20 Years Since Wayne Gretzky Was Traded to Los Angeles, There Is One Little, Nagging Thing

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…

…August 9, 1988, the date of biggest trade in sports history, when the Edmonton Oilers traded The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, to the Los Angeles Kings.

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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39 thoughts on “20 Years Since Wayne Gretzky Was Traded to Los Angeles, There Is One Little, Nagging Thing

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  1. I disagree with you on most of your points. First of all, Blomsten, Cowie, Potomski and Crowder are not “Beer League hacks”. Blomsten was a very skilled defenseman, but just too soft for the NHL so he went back home to Europe. Cowie was a decent offensive d-man with a cannon for a shot, but he liked to go out for beers with the boys more than he liked to go to the gym. Crowder was a legit NHL tough guy, except that he couldn’t take 3 strides without tripping over his own skates. Potomski was a legit NHL tough guy until he pissed off Kings management by beating the snot out of Dmitri Kristich (a move that drew praise from most of his teammates). Potsy got shipped back to the I and was never heard from again. You’re dead on about Denis “Take the year off”. He was awful.

    I also disagree with your contention that the Kings got less for Gretzky because his ultimatum became public. The reason the Kings got a bunch of “no name” prospects is because that’s what they could afford. It’s not their fault that none of them panned out. That happens sometimes when you roll the dice on unproven players. The Kings knew they were going nowhere and were looking to rebuild for the future. They didn’t want big name guys because they couldn’t afford to pay them. If they had opened up the bidding (meaning if Gretz hadn’t limited them to a couple of options, choosing St. Louis because Janet’s family lived there) teams would have lined up around the block and they could have gotten a lot more return on their investment.

  2. To be quite frank, you are the first person I’ve ever heard say anything positive about those players, which says a lot. In fact, if you ask most people who have followed the Kings long enough to remember those guys, none would say anything positive about Cowie. It was criminal that he was in an NHL uniform. As for Crowder, all he could do was fight. Nothing else. Potomski, the Khristich incident notwithstanding, was not as good a fighter, but just slightly better skill-wise. Of course, that isn’t saying much.

    If these players had the value you think they had, why is it that they couldn’t land jobs with other NHL teams?

    Regarding the trade, fact is, the Kings didn’t know what they wanted to do. They had plenty of money now that Anschutz and Roski had purchased the team…this was also near the time when Anschutz ignorantly asked, “why don’t we just go out and get that Jagr guy,” a clear indication that he was willing to spend the money. So no, money was not the issue at all. Rather, it was indecision on the Kings part along with Gretzky going public with his demands.

  3. >> 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.

    oh, so THAT’S why he was thrown out 11 times for unsportsman-like conduct! thanks for clearing that up!

    gretzky was (and is) a selfish, immature jerk! a real class act, a true ambassador of the game wouldn’t have put his teammates through the turmoil whine bratzky did when he shot off his big mouth re how lousy the kings were and how he wanted to go elsewhere! the fact that after gretzky burned his bridges in st. louis, no other team were exactly beating a path to his door to sign him speaks volumns! i can only surmise that the rangers finally signed him because because messier wanted it!

    oh, and another “little nagging thing” no one has mentioned: gretzky was dyeing his hair! you don’t go from joe montana blonde to eric lindros brunette unless someone forgot to pick up some l’oreal at gelson’s!

  4. Do you have a reliable resource that shows Gretzky was ejected from a game 11 times? I’ve followed his career fairly closely and can’t remember him being tossed from a game ever.

    And if no other team was “beating down his door,” why were the Rangers so hard-up to get him?

    And who cares if he was dying his hair?

  5. >> Do you have a reliable resource that shows Gretzky was ejected from a game 11 times?

    glad you asked and glad to oblige:

    from NHL EASTERN CONFERENCE TEAM REPORTS FOR FRIDAY, MARCH 27TH 1998: “New York has lost four straight overall and five in a row on the road. … C Wayne Gretzky, who was held pointless, ending his six-game points streak, also had the misfortune of being ejected for the 11th time in his career.”


    >> And if no other team was “beating down his door,” why were the Rangers so hard-up to get him?

    because a) mess wanted it and b) they were idiots!

    >> And who cares if he was dying his hair?

    ask yourself: why is someone humble and modest be so hung up on his looks he’d dye and perm his hair? doesn’t make sense, does it? but, don’t get that upset, larry bird was doing the same thing!

  6. Thanks for the source. I still can’t remember Gretzky being ejected that many times, but I never said my memory was perfect. :-)

    In any case, the ejections pale in comparison to what he’s done in his career, on and off the ice and certainly doesn’t change that he is the game’s greatest ambassador to date. I would be interested to hear who has been better.

    And again, whether he dyed his hair or not, IMHO, is entirely irrelevant.

  7. First, I can’t believe anyone is defending the quality of players like Cowie, Potomski and Crowder. If these guys were so great, they would have stuck around. Obviously, calling them beer-league players is a bit of an exaggeration and should be taken as such. Get the stick out of your ass; those players sucked.

    Second, is it really debatable that when a GM announces his intentions, he weakens his trading position? Of course it does! Other GMs know they won’t have to give up as much before the opposing GM is somewhat stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    Third, you CANNOT debate Gretzky’s impact on the game on the ice and off the ice. He is the Michael Jordan of hockey. Oh yeah, I forgot though, if you get ejected from games that means you’re not a good player or bad for the sport. So that means Jordan, Kobe, and any other professional athletes that get ejected from games are bad ambassadors for the sport. Nobody has done for a sport what Gretzky did for hockey. But I guess since he dyed his hair all of that should be forgotten.

  8. >>… and certainly doesn’t change that he is the game’s greatest ambassador to date. I would be interested to hear who has been better.

    robert gordon orr never dated any “actresses” or “models” or hung out with celebrities or plugged pizza and anti-freeze or made a fool out of himself by hosting “saturday night live” (or dyed his hair). all he did was change the sport of hockey. ’nuff said!

  9. Some argue that Bobby Orr was the greatest player and they might be right. I am not one of those people, however. And there is no way that Bobby Orr was a greater ambassador for the game of hockey. His did virtually nothing off the ice to promote and grow the game compared to Gretzky.

    Gretzky making appearances on television shows was part of his work to grow and promote the game and he did it quite successfully. You appear to think that a hockey player must stick to hockey in order to be considered worthy of the game. Sorry, but in Gretzky’s case, you are badly mistaken, IMHO.

    And so what if Gretzky dated/married an actress? Again, totally irrelevant.

    Bottom line: no player, not even Orr, had a greater impact on the game or changed it more. And off the ice, no player did more to promote and grow the game. The facts simply do not support your claims, which appear to be based on some kind of grudge as opposed to an objective analysis of the facts.

  10. >> Oh yeah, I forgot though, if you get ejected from games that means you’re not a good player or bad for the sport.

    i wasn’t suggesting that gretzky is the spawn of satan, but a player getting ejected shows of a lack of discipline and self-control, which is fine from a goon, but not from a lady bing winner.

    back to the original topic: remember how gretzky trashed the kings in his HOF speech? not the kind of behavior you’d expect from the “game’s greatest ambassador” .

  11. Good article as usual, Gann. I agree with your point that the Kings and Gretzky were both responsible for the Kings not getting any players of value when he forced the trade.

    I was surprised to see your comments about Troy Crowder. As I recall he was one of your favorite Kings :-)

  12. >> His did virtually nothing off the ice to promote the grow the game compared to Gretzky.

    he promoted the game by being bobby orr. why he didn’t market himself as aggressively as gretzky, who knows? but his impact on kids in new england was the same as gretzky’s impact in canada; a lot of them took up hockey because of bobby orr that wouldn’t have otherwise.

    i honestly don’t see how hosting SNL or plugging a gazillion products or telling howard stern on the air that you and your wife did the horizonal mamba the night you met was “part of his work to grow and promote the game”, but i digress…

    we can do this until the cows come home. you obviously think gretzky is god; i think not. we’ll just have to agree to disagree. ;-)

  13. “i wasn’t suggesting that gretzky is the spawn of satan, but a player getting ejected shows of a lack of discipline and self-control, which is fine from a goon, but not from a lady bing winner.”

    How does this make him less good as a player or as an ambassador? It’s not like he whacked somebody over the head with a stick. There are many different forms of lack of discipline. The greats of every sport often had outbursts. It’s called a desire to win. Anything Wayne did obviously wasn’t a big deal since nobody can remember any specific incident. Let it go.

  14. I like how Smoke disagrees with the original statement about whether those hacks were qualified to play in the NHL, and then gives reasons why each of them never made it in the NHL.

  15. i’m just getting started reading the comments, but I have to agree with Smoke a bit so far. Tsygurov was no presence on the team, but buffalo didn’t draft him in the 2nd round for nothing. Also, i looked and Blomsten only played 6 games for the Kings as far as i can tell, hardly time for Gretzky to even notice he wasn’t going to fit in. The mistakes of the trade, i believe, center around one point. AEG knew nothing about hockey (and still doesn’t) and the new ownership had a crap management team. No offense, but they really got robbed. Its more interesting, really, to consider that McNall and Vachon were able to strip Edmonton of not only Gretzky, but McSorley and Krushyneski.

  16. Actually, Buffalo did draft Tsygurov for nothing. The guy was a total head case. Refused to work hard. I have never said this about any player, but the guy was a complete loser.

    Blomsten played in so few games, in large part, because he was horrible.

    As for what McNall did, yeah, but he really took advantage of Pocklington, who had no choice because of his serious financial problems. Keep in mind that he also got $15 million from the Kings in the deal, something we don’t see anymore (cash in trades) because the league prohibits it.

  17. Lisa – gretzky never pandered to the awards committee’s to win the lady byng. He’s great at sports because he’s competitive. Sometimes people get pissed when they are losing and an ejection can happen. As far as whether it is better to market oneself and the game is debateable, but he’s got the right. Oddly, hockey would possibly be better off if not FOR gretzky. Sports is not about 1 player and mark messier and the oilers proved that they could win without him. The Kings bankruptcy, rising player fees, the rush to expand the league; would that have happened if Gretzky had never been? I think Hockey would have survived if he’d never come along, Orr and the NHL of the 70’s were loved by many, but it may die because of all the mistakes they’ve made since he came to Los Angeles and the marketing began in earnest.

  18. gann – i’d like to see the NHL go through a complete overhaul and money transfers become a regular transaction.

    What I meant about Blomsten is that can you really say Gretzky was surrounded by mediocrity because a player was there for 6 games? Tsygurov was a russian, perhaps the transition at that time was too much for him. He must’ve had some talent to go in the 2nd round regardless of what he did here in the NHL. Remember, he came into a league with Crowder, Probert, and Kocur from a continent where fighting is banned. It was pretty freakin scary out there for him i bet.

    Great Job with the Blog and great that you post and debate.


  19. The point was that Blomsten was one of way too many hacks on that team.

    As for Tsygurov, no…seriously, the guy was one of those horrible hacks. After the first handful of picks each year, the draft is a serious crapshoot. Tsygurov’s problem was between his ears. He thought he could get by without having to work hard. Having to fight had nothing to do with it. The guy was a head case and had serious attitude problems.

  20. Gann – what about the current load of hacks in the nhl and the kings? they still exist. whatever the case with tsygurov, at least he could skate and stickhandle, which is more than can be said of Matt Johnson, Steve Mckenna, and some others.

    Oh, not to attack you, but I really disagree with the Tsyplakov derision. I liked him and thought he was a decent, above average player. Again, maybe he never really fulfilled his potential, but I think you were harsh on him. Maybe you talked to him or had inside info, however.


  21. Big difference is that Johnson and McKenna were willing to work to improve, even thought they weren’t going to improve much.

    Sorry, but if you thought Tsygurov was an “above average player,” you were watching a different player!! :-)

  22. I think you misunderstood me. In terms of skill, tsyplakov was above average. he was a bit like stumpel that never found a way to fit in completely.

    Johnson and Mckenna should never have played in the NHL. They were simply awful. They grew up playing hockey and were never going to learn to skate. they define goon.

  23. Stumpel was a skilled player, but he was so focused on passing first, second, third, fourth and fifth and THEN MAYBE he’d shoot, that defenses just played the pass on him and easily neutralized him because he so rarely shot the puck.

    Tsygurov was not above average skill-wise, or in any other aspect of the game. Sorry, but he was garbage.

  24. gann, i didn’t say tsygurov was above average, that’s what i was trying to say last post. he was miles ahead of Mckenna and Johnson though, if only in hockey playing ability.

    Its funny, but 10 years ago, stumpel was the no. 10 overall scorer in the league. I think his best quality was his puck control, like you said. He’d stick out the rump and create lots of space. He moved around a lot, but had a great career numbers wise. I always liked stumpel.

    By the way, its so funny when a player like potomski is mentioned. We forget all the no-names that peppered the league. How about Jeff Shevalier or Rene Chapdelaine?

  25. “Miles ahead of McKenna and Johnson?” How do you figure? Both guys went on to play for other NHL teams and for more than just a handful of games, while Tsygurov went off to the nearest landfill to hang out with his peers! :-)

    Stumpel had that one soild year and then stunk things up the rest of the way. He is just far too predictable, making it easy to shut him down completely. He simply refuses to shoot the puck. And I dispute your assertion that he has had a “great career numbers wise.” Looking at his career NHL stats, he’s had little more than a mediocre career…maybe worse than that.

    Shevalier? Chapdelaine? Those are just two of many former Kings who were, in a word, horrid.

  26. man, gann, you’re prickly today. Johnson was a joke of a hockey player but he could end a career with a right to the head (see beukeboom) with the best of ’em. Unfortunately, north american hockey continues to embrace thuggery over talent. I also, i guess, just disagree flatly when it comes to stumpel. 677 point in his career and 57 2 years ago at 35 yrs old on a team as bad as florida. its not hall of fame stuff, but pretty good.

  27. The problem with Stumpel is that he had the skill, but refused to use it. He should have much, much better numbers. But because he refuses to shoot the puck 95% of the time, he has been mostly useless throughout his career despite playing as a first or second-line center most of the time…he should consistenly be a first-line center with his skill, physical ability (something else he doesn’t make use of) and his face-off ability.

    But even though he has played as a first or second-line center for much of his NHL career, his numbers, especially in terms of goal scoring, just aren’t where they should be for a player with his skill, and that’s because he is very much a one-dimensional (pass always) player who can be easily shut down by taking away his passing lanes.

    If Johnson was a joke, Tsygurov was the worst joke in history! :-)

    And don’t worry…I do not require meds. I’m fine :-)

  28. Whoops…I see that you switched gears on me and started talking about Tsyplakov. Yeah, he had some skill, but he was really a lazy bum. Always coasted back defensively, never got his nose dirty in the corners. Always hung out below the tops of the circles, waiting for a pass. Never cared about his defensive responsibilities or working hard.

  29. left and right wingers shouldn’t get sucked down towards their own goal. hanging above the circles is their role in the defensive zone. if everyone collapses, it starts to look like ayso soccer and goals start to flow into your own net. hard for me to remeber all the details of his play, but your probably correct in that he had much more to give, stumpel possibly too. Remember how bad the kings were for long stretches too. Stumpel and Tsyplakov were not always on a very good team.

    I heard Azevedo wasn’t impressive in the mini-camp. Did you see him during the camp and what did you think.

    Good articles and i like your support of your opinion. keep it up.

  30. Gann,

    I wish you were this upfront and honest about the current Kings’ players than you are with those older hacks. I’d love to hear your analysis of “Cechmanek vs. Cloutier, Who was worse?” Haha!

    I’m very interested in reading more about the Blues/Kings trade and how it went down exactly and everything that was involved in Gretzky demanding a trade and being sent to STL to join Brett Hull. Do you have any links that would discuss what you did not want to get into?

  31. Cloutier was definitely worse! Nice guy compared to Cechmanek (but he rarely talked to the media, so that is probably unfair).

    All I meant was that the details are available, so there was no point in my rehashing them.

  32. Yikes!!! Heated discussion about the past. Most of us forgot about these players, so they probably were not very good.

    This discussion does illuminate problems with the “culture” of the LA Kings and why they have struggled over the years. For the fans, we have had our heart broken over these years.

    Is the “new” team an improvement? Hard to say. I think so. I can say this, after busting your ass at work all day, hockey is great to watch !!! Would be better if the Kings were more than a .500 team…

  33. As an aside, Rob Cowie is an NHL scout (for the New York Islanders, I think) and I’ve seen him at Staples Center a couple of times this season. Makes it a lot more difficult to forget..

  34. I’ve always loved watching Wayne play. I was searching for information on Wayne Gretzky and ended up on this web site. I’ve found this post interesting. I’ll take a look through the rest of your web site. Thank you!

  35. Hey Gann GREAT reporting on The Great One, I loved to hear a different opinion. I also liked the can of worms you opened up, keep up the great work !!!

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