COMMENTARY: The 20th anniversary of the trade that brought The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, to Los Angeles is being commemorated by the National Hockey League and Gretzky is being universally praised, and deservedly so. But there is one thing…
LOS ANGELES — For the last few weeks, the National Hockey League has gone on a serious media blitz.
To be sure, the league shifted their public relations staff and writers for their official web site into overdrive in pumping out daily e-mails to members of the media as well as feature stories for their web site, all to cover what might be the most significant event in NHL history over the last twenty years…
Indeed, the 20th anniversary of the trade is featured on the NHL’s web site. The Oilers are also highlighting Gretzky’s time with the team on their web site and even the Phoenix Coyotes, where Gretzky owns a share of the team and is the alternate governor and head coach, is in on the act with a feature on the trade.
Of course, Gretzky and the anniversary of the big trade is the top feature on the Kings’ web site as of this writing.
The NHL’s media blitz has also been extremely successful in getting the media to publish their own features on the anniversary of the trade as well, as you can find at least one story—usually more than that—on all the major sports news web sites and on all of the NHL-specific media web sites.
Frozen Royalty would only be duplicating the fine work of all these sites and you can easily find and read all of those stories, so I will only say that I agree with all of them in that it was a momentous trade, not just for the Oilers and especially the Kings, but for the entire hockey world. The NHL, as we know it today, would be very, very different if Gretzky did not spend eight seasons of his career in a Kings uniform.
Without question, the entire hockey world owes a great debt of gratitude to Gretzky for his tireless work to grow the game. Throughout his career, he knew his impact and contributions off the ice were just as important as what he did on the ice—the game has had no greater ambassador.
But there is just one little nagging thing that all of those stories are ignoring. As much as I hate to rain on the parade, so to speak, there is one black mark on Gretzky’s record while he played for the Kings that has not been discussed in any of these stories and as much as Gretzky deserves to be praised, on balance, he does deserve one little bit of criticism.
Rewinding back to the end of his tenure with the Kings, the team was awful in the three seasons following their 1992-93 Stanley Cup run, due in large part to money problems that had beset the team caused by the criminal activities of their previous owner, Bruce McNall, who was convicted of defrauding banks of $236 million.
In the 1995-96 season, Gretzky had finally had enough.
Indeed, he was one of just a very small handful of established, solid NHL-caliber players on a team with some average NHL players that you would find on any team. But the team also had the likes of career minor leaguer John Slaney and players who were averse to hard work like Vladimir Tsyplakov.
But wait…it gets worse.
That team also featured Arto Blomsten, Rob Cowie, Troy Crowder, Barry Potomski and…drum roll please…Denis Tsygurov.
Now that I have sent those who remember beer league-caliber hacks like Blomsten, Cowie, Crowder, Potomski and Tsygurov off to the nearest rest room to worship the porcelain god, or even worse, blinded you for life (in which case you will not be able to read the rest of this article), my sincerest apologies.
But you see my point. Gretzky had nothing to work with and he knew that it would be impossible for him to lead a team filled mostly with average players and talentless plodders to a Stanley Cup championship.
Near the midpoint of the 1995-96 season, knowing he was nearing the end of his playing career, Gretzky gave the Kings and its new owners, Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski Jr., an ultimatum.
Acquire a fifty-goal scorer and an offensive defenseman or trade him.
I will not go into all the details surrounding that February 27, 1996 trade, how it transpired, etc. But when the ice chips finally settled, it was clear that both sides handled the situation poorly.
The Kings, as they had already done in other situations countless times in their history, bungled the entire situation through their indecision—should they trade him or should they keep him—and ended up getting nothing in return when they traded Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for centers Patrice Tardif and Roman Vopat, left wing Craig Johnson, a 1997 first-round draft pick (Matt Zultek) and a fifth round pick in 1996 (Peter Hogan).
Most of you reading this are probably thinking…who? Those guys are nobodies!
And you would be absolutely correct.
Indeed, none of the players the Kings acquired in that deal was a significant contributor to the team. Even Johnson, who played in 429 regular season games with the Kings, scored just 62 goals and added an equally measly 79 assists for 141 points (he also scored three goals with two assists for five points in fifteen playoff games with the Kings), was a marginal player, and that is a rather generous assessment.
In short, the Kings got absolutely nothing in return for The Great One.
Nada…you get the idea by now, I hope.
To be sure, the Kings get a lot of blame for stumbling and bumbling their way through this entire situation and in the end, winding up with nothing in return. If they had acted quickly and decisively, perhaps they could have gotten a better return.
However, that is only if they could have acted before Gretzky opened his big mouth. Yes, Gretzky must also share responsibility, as he played a major role in lowering his own trade value to zero.
Obviously frustrated, Gretzky went public with his ultimatum and as soon as Gretzky uttered those words, he instantly doomed the Kings in any potential trade. After all, what general manager in his right mind would give the Kings anything of value in return?
Indeed, the Kings were between the proverbial rock and a hard place because everyone knew that they had to trade Gretzky quickly and because of that, The Great One could be acquired for, all intents and purposes, nothing. As such, the Kings had no choice but to accept the flotsam and jetsam they eventually wound up with in exchange for the greatest player ever to play the game.
Unquestionably, if Gretzky had done it the right way, expressing his concerns to management and ownership privately, the Kings would have received more in return. In the end, Gretzky’s actions in this matter contributed, in large part, to the continued malaise that the Kings still find themselves mired in today.
But don’t get me wrong. I am not bringing up this one black mark on Gretzky’s record to say that he is not deserving of all the accolades, honors and tributes he has received or the deep respect he has earned over the years and during the current commemoration of the 20th anniversary of his trade to the Kings.
Looking back to before I started writing about the Kings and the NHL (as a journalist), I was a fan of The Great One and had been since his days with the Oilers. I remember back in those days that whenever the Kings and Oilers were on TV, I would make sure to get home and watch so I could marvel at his extraordinary skill—talent that we had not seen before. And after Gretzky was traded to the Kings, I rarely missed a game on television.
I was in attendance at the Great Western Forum on March 23, 1994, when Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s career NHL goal-scoring record against the Vancouver Canucks. I remember leaping to my feet, arms raised high over my head, cheering loudly along with everyone else. What a great memory that was.
Of course, there were many others, including the amazing Stanley Cup run in 1993 where he put the team on his back and almost willed the Kings to their first championship.
In short, I am not a Gretzky hater. Rather, I am only bringing up this one dark chapter in an otherwise extraordinary, stellar career to provide some balance and point out that Gretzky is not perfect. Nevertheless, this criticism should not be construed as an attempt to take anything away from his amazing career, his accomplishments, or his contributions, both on the ice and off.
Without a doubt, Gretzky is still The Great One and I doubt that anything will ever change that, especially not the rantings of a freelance hockey journalist.
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