- Scott Burnside, NHL
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The news spread like wildfire Thursday. One of the sports world's biggest stars was descending upon Los Angeles to save a franchise and save a league. Sound familiar? It should.
David Beckham is moving to Tinseltown to play for the Galaxy of Major League Soccer, a defining moment for a league struggling to secure its place in the American sports landscape. But the arrival of the Beckhams won't mark the first time a mega-star athlete and his nearly equally famous wife have created a stir in celebrity-saturated Los Angeles.
Aug. 9, 1988. Wayne Gretzky is traded to the Los Angeles Kings.
Veteran Los Angeles Kings analyst and former NHL player Jim Fox recalled the hours after the deal was announced. Switchboards at the Kings' offices were overloaded to such an extent that the team had to bring in outside help to work the phones. It was the beginning of what would be a unique dynamic for the Kings and the entire NHL.
"It's the most dramatic effect on any sports franchise that I am aware of, that single moment," Fox told ESPN.com on Thursday.
That single moment changed the fortunes of at least two franchises, and opened the door, for better or worse, for the NHL to leave its footprint in nontraditional markets across North America. Even today, closing in on 20 years after the trade of the century, the ripples are still felt.
At the time, Gretzky was the game's biggest star, a living, breathing hockey legend whose Oilers had established themselves as one of the greatest teams ever. Earlier that summer, the Oilers had won their fourth Stanley Cup in five seasons. Gretzky had been named playoff MVP for the second time and finished second in scoring behind Mario Lemieux with 149 points. Had Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington not been awash in red ink in his other business dealings, who knows; the Oilers might have won four or five more Cups. But Pocklington needed financial relief, and the biggest asset he owned was Gretzky.
Then-Kings owner Bruce McNall had a team with little in the way of profile but loads of cash, so the deal of the century was consummated. Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski were dealt to L.A. for Martin Gelinas, Jimmy Carson, three first-round picks and $15 million.
In Canada, fans wept. So did Gretzky at his trade news conference ("I promised Mess I wouldn't do this," echoes in every hockey fan's brain). Pocklington was burned in effigy and, to this day, remains a pariah to many Western Canadian hockey fans. A leader of one of Canada's federal political parties even asked the Canadian government to block the trade.
Los Angeles, however, seemed the perfect place for Gretzky and his new bride, actress Janet Jones, whom Gretzky had married in the Canadian equivalent of a royal wedding shortly before the trade was announced.
In the blink of an eye, a Kings team that had struggled since 1967 to gain a foothold in the balmy West Coast weather, became cool. Gretzky was the ultimate ambassador. He was polite and accessible and became someone with whom everyone from kids to blue-collar parents to Hollywood stars could identify.
"I remember that first summer, I spent every day going to hockey clinics and doing interviews trying to sell the game," Gretzky once told the Los Angeles Daily News. "It didn't happen overnight, and a lot of people put in a lot of hours. The one thing I worried about was being a $15 million bust."
There wasn't much chance of that happening.
The Kings began selling out games as fans flocked to see The Great One, who led the team with 168 points in his first season with the club. In a nod to Hollywood stories, the Kings knocked off Gretzky's old team in the first round of the 1989 playoffs, rebounding from a 3-1 series deficit. Later, Gretzky was announced as the league's MVP, edging Lemieux. It was his ninth Hart Trophy.
The love affair with Gretzky, and the game, blossomed.
Fox was injured during Gretzky's first season in L.A. and worked in the team's newly created community relations office. Everywhere he went, people spoke of Gretzky and the game. In 1986-87, the Kings' average attendance was 10,644. That jumped to 14,875 in Gretzky's first season, and by 1991-92, every ticket to every home game was sold.
"We never had community relations before Gretz," Fox said. "With Gretz, it became necessary to take those steps" because there was such interest in the community.
Advertisers, who had previously ignored the Kings or had been forced to advertise at Kings games if they wanted to advertise with the NBA's Lakers, now lined up to market their products at hockey games.
Fox, who played for a decade with the Kings and has been a television analyst with the team for 15 years, witnessed another aspect of Gretzky's impact when he returned to the dressing room as a player. Equipment manufacturers who had never bothered to stop by Los Angeles were suddenly everywhere.
"[Before] I couldn't even get the helmet I wanted to wear," Fox said. "Then, boom, all of a sudden, everyone's saying, 'What kind of stick do you want? What kind of gloves do you want? What kind of helmet?'"
On-ice officials suddenly seemed more willing to explain calls or situations to Kings coaches and players, Fox said. A team that had been low on the league's radar was suddenly featured in national broadcasts and segments and interviews.
And fans? Through the roof.
During the 1993 playoffs, when Gretzky and the Kings went to the team's first and only Stanley Cup finals versus eventual champ Montreal, local television reported a 25 share, meaning that one in every four households in the Los Angeles area was watching hockey.
"That's unheard of now," Fox said.
Gretzky spent almost eight seasons in Los Angeles before being traded to St. Louis late in the 1995-96 season. McNall eventually went to jail for conspiracy and fraud. Gretzky never won another Cup after leaving Edmonton, although the Oilers managed to win one post-Gretzky championship in 1990.
As for the Kings, they have won just one playoff round since that magical run to the 1993 finals. Although the Kings still boast a loyal fan base, that too has taken a hit this season with the Kings in a rebuilding phase.
Still, almost 20 years later, Gretzky's aura continues to be felt in the Los Angeles area. Go to any Kings game and you'll see the odd silver, black and white No. 99 jersey. Where there were a handful of rinks in the Los Angeles area when Gretzky arrived, there is now a solid grassroots hockey system in place and teams more than hold their own against teams from traditional hockey markets. While it would have been unheard of for an NHL team to draft a California-born or California-raised prospect in the late 1980s, these days there are a couple every year and more are coming.
Call it the Gretzky half-life.
"You don't want to overstate it," Fox said. "But in this instance, I really believe it is because of Gretzky."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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