LOS ANGELES — December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i was attacked, bringing the United States into World War II, was called “a date which will live infamy,” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his December 8, 1941 speech before the United States Congress, asking that they declare war against the Empire of Japan.
To be sure, December 7, 1941 was certainly a cataclysmic one in American and World History. Fast forward almost 47 years to August 9, 1988, a date that, for many Canadians, was another date which will live in infamy—the day when the unthinkable happened: then-Edmonton Oilers superstar center Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.
In the deal, the Kings sent center Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, their first round draft picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993, along with $15 million in cash, to the Oilers. In addition to Gretzky, the Kings got Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyskif in the trade.
But for Canadians, they had lost the best player to ever play the game, a national treasure, The reaction was shock, disappointment, and anger, among other emotions.
That evening, after Gretzky addressed the Edmonton media, he did the same with the Los Angeles media at the Sheraton Plaza LaReina Hotel, near Los Angeles International Airport, in front of a massive throng of local media, by far, the largest media gathering ever for a Kings press conference.
“I hadn’t seen anything like that,” said legendary former Kings star right wing Dave Taylor. “I’ve never seen so many cameras in my life.”
“[The Kings acquiring Gretzky] was pretty exciting,” he added. “I felt both sides of it, because I was close to Jimmy Carson. He was actually the guy who called me and told me, ‘The deal is done. I’m going to Edmonton. Wayne Gretzky is coming to Los Angeles.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I never dreamed Edmonton would trade Gretzky.”
Taylor noted that, contrary to popular belief, it was Dr. Jerry Buss who got the ball rolling on acquiring Gretzky from the Oilers.
“Bruce McNall was the [Kings] owner, but Dr. Buss, [the Kings previous owner, following Jack Kent Cooke, their original owner], started the discussions with [then-Oilers owner] Peter Pocklington,” he said.
“Dr. Buss believed in the star system,” he added. “That works more in basketball, and he saw the effect Magic Johnson had on the [Los Angeles] Lakers, [which he also bought from Cooke]. Then they acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—if you add two or three superstars like that in basketball—they had a dynasty. The same thing happened when Kobe Bryant [became a star].”
“That was Dr. Buss’ philosophy, especially in the L.A. market. He believed you needed stars to draw people, to win, and to be successful. But hockey is a little different. Star players help, but you’ve got to have the depth. You’ve got to have more than a couple of key players.”
With Gretzky now wearing a Kings jersey, they became the hottest ticket in town, literally overnight, as phones at the Forum in Inglewood, California began ringing off the hook with people clamoring to buy season tickets.
“When the word broke that he was coming to the Kings, the Forum became the place to be, watching Kings games,” Taylor reminisced. “It was just amazing. I remember driving to games with him—we drove to games together. He would ask about crowds. I would tell him, ‘Hey, we’re playing Montreal, so we’ll have a sell-out tonight.’ [The same would be said for the New York Rangers, or the Winnipeg Jets]. He said that ‘we’ve got to make it so that they’re coming to see us play,’ and he was exactly right. A year or two later, the Kings sold out every single home game. That was the first time that happened for the Kings.”
“The seats I had in the corner went from $16.50 to $80.00,” Taylor added. “I had seats—I got a couple from the team, and I bought a couple, so I had four seats in the corner, on the end where the Kings shot twice, about 2/3rds of the way up. That was an overnight price difference!”
A situation that could have been rather awkward was that on November 6, 1985, in a game against the Oilers at the Forum, Taylor nailed Gretzky with a one-punch knockdown.
“It was just a reaction,” said Taylor. “There was a scrum going on, and he gave me a shot from the side, so I just turned and punched, and hit him on the side of his helmet.”
“I don’t think I hit him that hard, because I was punching across my body,” added Taylor. “But he went down, and all heck broke loose. I ended up on the bottom of the pile there with about five Oilers on top of me. I think I still have lumps on my head from that.”
But with Gretzky now as his teammate, that incident could’ve been a bit of a sticking point between the two. But Taylor indicated that they never talked about it, noting that, “That kind of stuff happens in the game.”
Taylor said that he gained a new appreciation for The Great One once he joined the Kings.
“I was amazed, first of all, at how Gretzky handled all the [attention from media and fans],” he observed. “I played against him for many years, and I knew how good a player he was. But then he came to us, and I got to watch him play every day, and you realize, ‘Oh [expletive deleted], he does have eyes in the back of his head,’ the way he made plays, and the way he could do things, it was truly amazing.”
“I played with Rogie Vachon, Marcel Dionne, and Larry Robinson was here,” he added. “Nobody impacted the game like Wayne Gretzky. He’s the one guy, in my opinion, during my time with the Kings, who could attract the casual fan to come out to the Forum and watch us play, and that happened, literally, overnight.”
A lot of things changed for the Kings when Gretzky arrived. But contrary to what conventional wisdom may dictate, Taylor indicated that the players took it all in stride.
“I don’t think the game really changed for the players,” he stressed. “You still have to show up, and you have to play. But there’s no question that the whole atmosphere of the game production, and the fact that he was there, I think people came with more energy to the games, with the opportunity to see Wayne Gretzky play.”
One change the players made was in their leadership the following season, when Taylor willingly gave up the team captaincy to Gretzky.
“It was kind of a group idea,” he said. “The year before, Robbie Ftorek was our head coach. He said, ‘You’re the captain. I’d like you remain as the captain, if you want to be the captain.’”
“So I wore the ‘C’ that first year when he came here,” he added. “But when I watched how he operated, and saw the demands on his time, he was really the spokesperson for the team, and I felt, the next year, that he should be the captain. I talked with [new head coach] Tom Webster about it and said, ‘all I want to do is win.’ He liked that, so Gretz was named captain, and we moved on.”
Even though Gretzky was now in a Kings jersey, they did not become a Stanley Cup contender right away.
“We were OK, early on,” said Taylor. “But the team built up, from 1988, when Gretz first arrived, to the early 1990s, when I thought our team was very good.”
“Bruce McMall was spending as much [on player salaries] as any of the other teams,” added Taylor. “We were really competitive, but we had different things that derailed us.”
After a few years of getting the trains back on the tracks, the 1992-93 season came along, and started out as a near disaster. Things started well, but nearly ended up being a disaster, and they came up just short of the ultimate goal. In the next instalment of this series, Taylor shared his memories of the Kings 1992-93 season, focusing on the 1993 playoffs, and their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. Stay tuned.
LEAD PHOTO: Former Los Angeles Kings star right wing and former general manager Dave Taylor, currently the Vice President, Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues, shown here outside of the mine he worked at during summers while he was a college student, in his hometown of Levack, Ontario during his day with the Stanley Cup after the Blues won the 2018-19 Stanley Cup Championship. Photo courtesy of the Dave Taylor Family Collection.
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