Draft, using their selection on Dean McAmmond.
The Kings had stalled. Despite a drastic regular-season improvement, Los Angeles could not get past the second round, and the front office felt that the team needed somebody to get the team over the last hurdle. That someone would be Wayne Gretzky’s former Edmonton linemate, Jari Kurri. Kurri had gotten into a contract spat with the Oilers, and would eventually have his rights traded to Philadelphia. On May 30th, Kurri, along with Jeff Chychrun, would be traded to Los Angeles in a deal that saw Steve Duchesne, Steve Kasper, and a 4th-Round Pick in 1991 (used on Aris Brimanis) go the other way. With Kurri and Gretzky re-united, the team was far more confident in their chances of winning a Stanley Cup.
Having spent his last season playing in Italy, Jari Kurri needed to readjust to playing at the highest level, and his game suffered for it. He would post 60 points; while a solid number for any player, even in the early 90s, it was actually Kurri’s lowest-ever total in the NHL. Despite his struggles, the Kings had other players pitch in. Joe Murphy would grab 82 points, while Kelly Hrudey would post great numbers in his 60 games as L.A. starter (.897 SV%, 11 points above the league average). The Kings would finish with 96 points, putting them in a tie with the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks, however, would take the Smythe Division thanks to tiebreakers.
The Kings would be matched up once more with the Winnipeg Jets, who L.A. had lost to in 1990. Los Angeles knew they had to be in form night after night, but they just couldn’t keep up. Despite splitting the first four games, Los Angeles would fade in Games Five and Six to drop the series. After great progress made in the last two years, the Kings were going backwards, and to make matters worse, they had no 1st-Round Pick, having traded their selection to Pittsburgh to get another former Oiler in Paul Coffey. With trouble looming, the decision was made to fire head coach Tom Webster, replacing him with former Adirondack boss Barry Melrose. GM Rogie Vachon was also reassigned, replaced by Nick Beverley.
The Kings’ first season with Melrose behind the bench got off to a rocky start, as the team tried to find their rhythm under a new coach. It didn’t help matters that Wayne Gretzky would miss considerable time due to back injuries, which limited him to only 46 games. But as players like Gretzky fell back, others stepped up, including sniper Luc Robitaille, who led the way with career highs in goals (63) and points (125). Also brought in late was former King Jimmy Carson, who ended the regular season with the team that drafted him following a deal with Detroit that saw Paul Coffey, among others, head to the Motor City. Despite setbacks, the Kings managed to make the playoffs with 89 points, good for 3rd in the Smythe.
By the time the playoffs were set to begin, the Kings were now fully set to make a deep run. They had Gretzky back, and the team had finally begun to gel under Melrose. Facing Los Angeles in the first round would be the Calgary Flames, a team the Kings had a 1-1 series record against since the Gretzky signing. The rubber match between the two sides would be a stereotypical high-scoring affair, with the winning side scoring nine goals in three of the six games. It would be the Kings with the last laugh, however, winning 9-6 in Game Six to move on. Their next opponent was the Vancouver Canucks, and they, too, would be unable to keep up with the Kings. Los Angeles would take another six-game series, advancing to the Campbell Conference Final for the very first time.
It was new ground for the Kings, who had never been this far in the 16-team playoff era. After hiccups in the playoffs the past few years, fans in L.A. were finally beginning to believe that a Stanley Cup was within their reach. To get to the Cup Final, however, the Kings would have to deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team led by the likes of Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, and rookie starter Felix Potvin. The Leafs were an entirely new challenge, and gave the Kings all they could handle. The key moment of the series would come in Game Six; with the series on the line in over-time, Wayne Gretzky high-sticked Gilmour, only for referee Kerry Fraser to miss the call. Gretzky would score, tying the series at three games apiece, then score a hat trick in the deciding game to clinch it for L.A.
Fate, it seemed, was on Los Angeles’ side. They had advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, set for a series with the historical powerhouses, the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal had a strong team led by one of the best goalies in the game in Patrick Roy, and a crafty coach in Jacques Demers. Demers would become the focal point of the series in Game Two, having the officials check L.A. blue-liner Igor Kravchuk’s stick for an illegal curve late in the game. The stick was determined to be legal, and the Kings would go on to win the game 2-1 to take a two-game lead in the series.
Now on the ropes, Montreal would come out swinging in the next two games, which were held in Los Angeles. Despite being on enemy ice, the Habs would take Games Three and Four in over-time, tying the series at two games each. Game Five would go to the Canadiens as well, giving L.A. one last chance to extend it at home. Unlike the first two in L.A., this game would not go to extra time, as the Kings would win 6-5 to send the series back to the Montreal Forum for a decider. The Kings would crumble in the first, giving up three goals, and never get another sniff at the game. The Habs would win 4-2, taking the series by four games to three. After being so close to the Cup, the Kings had fallen short. Their consolation prize was the 16th pick in the 1993 Entry Draft, used on London Knights’ defender Nick Stajduhar.
It was bad enough that the Kings had been unable to grab hold of the Stanley Cup in such a long series, but the news was only going to get worse the next season. In December, owner Bruce McNall would default on a $90 million loan, and was informed he would have the Kings placed into bankruptcy by the Bank of America if he did not sell the team. He also admitted that the coins he collected – the ones that made him his early fortunes – had been smuggled out of the countries he found them in. With their owner now in legal trouble, Los Angeles was set for a spectacular downfall.
To their credit, the Kings would fight as hard as they could to stay in the playoff race, buoyed by solid years from blue-liners Derian Hatcher and Igor Kravchuk. Eventually, however, Los Angeles would fade. Now in a re-aligned Western Conference, simply finishing 4th in their division wouldn’t be enough, as their 79 points fell three short of the 8th and final playoff spot in the West. The Kings would pick 9th in the 1994 Entry Draft, grabbing big winger Brett Lindros from the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. This would also mark the last season with Nick Beverley as GM of the team, as he would be replaced by Sam McMaster.
The off-ice trouble of the past year wasn’t done. Though the team had been sold to the duo of Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joseph Cohen, it was revealed that the heavy spending of Bruce McNall had put the team into a major financial hole. McNall’s money troubles would develop into legal issues, as he was charged with several counts of conspiracy and fraud – charges that he would plead guilty to in December of 1994. And as if the ownership problems weren’t enough, the NHL itself had been mired in a lockout starting from September, halting much of the attention that the league had gained in the United States since the Gretzky signing.
Even as play resumed in January of 1995, many Los Angeles fans were anticipating their team to crumble this year, potentially setting the stage for a rebuild. Already gone was Luc Robitaille, dealt to Pittsburgh in a deal that saw Rick Tocchet go the other way. Warren Rychel, Charlie Huddy, and Alexei Zhitnik would also be dealt away during the season, as a team that once looked so dominant was now shedding salary. Despite the sell-off, the team that remained had no intention of simply throwing the season away. The Kings would remain competitive in the shortened year, eventually finishing 7th in the Western Conference with 48 points. It was quite an achievement for a side that looked to have their best days behind them, and there was at least a sliver of belief that maybe, with the Great One in tow, they could make a strong run.
Already having played against the Flames three times in the past six years, the Kings would face off against Calgary once more in the first round. While the Kings have deteriorated over the past few seasons, the Flames were still incredibly skilled, and gritty enough to wear down and older Los Angeles team. L.A. would find themselves unable to keep up, and Game Five showed it perfectly, as Calgary dominated en route to a 5-0 win. That game would be the decider, as Calgary won the series 4-1. Los Angeles would end up with the 13th pick in the 1995 Draft, selecting goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Just before the 1995-96 season began, there would be yet another ownership change. As it turned out, Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joseph Cohen were having trouble simply meeting payroll, and at one point, Bruce McNall’s lawyers even demanded that the sale be rescinded. Businessmen Philip Anschutz and Edward P. Roski would step in to make an offer for the club, and the day prior to the Kings’ season opener, the sale was approved. After a few years of financial uncertainty, Los Angeles now had some stable ownership.
Despite the playoff appearance the past season, worries are beginning to pop up all across the board for L.A. as they begin the 1995-96 season. Early on, prized pick Brett Lindros is sidelined with post-concussion syndrome, an injury that would call a permanent halt to his career. Blue-liner Derian Hatcher, meanwhile, is dealt to Dallas in order to further cut costs. And to make matters worse, rumours circulate close to the trade deadline that Wayne Gretzky himself has requested a move out of Los Angeles, not wanting to be part of a long-term re-build. The nervousness only subsides as the deadline passes, with the news that neither the front office, nor Gretzky himself, want to give up on the campaign. By the end of the regular season, Gretzky is still a King.
The front office’s decision to make a run for it, rather than trade Gretzky to start a re-build, ends up paying off, if just barely. The Kings are in a dogfight for one of the last playoff spots, and eventually squeak into the post-season in 8th place. Though tied with Winnipeg and Anaheim with 78 points, the tiebreakers fall to Los Angeles, and they are awarded the final playoff spot in the West. The Kings would get the honour of facing the Detroit Red Wings, a team that had just finished the regular season with the most wins of all-time (62), and the second-most points ever (131). Predictably, the Kings, even with the Great One, were no match at all for such a devastating team, and the Wings would go on to obliterate L.A., claiming a four-game sweep. Los Angeles would get the 11th Pick in the 1996 Draft, selecting defenseman Dan Focht.
Wayne knew that if he wanted another Stanley Cup, he was not going to find it in Los Angeles. The team had steadily declined since their Stanley Cup Final appearance, and was barely treading water in the Western Conference. Though the Kings would extend an offer to the Great One, Gretzky wasn’t interested. Instead, he would take a deal with the New York Rangers, re-uniting him with his old Edmonton teammate Mark Messier. With their centrepiece player no longer in town, the Kings would commit to a full re-build. Barry Melrose, who had brought the team closer to the Cup than anyone in the city ever did, was dismissed in favour of legendary blue-liner (and former New Jersey assistant coach) Larry Robinson.
Los Angeles hockey without the Great One was, to say the least, ugly. It was apparent that the team’s glory days were long past, and they seemed to have nobody that could step up and be a star. Dmitri Khristich would end up leading the team with 56 points, a far cry from the days of players like Carson, Gretzky, and Robitaille putting up monstrous totals. The Kings would record their worst finish in years, ending up in dead last in the Western Conference with 62 points, tied with San Jose. Because of tiebreakers, the Sharks would have the better finish, leaving L.A. with the 2nd Overall Pick in the 1997 Entry Draft. Hoping to find a true impact forward, the Kings select Patrick Marleau, a centreman from the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. Though not quite Gretzky-level, Marleau at least projects to be a top forward, whether on the wing or down the middle.
With the awful finish came a need for some new blood in the front office. Sam McMaster, who gambled on Gretzky in 1996 only to come away with nothing, was given his marching orders. Dave Taylor, a four-time All-Star and member of the 1,000-point club, would take his place. Taylor had only retired from the game in 1994, playing his entire 17-year career with the Kings. Though he had little front office experience going into the job, he was sure to be a popular hire with Kings fans – if not for his history with the club, then for the fact that he was replacing the man known as “McMaster the Disaster”.
One of Taylor’s first moves is a bit of a gamble, as he acquires Gary Roberts and Trevor Kidd from Calgary for Yanic Perreault and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Roberts is coming off of missing the entire 96-97 season in order to recuperate from injuries suffered over the course of his career, but is ready to play for 97-98. Just a few days later, the GM makes another big move, acquiring L.A. favourite Luc Robitaille from New York in exchange for Kevin Stevens.
As it turns out, Roberts and Robitaille are just what Los Angeles needs to get out of the basement. The former Stanley Cup winner Roberts puts up 49 points in 61 games in his return year, while Robitaille grabs 40 points in 57 games; both of them provide great presences in the locker room for the younger guys. Jozef Stumpel, acquired in a deal with Boston that sent Dmitri Khristich and Byron Dafoe to the Bruins, has a breakout year with 79 points. Patrick Marleau, meanwhile, has a solid rookie season, notching 32 points, and getting Calder Trophy consideration. Finally, Stephane Fiset, a goalie who had been used as a 1a/1b option up to this point, manages 60 games of solid hockey – not quite stellar, but still a career high for the former Quebec goaltender.
The Kings’ rebuild has been sped up considerably. Instead of once again being in the gutter, Los Angeles is back in a playoff spot. They finish 5th in the West with 89 points, setting up a first-round contest against the St. Louis Blues. Despite their regular season performance, it becomes clear that several of the younger King players are not yet ready for the trials of the post-season, as the Blues hammer L.A. in the series opener, 8-3. From then on, however, the Kings grow, if only superficially. They make the next three games quite competitive, only for St. Louis to win each of them, and take home a series sweep. Los Angeles would have had the 18th Overall Pick in 1998, but because of the deal that made Stephane Fiset a King, they would move down to #21, taking defender Mathieu Biron.
With the team starting to look competitive, now was as good a time as ever for the team to take residence in a new arena, and the Kings’ ownership group had one in the works. After several months of debate over a potential new sports facility, a deal was reached in 1997, and construction would begin on what would eventually be known as the Staples Center. The arena would not only host the Kings, but also the NBA’s two Los Angeles teams, the Lakers and the Clippers. For the Kings, it was another part of their future secure, but it was also a time to say goodbye to the building that had been the team’s home since their inception. The Great Western Forum had seen the highs and the lows of Los Angeles hockey, and for a brief period of time, was home to the best player in the game, a man who certainly emphasized the “Great” in the arena’s name.
The Kings’ farewell season to the Forum was expected to be a solid one, coming off of their recent playoff appearance. Unfortunately, the success they had in 97-98 would not be replicated. Though Robitaille would get a semblance of his old form back (39 goals and 74 points in 82 games), nobody else could keep up with him. The only other players to get more than 40 points on the Kings are Marleau and Roberts, with Marleau being the only other player on the team to crack 20 goals. Stephane Fiset certainly tried his hardest to keep the team competitive (a career-high .915 SV% in 42 games), but the team in front of him couldn’t give him any goal support.
The Kings would finish the season in 11th in the West, managing only 68 points. As the 1999 Expansion Draft comes closer, rumours of a blockbuster trade with the New York Islanders began to circulate. The Islanders, in the midst of a massive salary clearing operation, had already dealt several high-earning players, and forward Zigmund Palffy looked to be next out of the door. A deal with the Islanders’ New York rivals, the Rangers, had already fallen apart, and the Kings looked to be next in line. Wanting to make sure the Islanders weren’t completely throwing away their team, commissioner Gary Bettman himself stepped in to help the negotiations go along smoothly. But even with Bettman assisting, making a deal was still incredibly tricky.
The Islanders wanted a slew of prospects from the Kings, with Josh Green (#30 in 1996), Mathieu Biron (#21 in 1998), and the Kings’ 1st-Rounder in 1999 all being asked for by Milbury. The one other piece that Milbury asked for, however, was Patrick Marleau, who had already managed over 70 points in his first two NHL seasons. Dave Taylor was immediately turned off to negotiations, and after conferring with both his front-office staff and the commissioner, called the deal off for good. The Kings would instead use their 1st-Round Pick, 8th Overall, on Sudbury Wolves’ winger Taylor Pyatt.
THE KINGS FROM 1988-1999: Without a doubt, the early-90s Kings set a whole new benchmark for the franchise, but also helped ignite the spark that helped grow hockey in the South. Now, instead of having to pay up with young players and picks, the Kings instead give Wayne Gretzky extra money in free agency to play in Los Angeles. (Of course, the previous relationship that Gretzky and Bruce McNall established didn’t hurt, either.) Having all of those assets still in their system allows the Kings to be much more competitive going forward, especially in that golden period of the 90s.
So, now that they have all of those assets, what did they do with them? Firstly, they held on to young centreman Jimmy Carson, who would be traded only a couple of weeks into the 1989-90 season, not wanting to play under such scrutiny with the Great One in town. This gets L.A. the likes of Petr Klima and Joe Murphy, both of whom would become effective contributors at the NHL level – Murphy, in particular, would grab 82 points in 91-92, his career high. Martin Gelinas, meanwhile, would play some good hockey as a young player in Los Angeles, but his career would never really take off until he hit Vancouver. By that point, the return that Los Angeles would get for him would be nowhere near enough to replace him.
Also held on to by Los Angeles are three 1st-Round Draft Picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993. The first of those is Jason Marshall; he would go on to have a relatively okay, if unspectacular career, but like Gelinas, his greatest years in the NHL would happen after he left L.A. for a better chance at playing time. Their 1991 pick is used on Dean McAmmond, who would carve out a career as a reliable top-9 forward, and has earned a place on the Kings’ roster for several years now. Many trades that took place in the OTL involving him never happen, mostly due to players in those deal being unavailable. Finally, the 1993 1st-Rounder is Nick Stajduhar, who would play all of two games in the NHL. His selection at #16 is bad enough, but looks even worse when compared to the next player taken, Jason Allison, who would be a productive centreman at the NHL level (even if he was a little slow).
With all that talent now under Los Angeles control, the fall of the mid-90s isn’t as drastic as it was in the OTL. Instead of falling short of the post-season in the lockout-shortened season, they make it to the playoffs once more, and do the same in the 95-96 season, which would be Gretzky’s last in Los Angeles. It is when Gretzky departs that the problems begin to arrive for the Kings, as they struggle to find anyone good enough to replace what he can bring. In a case of “one step forward, two steps back”, Los Angeles finishes second-last in 1997, and despite a resurgence in 1998, they go right back to being bad in 98-99. The team is now in a rebuilding phase, much like what they would go through at this time in the OTL.
So, with all the changes, this is their starting roster in 1999-2000:
Luc Robitaille – Jozef Stumpel – Glen Murray
Gary Roberts – Patrick Marleau – Donald Audette
Dean McAmmond – Jason Blake – Marko Tuomainen
Josh Green – Len Barrie – Brad Chartrand
Rob Blake – Sean O’Donnell
Frantisek Kaberle – Garry Galley
Jere Karalahti – Mathieu Biron
Gary Roberts and Trevor Kidd are brought in by a trade with Calgary, which sees centre Yanic Perreault and goalie prospect Jean-Sebastien Giguere head the other way. Roberts, having just come off missing almost two seasons due to injuries, would prove to be a very reliable second-line presence, as well as a locker room leader. Kidd, meanwhile, would step in as a back-up to Stephane Fiset, able to take the reins whenever Fiset was injured or out of form. Marleau has had a couple of okay seasons in his first two years as an NHLer; certainly a worthy player in this league, but not quite as impactful as many #2 picks are expected to be. As time would go on, this would change, especially when the rule changes took effect in 2005-06. Dean McAmmond, as mentioned, was L.A.’s pick in 1991, and has been a constant in the line-up for the past few years. And finally, Mathieu Biron is kept by Los Angeles, instead of being dealt in the Palffy deal in real life.
The line-up that takes the ice in 99-00 is enough to say that Los Angeles might have an outside shot at playoffs, but they could be better. Not making the pre-expansion draft trade with the Islanders in 1999 means that they have neither Ziggy Palffy, nor Bryan Smolinski, both of whom would be key players that year for the Kings. And because they never got Marty McSorley back in 1988 as part of the Gretzky deal, they never get the chance to trade him for any of Ray Ferraro, Mattias Norstrom, or Ian Laperriere. Though Ferraro is now with Atlanta at this point, having a “grit guy” in Laperriere and a future team captain in Norstrom would make this team much more capable of competing in the regular season.
ON THE NHL AS A WHOLE
THE SOUTHERN BOOM: In the OTL, the trade of Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles created a whole new generation of young hockey fans, a few of whom would go on to become NHL players themselves. Hockey would explode in California following the trade, and similar booms would soon follow across the southern United States. Teams would show up in previously-untapped states like Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Texas, and Tennessee, while places like the Bay Area, Atlanta, and Colorado would get a second chance to host an NHL club. The expansion of hockey to the South has had mixed results, but many of the teams that have popped up in that time have at least remained in place, with the exception of the Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg.
Even though the trade never happens, the boom of hockey in the South is still ignited, if only a year later. Instead of the frenzy happening in ’88, it now happens in ’89 with the signing of Gretzky as a free agent. The early expansion plans for San Jose and Tampa Bay still take place, and both franchises are still in place today. In fact, nothing really changes about the southern hockey scene; any alterations in this timeline would be incredibly minor, at best, and teams that struggle (or even fail outright) are still stuck in their predicaments this time around.
THE OILERS, FROM 2000-TODAY: Projecting teams going forward from the ten-year mark is certainly tougher, but judging by the moves they made in the new timeline, Edmonton is certainly in a little bit of a better position. They have Alex Tanguay, who would become a fantastic offensive force over the next few years, and they have Jeff O’Neill, who will be there to finish Tanguay’s passes for the next few years. And in goal, they have a certified NHL starter in Olaf Kolzig, who would take the reins for several more years going forward. For the early part of the next decade, Edmonton might not be a true-blue Cup contender, but they should at least expect to win a series or two, maybe even grab a Conference Final spot, if they’re lucky.
Beyond that lies the post-lockout era, which saw the Oilers make a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. Many of the pieces that Edmonton relied upon in that run will still be there, with a very notable exception: Ryan Smyth. Long considered a “heart-and-soul” figure in Edmonton, Smyth had been a fixture in the Oilers’ top-6 for years. Sure, someone like Alex Tanguay could replace his 36 goals in 2006, but could he compare for pure emotional impact? It is certainly feasible that Edmonton might not notice his absence, considering Tanguay’s production, and the fact that Smyth was not actually the Oilers’ captain (Jason Smith was). Having just one key piece missing, though, could be enough to knock them down a notch – maybe to a Conference Final appearance instead of a Cup Final spot.
The years following the Cup Final appearance (if it still happens) are still a downward spiral for the team, as they sell off key players. Chris Pronger still becomes an Oiler, and is still dealt out to Anaheim. Alex Tanguay is eventually dealt out, but probably a couple years after he was in real life, so as not to make a direct deal with provincial rivals Calgary. And Olaf Kolzig eventually comes to the end of his career, no longer able to be the key man in goal. Much of the doldrums of the early 2010s still happen, and their streak of #1 picks is left intact. Connor McDavid, too, ends up an Oiler, as the team tries to break out of the NHL’s cellar for good.
The lasting impact of the Gretzky departure is that instead of their last Cup coming in 1990, it comes in 1988 – the last year Wayne spent with Edmonton in the OTL. Without the return they got for him in our timeline, the Oilers aren’t good enough to claim the Cup two years later. Now, that last Cup serves as a cruel symbol of the team’s failures without #99 in the copper-and-blue. By 2018, a term for their constant lack of success has emerged – “The Gretzky Curse”. For thirty years, now, Edmonton has gone without a Cup, and for the past ten years or so, playoff appearances have been hard to come by. There is hope that the arrival of McDavid can break the curse, but until then, everyone who puts on an Oiler uniform, especially the captains, will live in the shadow of the Great One.
THE KINGS FROM 2000-TODAY: Los Angeles is sitting on a somewhat precarious perch as they look toward the 1999-2000 season, but they have SOME talent, at least. While not quite a top duo, the two top-line centres Jozef Stumpel and Patrick Marleau are at least serviceable. They have some veteran leaders in the locker room in Gary Roberts and Luc Robitaille, and a future Hall-of-Famer on the blue line in Rob Blake. They may not be a star-studded team, but at the very least, they should at least be in the race for a playoff spot, right?
As it stands, sure, but the team that L.A. has will soon fall apart. Not having Ziggy Palffy or Bryan Smolinski means the Kings are missing two key forwards, and their depth is shredded with all of Aki Berg, Mattias Norstrom, Ian Laperriere, and Craig Johnson never joining the team. To make matters worse, Gary Roberts would leave in the 2000 off-season to sign with the Leafs. Not having Berg, meanwhile, means the Kings never get the pick that becomes Mike Cammalleri, who would go on to become a strong top-line player for L.A. in the post-lockout era. Imagine this team with some of the 1st-Round Picks changed around, and now missing Alex Frolov, Denis Grebeshkov, and Dustin Brown. They probably get some better players (especially in the legendary 2003 Draft), but it means that they miss out on playoffs for years.
In the new era of the NHL, things begin to change for the better. They would have three balls in the 2005 Lottery instead of two, but even then, considering where they ended up in the actual Lottery compared to the other two-ball teams, it’s unlikely their position would change much, if at all. They still get Anze Kopitar, and they still have Patrick Marleau. Having a 1-2 punch of Kopitar-Marleau makes the Kings even deadlier as the new decade dawns, and by that time, they will still have the likes of Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, and Justin Williams to boost them. And with that 1-2 punch, they never need to make both of the Richards and Carter trades; only one of them is enough to make the team a Cup contender (and eventual two-time winner). Imagine those Cup-winning teams with, for example, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds still around, and realize that those Kings could be a constant presence in the Final for years to come.
It was great that they got so far with Wayne Gretzky. But even signing him outright wouldn’t be enough to take them all the way to the Cup in 1993. Their time would come twenty years later, and boy, would it be worth the wait.
THE REPUTATION OF WAYNE GRETZKY: As it stands in this new timeline, a new wrinkle has popped up in the history of the Great One that clouds his legacy a small bit.
In our timeline, Gretzky was traded twice in the NHL: first to Los Angeles in 1988, then to St. Louis in 1996. On both occasions, the return was multiple players and picks, and in the L.A. move, a massive chunk of cash ($15 million) was moved as well. This time around, neither of those deals happens. Wayne simply leaves Edmonton in free agency, then does the same to Los Angeles seven years later. With this in mind, there is a perception of Gretzky among some people – fans, media members, and executives alike – that Wayne is a selfish player, wanting to move only on his terms, and not do what was best for the team.
When one looks at the finer details, the perception of Gretzky as a “selfish diva” really doesn’t seem to hold up. As Peter Pocklington would write in his 2009 book, “I’d Trade Him”, Gretzky cancelled the deal out of an unshakeable loyalty to the Edmonton Oilers; furthermore, up until the day he left for free agency, he was negotiating all season long for an extension – one that “Peter Puck” never had the money to sign. Gretzky simply had no choice but to depart for the open market. The St. Louis trade, meanwhile, would be discussed in Wayne’s own autobiography in 2016. Details would emerge that Sam McMaster had received an offer of Craig Johnson, Roman Vopat, Patrice Tardif, and a pair of draft picks. McMaster, feeling that the Kings were in a position to make the playoffs that year, turned down the deal, and Wayne would leave as a free agent that summer. Wanye’s book also revealed that the new ownership group was looking at a re-build to wipe the slate clean from the McNall years, and wasn’t willing to keep Gretzky on what could be a bad team. Gretzky, wanting a Cup in his final years as a player, would then go on to New York.
The lack of a trade, when two were possible, would certainly harm the legacy of Gretzky, if only a teeny bit. But on further inspection, none of the two cancelled deals were really nixed out of selfishness. Gretzky never wanted to leave Edmonton, even if it meant saying no to a deal that would have helped the team reload for the future. He never even had the chance to say no to the eventual St. Louis deal, as the decision was made by McMaster, not him. And even then, considering what the deal would have been, it could have turned out to be a shoddy one for the Kings. But some would still harbour a resentment towards #99 for only leaving in free agency, and leaving the teams that had him with nothing. Even his silence in the wake of not being selected for the semi-final shootout at the 1998 Winter Olympics wouldn’t convince some people.
Virtually everybody would always remember Wayne as the “greatest to ever play the game”, the man who effectively reinvented hockey with his anticipation and his playmaking skill. But whether deserved or not (almost certainly the latter), there would always be a few people asking, “He may have been the ‘Great One’, but was he really good?”
So, as you can see, not a lot changes. It’s really just moving a few things around, and having certain events happen a little bit earlier or later. The southern hockey boom still happens, the Oilers’ and Kings’ owners still get into their financial troubles, and save for the Oilers failing to win in 1990, not much else is altered.
There is, however, a wrinkle in the original deal in our timeline. Peter Pocklington only negotiated with one team, and if he had opened it up to a bidding war, he could have gotten a bigger haul from someone who was champing at the bit to have the Great One on their club. And one team in particular had a very good chance; even Janet Jones herself had suggested Wayne head to the team that his childhood idol, Gordie Howe, had played so long for.
Next month, Part II of the Gretzky Trade series: What if Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Detroit Red Wings?
As always, if you have any suggestions or ideas for me, let me know in the comments!