Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

April 1989: Wayne Gretzky Returns To Edmonton For the NHL Playoffs

Posted on October 20, 2009 by Scott Weldon
The hockey world was shacken when the Edomonton Oilers traded the Great One to Los Angeles.

The hockey world was shacken when the Edomonton Oilers traded the Great One to Los Angeles.

The contributors to ESPN the Reporters were doing their weekly thrash of the latest Brett Favre story. This time of course they were dealing with Brett Favre as a Minnesota Viking playing his old team the Green Bay Packers. There had been that sabbatical in New York but now Favre was playing for Green Bay’s hated division rival the Vikings. There was a burst of hyperbolic certitude that coverage of the NFL tends to engender. Such certainty is perhaps better left to religious services and modern political discourse.

Various reporters on the show opined that never before in the history of professional sports had their ever been a situation where a player who was the face, heart and soul of one organization had moved on to play for their hated rivals. Certainly such an occurrence had never resulted in significant games between the two rivals where the old champion of one team could come in and defeat his old team. These two regular season games between Minnesota and Green Bay were unique and significant it was said. Favre could actually be the difference. Green Bay without Favre might lose to Minnesota with Favre. The entire balance of power in the NFC North had quite possibly been shifted. This had never, they insisted, happened before…..

Now I know these guys don’t know hockey, don’t follow hockey and don’t care about hockey. Still, the trade of Wayne Gretzky by the Edmonton Oilers was one of the biggest transactions in sport in its time. These guys are certainly old enough to remember the trade. Some of them had covered hockey in some small way during their careers. Yet they couldn’t come up with a parallel for what was going on with Favre. Perhaps since ESPN doesn’t cover hockey their reporters aren’t allowed to remember hockey?  

Coming to LA lifted Gretzky's celebrity to a new level.

Coming to LA lifted Gretzky's celebrity to a new level.

Wayne Gretzky played a year for the Oilers in the WHA and then nine seasons for them in the NHL. During that time he won eight Hart trophies as the most valuable player in the league. He won seven Art Ross trophies for scoring the most points in the league as an Oiler. He lost out in his rookie season because though he tied Marcel Dionne with 137 points he lost the trophy because Dionne scored more goals, fifty three to Gretzky’s fifty-one.

Wayne won four Stanley Cups in his time in Edmonton. He won two Conn Smythe trophies as the most valuable player for two of those cup playoff runs. He scored 583 regular season goals as an NHL Oiler, and 1669 points. This was more points then anyone but Gordie Howe. He set single season records for goals 92, assists 163 and points 215, that have yet to be broken.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard was most famous because he scored his 50 goals in a 50 game season. His record remained untouched until Mike Bossy managed to equal it by scoring 50 goals in his first 50 games in 1980-81. Gretzky managed to score 50 goals in 50 games seven times. He holds the record by scoring 50 goals in his teams first 39 games of 1985-86.

Gretzky won four Stanley Cup titles with the Oilers.

Gretzky won four Stanley Cup titles with the Oilers.

Gretzky was the greatest player ever and he was “the” Oiler. The team he captained was one of the great dynasties of all time rivaling the Islanders from the 80’s, the Canadiens from the 50’s and 70’s, and the Post WWII Leafs. This dynasty was being run out of one of the smallest markets in the NHL. Only Winnipeg and Quebec City were smaller. This was all by the time he was 28. Wayne Gretzky was the great one. He was the greatest player in hockey and a Canadian playing in the most northern Canadian market in the NHL.

Then in the prime of his career in August of 1988 Peter Pocklington traded/sold Wayne Gretzky to Bruce McNall and the LA Kings along with Marty Mc Sorely and Mike Krushelnyski for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first round picks and most important, fifteen million dollars.

The trade of Gretzky to Los Angeles was emotional for him and for fans of the Oilers.

The trade of Gretzky to Los Angeles was emotional for him and for fans of the Oilers.

Pocklington had traded away superstar Paul Coffey the year before after a holdout and salary dispute. He had financial problems and couldn’t afford to pay the players he had what they wanted. He’d put together the greatest group of offensive talent in hockey history but the players weren’t happy with the gleanings owners had left them in the 50’s and 60’s. He’d had Coffey under contract for $352,000 a year for two more years. Coffey wasn’t willing to play for that.

Gretzky had initially signed a four-year million dollar contract with Nelson Skalbania and the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA. Skalbania then sold Gretzky, goalie Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll to Peter Pocklington for $700,000. During January of 1979 Pocklington signed Gretzky to a 20-year personal services contract for $4.5 million, total. This wasn’t quite as bad as Detroit getting Gordie Howe for $500 a year and a new Red Wings jacket but it was the late 1970’s equivalent.

Gretzky and Company were the best players in hockey Pocklington feared they wouldn’t be happy until they were paid like the best. “The Great One” ended up with a salary ten times his Oilers salary with the Kings. Pocklington either wouldn’t or couldn’t afford that. It was a different time where Pocklington saw fifteen million in cash as the answer to his financial woes.

The Kings became immediate contenders with Gretzky in the lineup.

The Kings became immediate contenders with Gretzky in the lineup.

Gretzky moved to the division rival LA Kings. Some in Canada and certainly many in Edmonton saw him as a traitor. Luckily for him Peter Pocklington took the brunt of the hate. Salary disclosure was coming to the NHL via Bob Goodenow. Pocklington couldn’t compete with the salaries that could be paid in New York or St Louis or Toronto for his star players. Sports fans though have no concern for an owners precarious financial position. Edmonton fans had one of the greatest dynasty teams in hockey history. They certainly had the best offensive team of all time playing at the Northlands Coliseum. They didn’t want to see that end. They blamed Pocklington rightly for that ending.

The growl that started when Paul Coffey was dumped on the Pittsburgh Penguins for Craig Simpson became a roar when Gretzky was traded. This wasn’t losing Brett Favre at 39. This was trading Tom Brady and Jim Brown at 28 to the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gretzky is the last man you trade. You keep him last and play him with no one before you trade him. However, he was Pocklington’s most valuable asset.

He met McNall, a man with a talent for promotion and a vision for hockey in LA played in Raider silver and black. McNall got the best player in hockey at what was still a bargain price. Pocklington feared losing all his players for nothing and wanted to realize some cash now before they all left Edmonton for greener pastures.

Gretzky left the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers for the fourth in the Smythe division, 18th  place in the league LA Kings. The NHL playoff format from 1982 until 1993 was division based. The top four teams in each division played each other for two rounds. You had to win two playoff series in your own division to make it to your conference final. Win that and you played for the cup. Trading the best player in hockey to a team in your own division meant that you were likely to have to play against him every year in the playoffs. This showed a total disregard for any hockey based decision-making. Pocklington needed fifteen million dollars to keep his meat packing plant running.

The 1988-89 season was played. The Oiler team that had been wounded by the loss of Coffey was gutted by Gretzky’s trade. The fan base was feral. Glen Sather the coach and general manager had applied all his influence as strenuously as he dared to try to prevent the trade, to no effect. This Oiler team finished third in the Smythe division and seventh in the entire league. The LA Kings finished second in the Smythe and fourth overall. The presence of Gretzky had improved LA by twenty points and fourteen places in the standings. His absence had dumped the Oilers from having the third best regular season to seventh best. They lost fifteen points and more important they finished behind LA in the standings. The LA Kings and Wayne Gretzky were going to meet the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the playoffs. The LA Kings were going to have home ice advantage.

Mark Messier replaced Gretzky as the captain of the Oilers.

Mark Messier replaced Gretzky as the captain of the Oilers.

This Oiler team was still a great one. They had one of the greatest leaders in the game in Mark Messier. Messier and Kurri provided the bulk of the offense along with principals from their two big trades Jimmy Carson and Craig Simpson. Esa Tikkanen was the checking forward of his era, with offensive skills. The defense was always a bit of a weakness on those great Oiler teams but veterans Lowe, Huddy and Gregg were supplemented by Muni and Smith. MacTavish and Glenn Anderson rounded out the offense. Grant Fuhr was still one of the best goalies in hockey. Bill Ranford at 21 was proving to be a great backup. Edmonton fans were convincing themselves that the regular season was an anomaly. There was no way the LA Kings, even with Gretzky, could challenge their Oilers.

Yet this team had problems. Anderson looked for his game all year and only scored sixteen goals. Fuhr showed up for training camp overweight and also struggled. Messier and Kurri were thought to be furious with management. The team was still great but unfocussed, or focused on the wrong things.

The Kings had a good line-up that without Wayne had little playoff success. The year before they’d bowed out in five to the Flames. The year before that it was the Oilers beating them in five. The year before that they’d missed the playoffs. The year before that… well you get the picture.

The Gretzky Kings had, well Gretzky, but there also was the slick Bernie Nichols with his 70 goals and 150 points. Lucky Luc Robitaille was 22 years old and managed 98 points. Young offensive defenseman Steve Duchesne was just hitting his stride in LA. The aging Dave Taylor and John Tonelli provided some grit and a veteran presence. The Kings had just picked up Kelly Hrudey from the Islanders who provided them with quality playoff goaltending. Steve Kaspar from Boston was their gritty checker. The rest of the team was a mish-mash of old and young with players from various trades being slotted in to try to fill positions.

Gretzky and the Kings defeated the Oilers in seven games in the 1989 playoffs.

Gretzky and the Kings defeated the Oilers in seven games in the 1989 playoffs.

The series opened in LA on April 5th 1988 and the Oilers immediately won the first game 4-3. They showed Gretzky and LA little respect and Fuhr was brilliant. Hrudey was held out of the game with the flu. Tikkanen and Simpson scored two unanswered goals in the third to win the game. Home ice advantage was gone. The Oilers were back.

The next night Chris Kontos began a magic playoff run with a goal in each period. Hrudey was in nets but really wasn’t critical. LA outshot the Oilers 44-22 and won 5-2.

Two days later on the 8th of April the Kings flew to Edmonton. Gretzky was returning to the scene of the crime for a playoff game against his old team. During the regular season Oiler fans had cheered Gretzky in an LA uniform. How would they treat him in the playoffs? The fans were a little more willing to support their team and boo Gretzky especially since he was held in check in Game 3. Grant Fuhr stopped 25 shots to record a 4-0 shutout of LA. Former King Jimmy Carson after scoring the game winner stated
“This was an important game for us and we came out and smoked them.” All was right in Edmonton. Pocklington is rumoured to have said at this point that the Oiler fans supported his decision to trade Gretzky. He was wrong of course. No one from Edmonton has ever supported that decision.

The next night was game four in Edmonton. The Kings came out much harder this time. They managed to forge a 3-2 lead after two periods with Chris Kontos scoring another goal. The Oilers would not be denied. They scored two in the third, one with 26 seconds left to win the game and take an almost insurmountable 3-1 lead in games.

Facing elimination in LA, the Kings played their best game of the series. They put 43 shots on Grant Fuhr. Kontos opened the scoring and Hrudey was brilliant. They won 4-2.

Game six was back in Edmonton on April 13th. The Oilers still had home ice advantage
and needed to make good on it. They could win this game, win the series and move on to trying to win their third Stanley Cup in a row and fifth in six years. The Oilers clung to a first period 1-0 lead until Mike Allison scored a weak goal while on his back to tie the game. Fuhr needed to stop that one. The Kings scored three in the third period to win the game 4-1. They had home ice advantage back and the fans at Northlands were in shock and silent. It was all slipping away.

Game seven in any series is usually a great one. Two very even teams have arrived at the tipping point to see who will lose and who will go on. The Kings were playing before a home crowd. The veterans in that crowd were used to losing playoff series. The others, the Stallone’s, the Ronald Reagan’s and Tom Hank’s didn’t know any better. Neither apparently did these Gretzky led Kings. Gretzky scored in the opening minute to take the lead. After Jari Kurri had tied it up Chris Kontos scored his eighth goal of the series to go ahead. The game went to 3-3 before Bernie Nicholls scored his second goal of the second period. This proved to be the eventual winner. LA scored two in the third period including Wayne Gretzky’s empty net goal. The LA Kings had defeated the former Stanley Cup champions in the first round of the playoffs. Glen Sather is said to have been scathing in the Oilers locker room after the game. Their little friend Gretzky was out on the ice celebrating he said and they were in the locker room having lost. Remember it!! , he said.

LA moved on to play the Calgary Flames in the second round. This was a team that had been systematically designed to beat Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. They had little trouble with Gretzky and the LA Kings and swept them in four games.

Gretzky had a huge single-handed impact on how good the LA Kings were. Hockey is a team game. One player tends not to be able to do it all himself. NHL history is full of teams with one or two or three great players who go years not even making the playoffs.

Gretzky however, was that player, playing at his best, who made this team. They went from being a team that averaged 66 points a season for the six years before Gretzky to a team that averaged 84 points a season for the next six years with Gretzky.

Gretzky and LA won playoff series. LA without him didn’t tend to. During the 1990-91 season LA won the Smythe division. During the 92-93 season they best the Flames, Canucks and Leafs to make it to the Stanley Cup finals. Unfortunately Gretzky and his team lost to Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals.

Gretzky was over thirty at this point. He was older and slower and the NHL was learning how to play him. He suffered through injuries in 92-93 and through the 94-95 season. McNall had gone to jail at the end of 1994 pleading guilty to five counts of a fraud that would have shocked Boots Del Biaggio. Gretzky was dealt to St Louis at the trade deadline in 1996. He subsequently signed with the New York Rangers and had three good point-a-game seasons. Unfortunately this was the man who had perfected the two-point-a-game season.

Gretzky in LA never equaled the heights he reached as a younger man in Edmonton. He won eight Hart trophies in Edmonton. He won one in LA. Four Stanley Cup victories in Edmonton were balanced by one Stanley cup loss in LA. He won seven scoring titles in Edmonton but only three in LA. There were very good years in LA. He managed 168 points in his first year. Still that was the seventh best season in his career. He scored 54 goals that year which was his highest total outside of Edmonton. He had better teammates in Edmonton. He had a chemistry with Jari Kurri that Montana and Rice might have envied.

Gretzky set milestone records while in LA. During his second season he passed Gordie Howe to become the leading point scorer in NHL history. Gordie had done it in 26 seasons as the greatest NHLer of his era. Wayne Gretzky at age 28, in his eleventh NHL season managed to do all that and more. Still on his own he could make the LA Kings better they were. They evolved into a good dangerous NHL team. Despite how close they got however he never made them a champion.

Messier and the Oilers proved they could win without Gretzky by lifting the Cup in 1990.

Messier and the Oilers proved they could win without Gretzky by lifting the Cup in 1990.

The Oilers recovered from their embarrassment of the 1989 playoffs to come back and win their fifth Stanley with Coach John Muckler. Grant Fuhr went into rehab and Bill Ranford backstopped the Oilers and won the Conn Smythe trophy. Mark Messier established his leadership credentials by leading the team in scoring in the playoffs and the regular season. Jimmy Carson the principle in the gretzky deal played four games for the Oilers that year before getting traded for Adam Graves, Joe Murphy and Petr Klima from Detroit.

The Oilers era of greatness was over too. Next year Messier scored 12 goals and 52 assists in 53 games. Despite another good playoff run he went to the Rangers next year.

Slowly the pieces of the oiler dynasty flaked off. Pocklington became bankrupt and was forced to sell the team in 1998.

The Edmonton Oilers have never returned to the greatness they knew with Gretzky. That greatness though was a unique thing that comes too seldom in sports and is near impossible to recover.

The victory by Gretzky and the LA Kings over the former Stanley Cup Champion Edmonton Oilers was a unique occurrence in sports. Gretzky was not only the face of the Oilers but he was also the greatest player in the game.

However he wasn’t the greatest player in the game the way Jaromir Jagr was for a few years in the NHL. He was a transcendent epoch spanning player that deserves to be considered with the greats of his sport. Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Maurice Richard, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky are the all-time greats of hockey. Gretzky would be in a class with Jim Brown or Joe Montana or Lawrence Taylor or Dick Butkus or Jerry Rice if he played football.

Brett Favre is a great player but if was a hockey player he’d be more of a Bobby Hull or a Bernie Geoffrion. He’s a Brad Park or a Phil Esposito. He’s not a Wayne Gretzky. Favre was moved at the end of his career and not directly to a division rival. I’ll grant you if Favre and the Vikings beat the Packers in the playoffs there will be comparisons to be made.

I’ll be interested too to see how the Packer fans treat Favre. That first playoff series the Oiler fans booed Gretzky. By the next year though they were cheering. They celebrated when he broke Howe’s record in Edmonton. I’ll be curious to see if Favre hangs around long enough to get cheered in Green Bay.

Scott Weldon covers hockey for Sports Then and Now.

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