- Scott Burnside, NHL
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We can only surmise what might have happened had owner Peter Pocklington not looked into his piggy bank and discovered it barren and kept Gretzky in Edmonton. How many more championships would the talented Oilers have won?
Would the Los Angeles Kings even exist today?
What about franchises that sprouted in unlikely locales like Anaheim, Phoenix, Nashville, Tampa and Atlanta?
Would there have been Stanley Cup parades in Anaheim, Carolina or Tampa as there were in 2007, 2006 and 2004 if Gretzky had not landed in Los Angeles two decades ago?
Would young players hailing from Texas, Arizona and California regularly be called to the podium on draft day as they are now?
No one knows, of course, but the safe answer would be -- not bloody likely.
Herein a look at the game's seven biggest swap meets.
Aug. 9, 1988: Wayne Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas (selected seventh overall in 1988), Los Angeles' first-round entry draft choices in 1989, 1991 and 1993 and $15 million.
The dynastic Oilers had just won their fourth Stanley Cup in the spring of 1988 and owner Pocklington was in financial trouble. He knew that Gretzky was likely to test the free-agent market after the 1988-89 season and decided he needed to move Gretzky sooner rather than later.
"What had happened was: Peter had given permission basically to talk to whomever I wanted to. And at the point in time, I said, 'Look, if I'm
moving, the only two places I want to go to would be Los Angeles or Detroit.' And Peter said, 'Fine,' and that's how I got involved," Gretzky said in an interview that appears in the NHL Network's hour-long documentary on the trade, "A Day That Changed The Game: August 9, 1988," that airs this week.
"My favorite team as a kid was Detroit. My dad wanted me to go to Detroit but my gut was telling me there was a huge challenge in Los Angeles and I just really felt like it was the right thing to do in my heart, that's all, gut feel. And I wound up in L.A.," Gretzky said.
The trade, coming on the heels of Gretzky's storybook wedding to actress Janet Jones earlier that summer, was a shocker for fans in Edmonton and the rest of Canada. Members of Parliament suggested having the trade blocked (ah, Canadian politicians, you've got to love them) on the grounds that Gretzky was a national treasure.
"You've got to understand the psychology of what's happened [in Edmonton]. It's like a death and people need time to recover from that death. It's like any
emotional shock. You've got to get over it," Pocklington said at the time.
On the ice, the Oilers looked to be a shadow of their former selves but it wasn't necessarily so. They lost in a divisional semifinal that following spring, to Gretzky and the Kings of all teams, but in the spring of 1990, behind captain Mark Messier, the Oilers would capture their fifth Stanley Cup in seven years.
In Los Angeles, Gretzky's presence instantly transmogrified the Kings from patsies to contenders as they jumped from 68 points to 91 points in 1988-89. They also defeated the Oilers in a seven-game playoff series before dropping the division final to eventual Cup winner Calgary.
By 1993, the high point of Gretzky's tenure in Los Angeles, the Kings were a hot ticket and there was a hitherto unknown buzz about the game in California helping to buoy new franchises in San Jose and later Anaheim.
In the spring of 1993 Gretzky and the Kings advanced to the team's first-ever Stanley Cup final, where they were shut down by Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in an entertaining five-game series.
The team has won just one postseason series since.
Of course, discussion of the Gretzky trade always requires a wider lens than simply what transpired on the ice, and must include the impact Gretzky's presence in California had on franchises on the West Coast and in other nontraditional markets.
"You know what? I remember the first week I was in L.A. and I was going by these tennis courts and I stopped the car and said to a friend, 'You know, if we were in Canada, kids would be playing ball hockey, or inline hockey here and it would be amazing.' And this guy said, 'Well, this is California.' A year later there was a sign on the fence that said 'no inline hockey allowed' and I was like, 'We've come a long way,'" Gretzky said in the documentary.
"You take minor hockey kids in California now or Arizona, they can compete against the top kids in Canada -- 10-11-year-old kids, they're very good. You don't have as many, but we are getting to that point. We have some great, young talent down there. We have people that love the game. The game's come a long, long way in the Southwest," Gretzky said.
In hockey-mad Quebec, this is simply known as Le Trade or The Trade. As with all things relating to hockey in Quebec, the trade of the man known as St. Patrick involved more than a little emotion. Already at odds with head coach Mario Tremblay, a former teammate with whom he had squabbled, Roy was enraged after the Detroit Red Wings poured nine goals past him en route to a 12-1 shelling of the Habs on Dec. 2. When Roy was finally pulled in the second period of the drubbing, the netminder stormed past Tremblay and mouthed to team president Ronald Corey, who was sitting behind the bench, that he was done in Montreal. By the end of that week Roy was shipped to Denver.
After what amounted to a shotgun deal, the Habs managed to win just one playoff round over the next six springs following the trade. Although the appearance of Jose Theodore in the Montreal fold eased some of the pain of having lost an elite player who was also a native son, in some ways the trade will always haunt the franchise.
As for the Colorado Avalanche, who had just relocated from Quebec City before the start of the 1995-96 season, there was more than a little irony at play in the spring of 1996 when the Avs won their first-ever Stanley Cup. The Avs would win again in 2001, and Roy would earn his second Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Roy's arrival in Denver ensured that the NHL's second go-round in the mountain city would be a success, and when he retired from the NHL after the 2003 season, he was considered by most to be the finest goaltender of all time.
As if losing Gretzky to a cost-cutting measure in 1988 wasn't bad enough, Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington further stunned Oilers fans when he sent captain Mark Messier to New York early in the 1991-92 season. The move illustrated the growing gap between the NHL's haves and have-not teams and especially the disparity between cash-strapped Canadian franchises and rich American-based teams like the Rangers, Philadelphia and later Colorado.
The Oilers would soon be sold to a group of local owners who would struggle for years to keep the team afloat. Although the Oilers would advance to a Western Conference championship that spring of 1992, losing to Chicago, they would miss the playoffs the next four seasons as the core of the Cup-winning teams continued to seep away from the western Canadian city.
In New York, where the Rangers had not won a Cup since 1940, Messier was seen as a messiah of sorts. Named captain upon his arrival, Messier finished the 1991-92 season with 107 points and the Rangers were the top regular-season team in the league. The Rangers would be knocked out in the second round of the playoffs by eventual Cup winner Pittsburgh, but two springs later the Rangers, behind Messier's virtuoso playoff performance, would bring the Stanley Cup back to Broadway.
Messier's role in that seminal Cup win would establish him as one of the greatest leaders in hockey history and one of the most prominent athletes to play in New York in any sport.
A little trivia? DeBrusk works as a broadcaster for the Phoenix Coyotes, a team coached by Messier's old pal Wayne Gretzky.
May 15, 1967: Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield traded from Chicago to Boston for Pit Martin, Jack Norris and Gilles Marotte
Ever wonder where the term "Big Bad Bruins" came from? Well, this monster trade went a long way to establishing the Bruins as the NHL's dominant team early in the post-expansion era.
Two weeks before this trade, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the last Stanley Cup before the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams. The Bruins already had a fine defenseman named Bobby Orr, but when they added a much-needed big center in Esposito and big, steady forwards in Hodge and Stanfield, they became a force.
Already a proven point-producer, Esposito exploded in Boston, becoming the first player to top the 100-point mark in 1968-69. He would be named league MVP that same season and then the next year lead the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1941. After being stunned by rookie netminder Ken Dryden and the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 1971 playoffs, Esposito would lead the Bruins back to the Cup in 1972.
Esposito led the NHL in scoring five times, including four straight years from 1971 to 1974.
Hodge would twice top the 100-point mark as a Bruin and record 81 points in 97 postseason contests, while Stanfield was an underappreciated part of the greatest Bruins team of all time.
Apart from restoring pride to the moribund Bruins franchise, the trade would also usher in a period of bruising, intimidating hockey in the NHL. Although talented, the Bruins were also physically imposing. Two years after winning the Cup in 1972, the Philadelphia Flyers (also known as the Broad Street Bullies) would use the same blueprint in winning back-to-back Cups in 1974 and 1975.
As for the Blackhawks, although Martin would play well for the Hawks and help lead them to the 1971 Stanley Cup final against Montreal, the deal would reinforce their position as one of the NHL's sad-sack franchises.
A footnote on Esposito: He would later be involved in another blockbuster deal, going from Boston to New York along with Carol Vadnais for Brad Park, Jean Ratelle and Joe Zanussi on Nov. 7, 1975.
June 30, 1992: Peter Forsberg, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, a draft pick (that became Jocelyn Thibault), Chris Simon and $15 million traded from Philadelphia to Quebec for Eric Lindros.
Apart from the Gretzky trade this might have been the most significant of all NHL deals in terms of its on-ice impact and off-ice optics.
Lindros was seen as the heir apparent to Gretzky -- the next great franchise player and league star. But as the time approached for Lindros' draft he made it abundantly clear he would not play in Quebec, which had the No. 1 pick for the 1991 draft. Indeed, Lindros refused to don the Nordiques' jersey when he was announced as the top pick. Lindros also refused to report to the team playing junior hockey in Oshawa and joined Canada's national team for the 1992 Olympics.
Whether there was league pressure or not, the Nords ultimately dealt Lindros to Philadelphia a year later in a trade that would help establish Colorado (where the Nordiques would relocate after the 1994-95 season) as an NHL power for years to come. Indeed, Thibault was one of the key components in the trade that brought Patrick Roy to Denver.
Forsberg will likely head to the Hall of Fame when his playing days are finally over. Lindros? Well, that is a topic that will generate significant debate when his eligibility approaches.
Lindros became an NHL star, and at times dominated the game, but he did not become the seminal figure many had anticipated when he joined the league. A Hart Trophy winner as league MVP in 1995, Lindros could not help the Flyers take that final step to a Stanley Cup championship, although he did lead them to the 1997 final when they were swept by Detroit. Lindros became a lightning rod for criticism and debate throughout his career and warred openly with Flyers GM Bob Clarke. The big center captained the 1998 Canadian Olympic team, which failed to earn a medal in Nagano, and played a minor role on the Canadians' gold-medal effort in 2002. He ultimately ended up in New York, Toronto and Dallas before calling it quits. Lindros, who was beset by concussion problems throughout his career, now works for the NHLPA.
March 4, 1991: Ron Francis, Grant Jennings, Ulf Samuelsson traded from Hartford to Pittsburgh for John Cullen, Jeff Parker and Zarley Zalapski
When Hartford GM Eddie Johnston pulled the trigger on this ill-fated deal, he might as well have called the Stanley Cup engraver and had him start on the names of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Francis, the Penguins acquired the soft-spoken, skilled second-line center who was the final piece of their championship puzzle.
Playing second fiddle to the incomparable Mario Lemieux, Francis finished his career as one of the most accomplished forwards in the history of the game.
Twice during his almost eight seasons in Pittsburgh, Francis topped the 100-point plateau. During the Pens' back-to-back Cup runs in 1991 and 1992, Francis chipped in 44 points in 45 games and was a plus-21.
As for the Whalers, they would lose in a divisional semifinal the spring after the Francis trade and then miss the playoffs for six straight years.
Francis would return to the Hartford franchise in the summer of 1998, a year after its relocation to Carolina, and the Hurricanes to a surprise berth in the 2002 Stanley Cup final.
Francis remains with the Hurricanes as assistant general manager and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall.
Jan. 26, 1971: Ralph Backstrom traded from Montreal to Los Angeles for Gord Labossiere and Ray Fortin
As time passes, the significance of this seemingly inconsequential deal fades, but given the ultimate impact the deal had, it remains a significant transaction in league history. At the time the Montreal Canadiens owned the No. 1 draft pick in the 1971 draft, having acquired the pick from the California Golden Seals.
But as the 1970-71 season progressed, the woeful Los Angeles Kings looked as though they were going to be even worse than California and end up with the top pick and the opportunity to select French Canadian star Guy Lafleur. Montreal GM Sam Pollock, considered among the finest hockey minds in the history of the game, sent still-useful Ralph Backstrom to the Kings for two players who never played a game for the Habs. Backstrom, however, had 14 goals and 27 points in 33 games for the Kings and his contributions were enough to lift Los Angeles out of the NHL basement and allow the Canadiens to draft Lafleur with the No. 1 pick at the 1971 draft.
Lafleur, of course, was the offensive cornerstone of the Canadiens' dynasty that would win four straight Stanley Cups in the mid to late 1970s -- teams that are considered among the best of all time.
The Kings are still looking for their first-ever championship and have advanced to just one Cup final in their more than 40 years of existence.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
With Wayne Gretzky's trade from the dynastic Oilers to the Kings 20 years ago unassailably the most significant move in the NHL annals, Scott Burnside reveals the seven biggest swaps in history.