What if . . .
- . . . Alex Rodriguez had been traded to Boston?
- . . . The '94 MLB strike never happened?
- . . . Babe Ruth was sold elsewhere?
- . . . Williams and Dimaggio didn't go to war?
- . . . Michael Jordan had continued playing baseball?
- . . . N.C. State hadn't pulled off its miracle?
- . . . The Blazers had better injury luck?
- . . . Big Ben was drafted by the Giants?
- . . . Donald Trump had made the Bills great?
- . . . Drew Brees had passed his Dolphins physical?
- . . . These field goal attempts had been good?
- . . . George Halas had died in a boat wreck?
- . . . Jim Harbaugh had stuck with Alex Smith as 49ers quarterback?
- . . . The NFL map looked like this?
- . . . Peyton Manning went to San Diego?
- . . . Teddy Roosevelt hadn't revolutionized football?
- . . . Terrell Owens was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame?
- . . . LeBron James had chosen soccer over basketball?
- . . . U.S. soccer got the right call in the '02 World Cup?
- . . . Cleveland had been saved by George Steinbrenner?
- . . . These draft moments had happened differently?
- . . . Injuries had never altered these five careers?
- . . . Lance Armstrong had been whipped by cancer?
- . . . Muhammad Ali had never met Malcolm X?
- . . . PEDs had been legal all along?
- . . . Steve Bartman had never gone to Wrigley?
- . . . Things had happened differently for these four illustrious coaches?
- . . . Tiger Woods had pursued a career as a Navy Seal?
- . . . These trades had actually happened?
- . . . Wayne Gretzky hadn't been traded to the Kings?
Bill Robbins; Photo illustration by SI Premedia
What if ... Wayne Gretzky hadn't been traded to the Los Angeles Kings?
by Jeremy Fuchs
The NHL introduced two teams from the Golden State in 1967. One, the California Golden Seals, remain best known for their white skates. They moved to Cleveland in ’76 and merged with the Minnesota North Stars in ’78, having never enjoyed a winning season. The other, the L.A. Kings, had some early success, making the playoffs semi-regularly—but this was hardly a top-tier franchise in the ’80s. The SoCal fan base, Sports Illustrated wrote at the time, put the sport on par with “intramural beanbag tossing.”
Then, on Aug. 9, 1988, the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to L.A. for players, picks and 15 million sorely-needed dollars. The deal (which New Democratic Party leader Nelson Riis equated to trading a beaver from its dam, or off-loading Vanna White for two lose-a-turns and a vowel-to-be-named-later) shocked Canada. But it also made west-coast hockey suddenly relevant. Magic Johnson bought Kings season tickets. California had 4,800 registered amateur hockey players in '90; within five years, that reached 15,500. Gretzky’s success in L.A.—he brought the Kings to the ’93 Cup Finals—undeniably fueled the league’s move into the Sun Belt. Since ’88, the NHL has added seven teams west of the Mississippi, plus five in southern (sunny) states.
Oilers owner Peter Pocklington has offered conflicting explanations for the move, but what’s clear is that Gretzky’s high-scoring ways would have guaranteed a steady fan base—not an alienated one—for years to come. What if, instead of selling the future Great One, Pocklington, who at least once said he needed the cash injection, sold the team? (He did so almost a decade later, mired in debt.) Or, really, what if he’d showed a little patience and hung onto his star?
Without Gretzky out West, without the success of an ice-cold game in a warm clime, the NHL would not have expanded so confidently toward the South. The league surely would not have created two more California franchises. The Stanley Cup would be etched differently: no 2012 and ’14 Kings, no ’07 Anaheim Ducks. . . . And pro hockey would remain, for better or worse, as SI wrote in 1954, a “great northern sport.”