Wayne Gretzky trade rumors defied media and belief for weeks
An hour or so after he had led his Edmonton Oilers to the 1988 Stanley Cup, their fourth in five seasons, Wayne Gretzky sat by himself on the players bench in an empty Northlands Coliseum. While his teammates, who were like a second family to him, whooped it up in the dressing room, he wanted to be alone with his thoughts and memories. Unshowered, still wearing most of his gear with dried champagne clinging to his skin and clothes, he stared up at the seats and the rafters, where banners hung trumpeting the Oilers' hard fought triumphs. Maybe he knew, maybe he didn't, that he would never skate there again as an Oiler. In 75 days, the greatest player of his generation would be a member of the Los Angeles Kings.
Throughout the hockey world -- actually, even the larger world of sports -- people are commemorating the 25th anniversary of Gretzky's August 9, 1988 trade from the Oilers to the Kings, plunking the transaction into context and investing it with meaning.
It's still major news in Canada. The CBC's nightly news program, The National, aired a 13-minute segment on the anniversary. The Edmonton Journal has a trio of excellent stories here, here and here that they've dressed up quite handsomely on their website. Not to be outdone, The Edmonton Sun has an entire section of its website devoted to the deal, most of the stories by longtime Oilers beat writer Terry Jones.
On the other end, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News (here on Gretzky's impact in SoCal and here on his effect on the media) each have stories, with Kings broadcaster Bob Miller telling Tom Hoffarth in the Daily News that, "Others involved in other sports may argue, but I still think it's the greatest trade in sports history. Some wanted to compare it to Babe Ruth traded from Boston to New York, but that wasn't the Ruth we all came to know (in the 1920s). No one dominated his sport in the way Gretzky did, in the prime of his career (age 27), with many great years left."
The Hockey News published a good first-person account of the deal by Adam Proteau in its 2013 commemorative issue, with many of the principles recalling the anatomy and aftermath of the deal (a longer version can be read here). CBC.ca posted a handful of material on its website, and both major Canadian sports networks, TSN and Sportsnet, are remembering the trade via video over the air and other content on their websites. Up there in Canada, time has eroded much of the bitterness about the deal, but there's still a sense that this was the moment when hockey sold its soul and lost its innocence, which presumes that it was innocent before the trade. Hardly.
Nevertheless, the departure of a small-town Canadian boy-hero who won Stanley Cups and scoring titles for a small market Canadian franchise delivered a wallop to Canada's psyche and personality. Edmonton fans took to the streets, hanging dummies of Oilers owner Peter Pockington from hockey sticks and burning them in effigy. I recall my friend Dan Diamond, publisher of the NHL's Official Guide & Record Book, joking -- or maybe not -- that he thought the Edmonton fire department should start hosing down the exterior of the Northlands Coliseum because he expected the fans would turn their Zippo lighters on the arena and torch it.
If fans took things that personally, the naked reality was that, as Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, it wasn't personal, but strictly business. Pocklington was in financial straits and exchanging what he viewed as a depreciating asset for a very large wad of much needed cash. Still, as Michael Grange of Sportsnet argues in his reflections on the deal, Gretzky's missionary work on behalf of the sport eventually provided both the NHL and hockey at large with unprecedented growth, and what's good for Canada's game has ultimately proven good for Canada.
Down in the States, the perspective was different. Gretzky's stratospheric seasons may have been behind him -- he would no longer pile up more assists than anyone else had points -- but he had a hell of a lot left and people wanted to see him. During his Oiler years, many had remarked, "Jeez, if only this guy played for a U.S. team, the NHL would really explode." Suddenly, here is was, in the country's second largest market, home of the entertainment industry, and not nearly as diminished a Pocklington believed, not even close -- and most clearly not when it came to drawing power. The Kings sold out their entire season; they'd never even come close to that before and probably had a half-filled Forum most nights. And if the NHL as a whole didn't exactly mushroom in the States (some of that was due to its national TV package hiding on the ill-fated SportsChannel America), there was a brand new, unmistakable buzz.
The trade eased hockey into more mainstream conversation than before and made Gretzky the game's most transcendent figure, so much so that he probably remains hockey's most recognizable name a quarter of a century later.
So the events of Aug. 9, 1988 certainly proved seminal for hockey in particular and sports as a whole. They became front page news in both the U.S. and Canada, a big item on national newscasts, obviously the lead story on all sportscasts and, among other things, worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover, an extreme rarity for hockey's offseason.
Breaking the news
And yet, as monumental as the trade seems now, as huge a story as it was, how the world came to learn of it was a slow, staggered process that has rarely been told or explored. There were hints, leaks, even print and on-air reports that this deal was in the works for weeks. But a combination of factors -- most notably, the state of the media in 1988 and disbelief on the part of reporters that Gretzky would actually be traded -- resulted in the news not gaining any real energy until just before the transaction was completed.
The memories of many who tried breaking the story are a bit fuzzy today. Gord Miller was a sports co-anchor with CBC in Edmonton in 1988 and he's certain that he and co-anchor Chris Cuthbert first reported the story on the air July 15, the date of Miller's mother's birthday. Cuthbert is less certain of that date, thinking their report might have been August 1 or 2 (and video of the newscast has never surfaced). But he does remember taking a call from someone in the Detroit-Windsor area tipping them off that the trade was going to happen.
"I took a call," Cuthbert says. "And we kind of laughed about it, then dismissed it. And then, about 15 minutes later, we started talking again about why he would be traded and tried to piece together some clues. One of the things that convinced us to pursue it was that the year before, for the first time, the coaching staff had been openly critical of Gretzky if he wasn't playing at a Gretzky-like pace. Before, if anybody ever said anything about Gretzky, the organization would almost blackball you. They didn't like his attitude as much, and that kind of tweaked our curiosity a bit. And I guess that was during the point where negotiations on a new deal weren't going that well and they might have let their guard down and showed their frustration in another way."
Cuthbert and Miller started to check out the story, calling a number of contacts they had in the hockey community, including John Ferguson, then the GM of the Winnipeg Jets, to see what they had heard. Cuthbert says, "We made enough calls where there was clearly some smoke and I think that one, Gord's call to Vancouver, took the story to a different level."
That call by Miller was to Canucks assistant GM Brian Burke, who he had met the previous season in the Northlands Coliseum press box. Miller recalls the conversation went this way:
"Hi Mr. Burke, it's Gord Miller calling from CBC, you wouldn't remember me...."
"...I remember ya'. Is there a question here?"
"Is it true the Vancouver Canucks have offered Trevor Linden, another player, a first round pick and $15 million for Wayne Gretzky?"
"He's not going to Vancouver," Burke said. "He's going to L.A. It's for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas...."
"He had everything but [Marty] McSorley and [Mike] Krushelnyski going back the other way," Miller says.
By six o'clock that evening, they went on the air with the story.
"Chris did the main story, I did one on what the fan reaction would be," says Miller. "But it didn't go anywhere. The Globe and Mail might have picked it up, I think, made a mention of it. And the Oilers threatened to sue us. Glen Sather called, and there was all this craziness."
Adds Cuthbert, "I remember contacting the Kings beat writer in L.A. and he was on holiday and I don't think he had much interest in the story because we wanted him to check it out at his end and we never really heard back from him. I know that Red Fisher (of The Montreal Gazette, a close confidant of Sather's) was given a heads up early in the summer and he ignored it; he thought it was games being played. I know that Jim Matheson (of The Edmonton Journal) has mentioned that he heard earlier in the summer, and he chose to ignore it. Nobody believed our story. Everybody was in denial. At the end of the day, it was a story that was very much ignored in Edmonton."
"The Oilers were denying it so vehemently and they controlled the city so tightly that it was just kind of fanciful," says Miller. "We didn't even know Gretzky only had a year to go on his contract and then he'd be an unrestricted free agent. It was different in L.A. I worked with Fred Roggin from KNBC in L.A. and he was hearing a lot of about it from the Buss family and everybody else."
Yes, it was different in Los Angeles, where those around the Kings were giddy with anticipation and had trouble containing themselves rather than clamming up and dreading the inevitable backlash. Hoffarth quotes Bob Miller as saying that he called Kings owner Bruce McNall some weeks before the deal, ostensibly to discuss the team's TV schedule, then asking, "When are you going to sign Gretzky?"
McNall paused and answered: "Tell me what you think of this: We unveil new silver and black uniforms and Wayne Gretzky is our model."
In fact, McNall's secretary had all the details of trade in late July and told her boyfriend after swearing him to secrecy. The boyfriend, however, told a co-worker he knew was a big Kings fan, swearing him to secrecy as well. That Kings fan -- who we'll call Mister Tea because he declines to be identified for this story -- then phoned a sports radio show in L.A. hosted by Stu Nahan, a longtime broadcaster who had earlier been the Flyers' first announcer. Mister Tea had most of the details of the trade -- Gretzky and McSorley for Carson, Gelinas, three first round draft picks in the next six years and $20 million (the Oilers would add Krushelnyski and pay $5 million less) -- and he went on the air with them, telling Nahan and the audience that it came from someone in McNall's organization. Like the Miller-Cuthbert report, it sparked no real follow-up.
The next day, Mister Tea phoned a friend in New York, Marc Nathan, who is a friend of mine in the music business. Marc, too, is a Kings fan and as he and Mister Tea talked it over, they decided they didn't like the deal because the Kings, notorious for trading away their future, were planning more of the same. And they hated McSorley.
Marc then tracked me down to see what I knew. It was July 28 and I was in Toronto; as the NHL's director of broadcasting, publishing and video, I was working with Diamond on finishing off the upcoming season's Guide & Record Book. Marc relayed MisterTea's information to me on the phone and told me it had come from McNall's secretary. It seemed crazy to me -- trade the game's best player? But I also knew, as many others did, that Pocklington operated in a small market and had financial problems, at least serious enough that he refused to give his top defenseman Paul Coffey the money he wanted the summer before and eventually traded him to Pittsburgh.
I also knew that, for the first time, the Oilers had requested someone other than Gretzky be on the cover of next season's GOAL Magazine, the league's game night publication that featured a visiting player on the front. And I had seen him sitting alone, staring at the rafters in Northlands Coliseum. Sure, it was crazy. But it wasn't impossible.
I was in no position to check it out, but I suggested that Marc phone two friends who were good journalists, Bob McKenzie of The Hockey News and the late Glenn Cole, who was sports editor of the short-lived Montreal Daily News.
The next day, July 29th, Cole ran a two sentence blurb at the end of his daily column, indicating that talks were taking place on a Gretzky trade to the Kings. That evening, or perhaps the next day, ESPN's SportsCenter made mention of a report out of Montreal that said Gretzky could be bound for Los Angeles. Not much additional traction resulted from Cole's item, but I know he did enough follow-up to suspect the trade was on.
Meanwhile McKenzie was trying to track down the story, even though The Hockey News was a weekly paper, and actually published less frequently during the offseason.
"Normally at a newspaper when you get a call like that, you're like, 'Yeah, buddy. Thanks for the call,' because newspapers are famous for getting calls like that from cranks all the time. But you can't afford to miss anything, so my great shortcoming in that situation was to get that call from Nathan -- who wasn't a crank and seemed to have good information -- and check it out and not to be able to confirm it.
"This is one of the stories of the century and it floats around for weeks unsubstantiated. Nathan called me and I chased it down for weeks. I couldn't confirm it. I couldn't get anywhere."
A different world
McKenzie, and all of the people I spoke with for this story, contrasted how very different the world is today, with the internet -- and especially social media -- having revolutionized the communications landscape. "Imagine now, the way the Twitterverse works. In 30 seconds, this news would have gone viral," he says. "People now have no comprehension how slow-moving news was back then. It was ridiculous. It was nuts.
"Even when I worked at The Toronto Star in '91, I did a story, a notebook item on Mario Lemieux's back injury, saying that he had left practice, and two days later it still wasn't out there that his back had flared up again and he still wasn't playing. I always remember that vividly, that news traveled so slowly, like the Pony Express. People would write their Sunday hockey notebooks, collecting material starting the previous Tuesday and it would come out almost a week later and it would all be fresh."
The rumors continued to swirl, gaining in strength as August began. Still, many close to the scene doubted it. Cuthbert recalls sitting in the press box at an Edmonton Eskimos game on Aug. 4 next to The Edmonton Sun's Terry Jones, who was generally very well plugged-in to all things Oilers. Jones turned to Cuthbert and said, "You know, your story is going to be right one day. But it's going to be a year or two down the line."
In fact, it was a day or two. By Aug. 7, the rumors had grown so strong that Gord Miller flew to Los Angeles to dig around for more information. He wouldn't have to wait long.
But there was still disbelief right up to the end. "The guys at TSN were caught completely flatfooted," says Gord Miller who along with Cuthbert are today the lead play-by-play announcers for TSN. "The day it happened, they had no idea."
"I always laugh," Cuthbert says, "because CFRN radio was the voice of the Oilers and they completely ignored the story. And on the Tuesday, Aug. 9, the day of the trade, the Oilers called CFRN first and said, 'We'll have a major announcement today,' and they went on the air to say the Oilers were announcing the trade at 1 p.m. -- and they won a national radio award for that, which I always thought was rather galling."
If life is often not fair, it is also frequently uncertain and for most who encountered the rumors of the Gretzky trade, the story apparently seemed too far-fetched to be credible. Except it was true.
Today, McKenzie teasingly chuckles, "When Gord told me how early they had the story in Edmonton, I said to him, 'That's some pretty high impact journalism you guys did out there. You report it on July 15th and nobody picked up on it."