The Wayne Gretzky Trade 25 years on: an oral history
Wayne Gretzky finished with more assists (1,963) in his career than any other player has total points. (Otto Greule /Allsport)
The Wayne Gretzky Trade 25 years on: an oral history
August 9, 1988 was a seminal moment not only in hockey history, but in the annals of Canada itself. On that day, Wayne Gretzky – the NHL’s biggest star of his era and one of the most accomplished icons in the game’s existence – was traded from the Edmonton Oilers with teammates Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash and L.A.’s first round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993. The deal was an indication of the massive business the league had become, it marked the end of the Oilers’ Stanley Cup dynasty and it sent a clear message to all NHLers: nobody was too good to be untouchable.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the blockbuster move, THN spoke to many key figures for an Oral History of the Gretzky trade – before, during and after the transaction went down.
In the summer of 1988, Gretzky and the Oilers were coming off their fourth Cup victory in five years. The 27-year-old was at the peak of his individual powers, posting another season of at least 100 points and capturing the second Conn Smythe Trophy of his career. But behind the scenes, new Kings owner Bruce McNall continued to lobby Oilers counterpart Peter Pocklington for what even he knew was a long shot – acquiring the world’s best player to improve a team that hadn’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs in six years.
Bruce McNall: I’d been bugging Peter for quite a long time, ever since I’d bought the team and (former Kings owner) Jerry Buss mentioned to me he’d asked Peter about it and of course Peter just laughed it off. Every time I asked Peter he’d laugh it off, too. He’d say, ‘Are you crazy? You can give me the whole team and I still wouldn’t give you Gretzky.’ So I’d bug him about it from time to time when I’d see him at board meetings. It did come out of the blue to me though when he called me. We were going to meet in June at the draft and he called and said, ‘If you’re really serious about Wayne, let’s talk about it.’
That was a shock. That was what began the whole thing. I really couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ But when I met with him right away, Peter was like, ‘Alright, I need this amount of cash and it has to at least look like a trade, so if we’re going to do a trade I need some players and some draft picks as well.’ I said, ‘Well, whatever you need, you got it. Let’s figure it out.’
Wayne Gretzky: I think my dad and some people in the hockey world knew there was a possibility of me being traded before I did. It came down to a real strong business decision by Peter and a sense that if I wasn’t going to sign an extension with the Oilers – I was an unrestricted free agent at the end of that year – he was going to move me. We were pretty entrenched in our positions. Obviously, the first phone call I got after we won the Cup that I’d been mentioned to some teams was sort of shocking. But as time went on, I understood that was the business side of things and inevitably, probably I was going to be traded.
Fortunately, I was in a position to control a bit of the destiny of where I was going to go. Mine was such a unique case in that the way my contract was in place at that particular time, I’d become an unrestricted free agent at the end of that season. Nobody was going to make a move in trading players and cash for me if I wasn’t going to sign an extension. Consequently, that gave me a little bit of freedom in where I wanted to go.
Gretzky had become acquainted with McNall while he was starring for the Oilers and although the two weren’t close friends, the Kings owner’s ability to make things happen inside and outside of the sports world helped him form the beginnings of what would turn out to be a lifelong friendship.
McNall: I had met Wayne several times before we made the deal. He was always very funny. When I first bought the team, I was down near ice level and he’d slap me in a friendly way with his stick once, said, ‘Welcome to the league’ and was always very gracious. One time he had asked to see if I could arrange tickets for him and (future wife) Janet (Jones) to go to a Celtic/Laker playoff game, which I did. So I arranged that and sat with them, and I remember joking at the time, ‘Hey Wayne, wouldn’t it be great if you could come to L.A. here’ and he’d laugh and say, ‘Yeah, that’s not happening.’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know’ and we’d just kind of laugh it off. That’s how it really began.
As word slowly leaked out that Gretzky was being shopped around, McNall – who enjoyed maintaining a close relationship with his Kings players – reached out to reassure his core players they wouldn’t be part of any package going to Edmonton. At the time, Carson had finished his sophomore NHL season, in which he scored 55 goals and 107 points.
Jimmy Carson: At the end of the second season, Bruce McNall came to me and Luc Robitaille and said, ‘You guys are going to be here a long time. I want you to go buy a house, I want to renegotiate your contract.’ His wife Jane was an interior decorator and he said, ‘By the way, call my wife up and she can help you outfit the house.’ This is May-June-July, so I went and bought a house, outfitted it and had preliminary discussions with Bruce on a contract renegotiation.
I was spending the month of August at my home in Michigan, then planning on heading back for training camp. Bruce calls me Aug. 3 and says, ‘I’ve got some really good news and some not-so-good news. The really good news is I think we have a legitimate shot at bringing Wayne Gretzky to the Kings.’ My first thought was, ‘He’s nuts. Gretzky had just won four Cups in five years. There’s no way!’ He said, ‘No, seriously, I’ve been really in-depth in conversations.’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s unbelievable, that would be great.’
But I’m thinking, ‘Wait a second, he said something about bad news.’ Then he said, ‘They’re really insisting on you being the main player going the other way.’ He said there was a lot of money and other stuff involved, but I was the main player they wanted. I remember saying, ‘Oh, that’s not good.’ He said, ‘I know, I know, but trust me, I’m doing my best to try and keep you out of it. Let me see how this plays out and I’ll call you when I know something.’
McNall: The problem was, who knew Gretzky was going to be a possibility when I told Jimmy all those things? I meant it because he was one of the keys to our franchise at that time. He and Luc were about it. Trading is the worst thing about it and unlike most owners, I decided to face the guys when it was going to happen. I did that with Luc a couple of times. I did that with poor Bernie Nicholls when I traded him at the All-Star Game and he had also just bought a house. Yeah, it’s a horrible, horrible thing to deal with, but unfortunately it’s part of the game and most players seem to understand.
When McNall spoke to Gretzky regarding the possibility of coming to Los Angeles, he did not sense any enthusiasm for a deal.
McNall: Wayne was the greatest player in the world and they’d just come off their fourth Cup, so it wasn’t anything that was in the realm of my thinking this was possible. My biggest concern was when it happened and we really got serious about it was Wayne himself: Did he really want to come? I didn’t want to trade for the greatest player in the world and have him not happy about coming to L.A.
And in fact, he wasn’t. He wasn’t anxious to go to L.A. Wayne was basically saying, ‘I love Edmonton, I love everything there, I don’t want to move.’ Then he started hearing rumors from his dad that he was on the block. From that point, the whole process of the trade was something Wayne basically helped me with. They wanted Luc in the worst way and I wouldn’t give them Luc and Wayne agreed, no, don’t give them Luc. Jimmy Carson finally became the guy because he was a first-line center and wouldn’t be a first-line center with Wayne here. They wanted three first-round draft picks and Wayne said, ‘No, you’re going to have to split the picks up over the years.’ Wayne was part of the process.
Gretzky: It was an extremely difficult six weeks leading up to the actual trade. When it got to a point I thought it could happen, I became sort of quiet about it. I really didn’t talk to a lot of people about it. I didn’t want it to become a big circus outside of what I knew was going to transpire. The only guy that knew was (Oilers teammate) Craig Simpson and the reason he knew was I was spending time in California at (actor) Alan Thicke’s house and Craig was coming down to hang out and play some golf. Unfortunately for him, he got there two days before the trade. I remember picking him up at the airport August 7, and he was really the first guy that unofficially knew something was going to transpire.
Craig Simpson: When he picked me up on the 7th, we’d heard rumors and rumblings, but it isn’t anywhere like it is in today’s world. We stopped at Janet’s condo at the time because we were going to stay at Alan Thicke’s house. Wayne had said some stuff was going on and on her old answering machine, the first message was from Bruce McNall saying, ‘I think we’ve got a deal done.’ My jaw is dropping.
Having just experienced winning my first Cup playing on such a great team, it was as much shocking as it was disappointing. It was an amazing experience – obviously a tough one, because I did know a couple days before and tried to keep that quiet, but also deal with the reality and disappointment of losing the best player in the world. I almost couldn’t believe the reality that was going to happen.
Gretzky, Jones and Simpson stayed at Thicke’s house the last night Gretzky was officially an Oiler and looked after Thicke’s 11-year-old son, Robin, who since has become a superstar R&B singer. And the morning of Aug. 9 was the start of a frenzied period of tumult, shock and anger that resonated throughout the sports world.
Gretzky: It was sort of like a hurricane: it comes through and you didn’t see it coming. All of a sudden it just blazed through and it was done. It was kind of weird that way.
Carson: Bruce called and said, ‘Jimmy, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say, but this is an opportunity that’s bigger than the LA Kings and at the end of the day this is what happened.’ I put the phone down and told my parents I’d just been involved in the biggest trade in the history of sports, and the phone rang as the doorbell was being rung. It was reporters, TV crews, TV trucks. It was crazy.
Alan Thicke: I was in Norway on vacation with my other son Brennan. I picked up the Oslo morning paper and saw pictures of Wayne everywhere, so I thought, ‘Oh my god, something’s happened.’ I couldn’t read the text, so I phoned back to see what the problem was. I got Robin on the phone and said, ‘What’s going on, Robin?’ He said, ‘Oh nothing, no big deal.’ He was very calm and matter-of-fact. Then my brother Todd – Todd has been the executive producer of America’s Funniest Home Videos all these years – Todd snatches the phone away and says, ‘You’ve got to come back right away, things are going crazy here, Wayne’s been traded, there are helicopters overhead, we’ve got the paparazzi and reporters at the gate!’ Bruce McNall called late the night before and Robin had picked up the phone and said, ‘I’m sorry, Wayne’s asleep.’ ‘Well,’ they said, ‘wake him up! This is important!’ They had him on a plane early the next morning on his way to Edmonton.
Simpson: I stayed in the pool house and was woken up the next day by Janet, who told me, ‘Wayne’s gone to Edmonton to do the press conference.’ Back then there was no 24-hour news or ESPN, so Janet and I were out by Alan’s pool by a speakerphone and (Gretzky’s parents) Walter and Phyllis were on the other end of the line, holding their phone up to the TV so we could hear the press conference announcing the deal. How bizarre is that?
McNall: I didn’t believe it would actually happen. Right up until the last minute, I thought something would screw it up. Even at the last instant when Pocklington or Sather wanted to speak to Wayne at the press conference, I was convinced it was going to fall apart.
Simpson: When Wayne got back to L.A., it was really strange for me, because I was at the L.A. press conference with the Kings. Talk about feeling like you don’t belong somewhere – I’m still an Oiler at the time, behind the curtain at the press conference out of sight and away from everything – but it was a pretty surreal time. You could tell the game had changed and Wayne’s celebrity was a pretty important factor right off the bat.
Gretzky’s former Oilers teammates and his new ones in California couldn’t believe the news.
Craig MacTavish: I didn’t hear anything until the deal was announced. I was really shocked. But I’m pretty pragmatic about that stuff and I tried to move on as quickly as possible. I think I remember thinking that what I wanted to do for Wayne – and it never really transpired – but the first time we played the Kings at home that season, and just after the puck dropped, I wanted us to just let him skate down and put the puck in the empty net and then start running him (laughs). It was easier said than done.
That being said, Peter Pocklington must have gone through some incredibly short and sleepless nights. You’ve got to kind of admire Peter – it took a lot of courage to do that. Who knew what the financial circumstances were with him, but it was not well received in Edmonton.
Luc Robitaille: I was in Montreal the day of the trade. I remember not believing it was going to happen. Wayne was my idol, so it was a very big deal. I was so excited, I didn’t care about anything other than that I was going to get a chance to play with him on the same team. And I remember making a list of all the press people I had to call back. That’s all I did that day, for almost four hours.
Mike Krushelnyski: I was actually shocked they would trade the icon Wayne Gretzky. I could understand trading role players, people like Marty and myself and Carson and everybody else in the package. But I was with reporters a couple days before it happened and I was like, ‘There’s no chance.’ The second I was notified, the first thing I did was look at the Kings roster and was like, ‘Wow, Bernie Nicholls, John Tonelli, Ron Duguay, Larry Robinson, Barry Beck – we can contend.’ I was excited to be going there.
Carson: The onslaught of media was quick and overwhelming. There was two types of it: One type was that this train just took off carrying pure happiness – and guess what, you’re no longer on that train. The other type was shock and how-could-Peter-Pocklington-do-this and betrayal and anger. Utter disappointment. You got calls from people in Edmonton saying, ‘Oh my god, it’s just doom-and-gloom in Edmonton, the people can’t believe it, the players are upset and mad at management and Peter Pocklington.’ There were rumors The Hockey News was going to do a big report that (Edmonton GM) Glen Sather had nothing to do with the trade and that it was only Pocklington’s deal.
Simpson: For our team, the trade was a difficult one to understand. The only thing I would have liked is if Peter had just handled it differently, been upfront and said, ‘Listen, this was a deal I needed to do both personally and professionally and that’s why it happened.’ I think everyone would have handled it a little bit better.
Carson: I tried to be level-headed, but you’re still 20 years old and you’ve still got the pressures of being relatively new in the NHL. Then there’s the human part of it – what about this house I just bought. I’ve got to leave. I guess my renegotiation was done. But that’s what athletes go through.
I didn’t know what to expect when I got to Edmonton for the introductory press conference. The players were wonderful. Actually everyone was wonderful. They were wonderful in the broader bubble of utter shock, disappointment and anger. They’d won four Cups in five years. They’d been friends, they all grew up together with Wayne. They’d been at the pinnacle and seen Wayne’s ascent from teenage phenom to arguably the greatest player in the history of the game. And they’d been with him on that. They did amazing things with a lot of superstars and one mega-star, and now he’s gone.
Some uninformed people blamed Jones for her influence on her new husband, but for the most part the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of Pocklington.
McNall: I knew Janet a little bit, but we’d never worked together. I met her when Wayne first asked her out. They’d known each other a little bit many years before, but that Celtic game was the first time I’d really spoken to her. Then she became an influence a little bit in this. She wasn’t the influence the Canadian press made her out to be, but she was there and she really wanted it to happen, so she and I were on the same page.
The good news for me was I was treated wonderfully by all the Canadian folks, even when I went to Edmonton after the fact. They were more pissed at Peter Pocklington than they were at me. For me, it was almost like they thought, ‘Well, if we had a chance to do that, wouldn’t we too?’ Who wouldn’t make that deal? Also, I was taking care of their favorite son, so to speak. So I felt good about Canadian fans all the time.
The effect Gretzky’s arrival had on a Kings organization that had averaged less than 10,000 people a game many nights was immediate. McNall, a native Californian whose background was in moviemaking, found himself overwhelmed by the surge in interest from fans and celebrities.
McNall: It was insane. The minute the trade was announced our phones started ringing off the hook and we had to hire extra people to handle it. The (NBA’s) Lakers were a little down and out and we became the happening thing to do in L.A. That was the goal for me at the time – make this game the event, the thing to do. And it certainly worked.
Thicke: When I first went to L.A. in the early ‘70s, hockey players were my first friends in the community. I was lonesome and without a job, sniffing around to find my way and my career and I looked in the paper and saw there was a Kings game – the Kings and the Golden Seals – and so I went down and there were a couple of guys I knew – guys I had either played with, or known from high school and they became my first friends in L.A. And I became an unofficial ambassador for hockey at the time. I was the first guy who ever brought any celebs to the games. (Former Kings owner) Jack Kent Cooke used to moan that the Lakers got all the attention and nobody ever came to a hockey game, and so he kind of assigned me and said, ‘For crying out loud, can you drag anybody out here?’ And so I did – I got Bob Hope and some good old reliable Canadians like Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot.
But I’m here to tell you I knew the difference between pre-Gretzky and post-Gretzky in trying to get anybody out to a hockey game. You felt it everywhere in the community. There had always been a hard core of hockey fans who would show up for the games, but it was like the old joke – ‘What time does the game start? Well, what time can you be here?’ That’s the way it was when I first went to Los Angeles. L.A. relates to celebrity and relates to what’s hot at the time. The fact we suddenly had a celebrity made all the difference in the world to the other celebrities.
McNall: Immediately, all these people I knew wanted tickets. Every major movie star in town wanted tickets. I’ve got President (Ronald) Reagan calling for tickets. Tom Cruise would come a lot. So would Sly Stallone. John Candy was sort of our mascot at the time and he became almost part of the team. Tom Hanks was great. He used to send me a note – ‘Congratulations on the win, from your biggest fan in section 111, Tom Hanks.’ He’d buy his own tickets.
Krushelnyski: I think it was a mutual thing. Hollywood was infatuated with hockey players and we were excited to see them.
Robitaille: Bruce McNall was really a great promoter. He knew how to do it right. He made sure (celebrities) sat at the glass level. And everybody got to visit us post-game in the locker room. It was non-stop. We saw famous people over and over all the time. Especially as a young player, you were like, ‘This is amazing.’
The Kings instantly became one of the NHL’s marquee teams. And Gretzky’s mere presence was enough for the league to use to sell the sport in the years to come.
Robitaille: By the next year, every training camp we’d travel around the southern part of the U.S. I remember playing pre-season games in Miami, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Phoenix, Houston. We used to joke we’d do a tour like we were a music group. It was always about promoting the game. And Wayne was aware of it. He had to play a lot more pre-season than most guys because of it.
Carson: Other than his play, what was really amazing to me about (Gretzky) was the media entourage he had. Any time you’d go into a city – especially a Canadian city – it was like he was a dignitary. To me, that was the amazing thing. This was just another level. I’d played with superstars before, but it was another level of attention and notoriety. I remember telling people that wherever he played, it was almost like the president was in town.
Simpson: I don’t think anybody else would have been able to do what Wayne was able to do for hockey in the south. The Kings’ resurgence, the addition of the Sharks, the addition of the Ducks, wouldn’t have happened without him. He was the absolute perfect guy – a larger-than-life talent, but an everyday, down-to-earth person.
MacTavish: I don’t think you can understate that, the importance of Wayne and how he brought hockey to California. Even when he was playing in Edmonton, he really transcended the sport of hockey. He made hockey sexy again. He was the greatest athlete in any of the big four sports at that time and he had a real allure because he always delivered. He was a drawing card for people that weren’t even hockey fans.
Thicke: To this day, I think Wayne has been exemplary in his behavior, in his public relations, in the way he carries himself and his dedication to the sport. No athlete in any sport I can think of has been a better ambassador for the game and the country for that matter. I have a 15-year-old who is playing now in a rink that wouldn’t be near Santa Barbara had Wayne Gretzky not come to town.
Gretzky’s new teammates also came to respect what his old teammates already knew: No. 99’s fiery competitive nature and special attention to detail with teammates, friends, family members and team employees was what helped set him apart from other superstars.
Simpson: Right after the trade, Magic Johnson and Gretz did a photo shoot for a Sports Illustrated cover. In typical Wayne fashion, he said ‘Simmer, come on in here’ and asks the photographer, ‘Can you please take a picture of my friend?’ So I got a shot with Magic and Gretz made sure he followed up with the photographer who took my address and sure enough sent me the photo.
McNall: Wayne’s a very shy guy in a lot of ways. He’s not out there trying to be, say, what a basketball player would be. They’re out there in the public, trying to create things. But Wayne is very family-oriented. His primary focus was his kids. When Paulina was born, family became a major focus. When we wanted to do the contract with him, at the end of the day it was Walter Gretzky and I that talked. So I think a lot of people don’t really realize he was a real family man.
Krushelnyski: I don’t think he ever changed. He was a great guy in Edmonton, turned out to be a great guy in L.A. People still ask me having played with Wayne what is he really like – what’s the dirt? And I’ve always said, ‘I got no dirt on the guy, the guy was great.’ He took care of all the young players, the old players, forwards, defensemen, everybody – there’s not one bad thing I can say about Gretz.
Simpson: I’ve never had a teammate that had such things lauded upon him and was such an impactful player, but who cared more about bringing other people into his celebrity. He loved to share opportunities to do neat things he’d get with a third-or-fourth-line guy or a trainer. He really gets a lot of pleasure by allowing people to have experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have received.
I used to skate around with him and tried to bend his ear, ask him how you motivate yourself when you’re the best player in the league. The motivator for him was always comparing himself against his own game.
Robitaille: Winning was all Wayne cared about. He wanted to win and he was going to do whatever it took to help his team win. Wayne was a student of the game, a huge fan. If you talked to Wayne after a game, he was so aware of everybody. He knew who had goals, assists, how many shots guys on either team would have. His passion was for the game. He was aware of everything that went on on the ice. If you ask some guys, they’ll say, ‘yeah I had a good game’ but they can’t tell you much after that. Wayne was different.
He always elevated his game in big moments. He was great during the year, and you could be in a game in January down 2-1 with 10 minutes to go and out of nowhere he could create seven or eight scoring chances for our team. That always blew me away. And once you got into the playoffs, he elevated his game. As great as he was offensively, he was one of our great defensive players. People forget about that. The bigger the moment, the bigger he was as a player. It was amazing.
He was quiet in the room, but he wanted to win and you felt that. If he had something to say about winning for the team, he spoke out because Wayne was a winner at heart. But the way he was performing day in and day out, trying to get the next thing. If the game was 6-0, he wanted it to be 7-0 or 8-0. If we were down 2-1, he wanted to be on the ice and be the difference-maker. And he always did, which was truly amazing.
McNall: He’s a great leader. He would always take care of the young guys first and foremost. A lot of these young guys were very intimidated. Especially playing on his line, they were frozen solid. And Wayne would go out of his way, take them to dinner, hang with them. So he was not only a leader on the ice where his talent was so crazy, he also was a true leader off of it.
That said, the trade never was made with NHL expansion in the Sunbelt region of the U.S. For the singularly competitive Gretzky, the deal always was about an opportunity to win.
Gretzky: There’s a lot of people that still think or talk about me coming to Los Angeles to help hockey grow in California and the United States, but that wasn’t the case at all. When I was finally dealt, my only mindset was that I truly enjoyed being on a good team and I truly loved winning championships. The only thought process was we have to build a team that’s successful and hopefully try to win a Stanley Cup. I really never thought about growing the game or trying to make hockey bigger in L.A. I thought that would all come with the success of the organization and winning as a team.
The aftermath of the trade for the Oilers eventually was cushioned by another Cup win in 1990, but exorcising the ghost of No. 99 was no simple task – for Oilers players as well as Gretzky.
MacTavish: I kind of remember Kevin (Lowe) and Wayne were maybe the closest friends along with (Messier), but I remember Kevin taking a pretty good run at Wayne in one of those first regular season games after the deal, and it was like, ‘OK, this is about winning and not about friendship.’ I thought that was a real turning point in terms of how we dealt with Wayne as a group.
I don’t know whether Mark and Kevin discussed going after Wayne to set the tone for the rest of the team, but that’s what happened. Kevin is a very fierce competitor and I don’t even know that he even shook Wayne’s hand when he broke the (all-time NHL league scoring) record years later, he was still so pissed off.
Simpson: I don’t think we really got purged of Gretz ‘til after Game 7 of Round 1 (of the 1989 first round playoff series against the Kings, which Los Angeles won). We blew a 3-1 series lead and in retrospect, we didn’t play against No. 99 the way any other team would have. In the dressing room after Gretz scored the empty net goal that basically ended the series, I remember Sather saying, ‘I want you guys to remember your buddy dancing around on the ice, knocking us out of the playoffs.’ It probably did take that full year to flush yourself of it and move on – and it took a loss against him to actually do it.
Robitaille: We were shaking hands (after Game 7), and I saw (Gretzky and former teammates) looking at each other and crying. That’s when it hit me, like, ‘Wow, these guys have grown up together: Mark Messier and Wayne and Kevin Lowe.’ It was such an emotional series for both sides – for Wayne and the entire Oilers team, it was tough for them.
Gretzky: Listen, Edmonton became a home for me. Mark Messier is an Edmonton boy. He was their son, and I’d say I was their adopted son. Really at no time over my career there did I consider people to be fans; I know they’re fans, but I became more friends with the people. They were always good to me. In the whole unfolding of this thing, as is the case in a lot of these instances, the people who got hurt the most are the people who were the most innocent – and that’s the third party, the fans. So from that point of view, it was difficult for me. I love everything about hockey, but the one thing I hated in my career was playing as an opponent in Edmonton. It was always very difficult for me.
The deal had long-lasting effects not only in a hockey sense, but also in terms of the relationships it cemented. McNall and Gretzky famously teamed up with Candy to purchase the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and the franchise won the Grey Cup during the first year of their ownership.
McNall: Wayne and I became very, very close. It was as close as two guys could possibly be. We worked together, we had the same goals, we flew together. Wayne had a lot of other friends, he introduced me to his and I introduced him to mine. We’d go to France together, I took his dad to France, introduced him to my friends in the movie business, so there was a lot of back and forth. We’d argue at times about some things he thought should happen and I didn’t. And when I won, he’d get mad at me.
We were business partners as well as friends. He left pretty much everything to myself, or in the case of the Argos, to John Candy. We did a lot of fun things: we had horses together that won the Arc de Triomphe twice, which was never done before, syndicated horses for a fortune. Wayne was lucky. On top of everything else, he was lucky. Everything he touched was like, ‘bang!’
And from a personal standpoint, when I got in all that trouble and I was in prison, who’s there coming to visit me all the time – it was Wayne. Here’s the best player in the world and that probably didn’t look the best from a PR standpoint, but he didn’t care. He put that ahead of everything.
Carson: Where I did get the most insight on the specifics of the trade was years later when I went to visit Bruce in the Federal Correctional Institute in Milan, Mich. I was there probably five or six times. That was a surreal experience. I did it more from a personal perspective. I wasn’t going to make a judgment and wanted to be a friend to someone in need. I remember spending a couple hours in the visiting room talking to Bruce about a whole slew of things.
McNall: Jimmy would come. And Robitaille would come probably more than everybody. He’d find me in different places. The last place I was in was Milan and Luc was playing in Detroit. He and Rob Blake came to visit me one day there. They were terrified. (Laughs.)
A quarter-century later, the trade’s legacy is different for different people.
McNall: There are any number of things in my life that remind me of that trade. Any time I go to a Kings game, the fans are great; they’ll say, ‘Thank you so much,’ and go on like that forever. And Wayne and I will still get together from time to time and I see Marty McSorley quite a bit.
Carson: Now that I have four kids, anytime you bring this up, people are like, ‘What? You were involved in the Gretzky Trade?’ There’s a real ‘Wow’ factor.
Looking back, yes it was a hockey trade at the time. But I think Bruce McNall had a bigger vision and I think it’s panned out. I read an article the other day on the enrolment in hockey in California and it’s grown quite a bit since the trade was made. That’s got to be directly attributable to the trade. It elevated that team to a media powerhouse right away. So much attention went to it.
Now I look back and think it was a great learning experience. I just tried to be positive. Yes, my career would have taken a different path, but so what? I’m a Trivial Pursuit answer, literally. It happened and just like in life, when a curveball is thrown at you, how are you going to react? It was a great learning experience.
Robitaille: Here in L.A., Wayne is The Guy. He made us a respectable franchise. People became believers because of him. You talk to Drew Doughty, he’ll tell you he wanted to play for the Kings because he’d seen and heard about Gretzky. We have a history and obviously there was Marcel Dionne, but Gretzky and that trade changed the NHL.
Thicke: In L.A., you have a very competitive sports market. You’ve got to be a winner in L.A. If the Kings don’t win, everybody will go to the UCLA women’s water polo semi-final. That’s why Jerry Buss came up with ‘Showtime.’ The Lakers were known as ‘Showtime’ and Wayne became ‘Showtime On Ice.’
McNall: He never really became Hollywood-ized, even to this day. He was just a competitive guy in that sport, and that was his focus. Very little else was going to step in his way and take away his focus from that.
Krushelnyski: (The trade) went against the grain. The Stanley Cup was not the priority. Neither was the team, nor the people. Money was. Plain and simple.
MacTavish: Everybody had a piece of ownership with Wayne, certainly in Edmonton and to a greater degree nationally. He was a national treasure that was to be preserved and protected. It was unbelievable drama back then.
Gretzky: I have no regrets. The only thing I think back on are friendships and people I don’t get to see as often. And the fact that I often wonder how many championships we could have won – seven, eight, nine? I don’t know. There were a lot of Hall of Fame players who were part of that team. Sometimes I think, wow, it might have been fun, but you never know what turns life is going to take.
This is an extended version of an oral history that originally appeared in the Stanley Cup commemorative issue.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.