How the Gretzky Trade hurt both Hockey and Canada

Aug 15, 2013 by

How the Gretzky Trade hurt both Hockey and Canada

It was August 10, 1988, a typical hot summer day for an 11-year-old addicted to sport.  As part of my daily routine I would wake up, quickly eat a bowl of Golden Grahams and then rush out to cycle roughly a mile to Brad and Adams to forge a game plan for the day.  They were my best friends separated by two years, 12 and 10, who also just so happened to be athletic brothers who shared my passion for sports. Their family home was often a meeting ground to determine where or what sports to play or it was simply a final destination to play board games, swim or just hang out.  On this day the three of us would play ping-pong and a little baseball, but mostly we just talked about Wayne Gretzky being traded to Los Angeles for a king’s ransom, a handful of players and draft picks.  It was the first time in our lives that a trade of that magnitude had taken place, and we were all stunned that the great one could actually be involved. The deal had officially been finalized the day before but we didn’t catch wind of it until the evening news broadcast that same night and like most kids our age we weren’t allowed to make or receive phone calls past a certain hour.  There was no internet or smartphones with live news feed notifications, or 24 hour live sports talk radio shows, or a friend from kindergarten we hadn’t spoken to in 6 years to tell us on Facebook.    At that time, the notion of instant or real-time news was only realistic if you actually experienced it – what a novel idea.

For a group of naive sports-loving kids it was a historic day; not only did we lose our favourite hockey player and greatest Canadian athlete of all time to Hollywood, but we learned the grim reality that underlying all professional sports teams lies a cold-hearted, money-driven business entity.  For the Los Angeles business and sports community and for NHL executives, it must have been an exciting time, but for traditional sports fans, more specifically Canadian sports fans, August 9, 1988 would mark one of the saddest and most disappointing sporting experiences of our lives. Shockingly the incomparable Wayne Gretzky was sold like a commodity in the stock market.   Ironically, the closest sporting event to rival or surpass the disappointment of that day, for me personally and for many Canadians, would take place just one month later when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Gold medal in the 100m for his use of stanozolol, a banned steroid, at the Seoul Olympics.

Talk about a couple of tough months for Canada eh? The greatest player in hockey history, arguably in all of sport, had been imported to the United States and the fastest man in the world was exposed as a fraud in front of the world on the highest stage all within a few months (although it’s hard to believe that there was a single clean runner on the winner’s podium, or even the race-a topic for another day).  Too make matters worse a common motif for news headlines in the 1990’s was the national concern that a “brain drain” was occurring whereby Canada’s best and brightest talent were moving to the United States to develop their careers and raise their families. Coincidentally, the trading of Gretzky seemed to trigger a set of events which resulted in Canadians openly questioning their identity in all walks of life. However, for a bunch of kids our perspective was more simplistic and selfish. We saw the Gretzky trade as an act of betrayal, almost like an act of treason, disguised as a necessary business deal and the villain was the greedy owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Peter Pocklington.  It was gross equating a person to a price tag and it was difficult to comprehend, but even as children we understood the significance of the move.  What we didn’t realize at first though was that the NHL would never be the same, especially for Canadian hockey fans.

Since the trade the NHL has expanded from 21 to 30 teams, mostly in unconventional American hockey markets like Florida, Phoenix and Nashville.  Since being appointed commissioner in 1993, Gary Bettman seized the momentum of the Gretzky trade and focused on growing the NHL across the United States above all else.  Many of these regions were strategically chosen for their potential marketing reach and the Bettman led NHL did anything it could to promote the game in the most unlikely American backdrops.  Even before his reign as commissioner, shameless efforts to promote the game in strange locations had already been established, most notably, an outdoor exhibition game played in Las Vegas between Los Angeles and the New York Rangers on September 27, 1991.  To this day Bettman seems intent to expand the reach of the NHL in America at all costs even if comes at the expense of growing the game in Canada.  Sure cities like San Jose and Anaheim have become modest success stories, but most of the recently added franchises have struggled to consistently attract fans and utilize a variety of desperate tactics to sell even the cheapest priced tickets.  In 2009 you could get free tickets to see a Phoenix Coyotes home game with the purchase of a bottle of Vodka at the local grocery store.  Just this year Florida offered $7 a game season tickets package that also included a free NHL jersey, free parking, free concerts and gift cards and so on.   For that same price you might be able to go see one Toronto Maple Leaf game with your family this year.

To ensure teams like Florida and Phoenix remain relevant, the league has bent over backwards to keep them alive and competitive even when the regions fan base seem disinterested in the product regardless of the price. A salary cap has been incorporated, along with revenue sharing – all of which have been imposed to build a level financial playing field. This has largely resulted in parody from year to year, the death of dynasties and the spreading of upper-echelon talent across the league.  Even if an elite team could be assembled, the salary cap prevents teams from retaining the same group for a significant period of time due to the rising costs of keeping top talent, thus ensuring that dynasties don’t have an opportunity to blossom.  This ensures fans will only witness a fraction of the potential greatness a team could evolve into in order to give the eight hockey fans in the state of Florida a reason to wake up in the morning.  It also guarantees that the vast majority of teams in the NHL have interchangeable talent, making most teams appear similarly mediocre.

Additionally, salaries have exploded since the Gretzky trade and the economic side to the NHL has become an omnipresent force in its media coverage.  Players not fit to wash Gretzky’s bunions are currently making multiples of his salary in 1988 and we are constantly reminded of the financial value of today’s players.  The higher salaries are commensurate with the growth of the game over the past 25 years, but as fans we are far too aware of the economics of hockey. Now the mainstream sports media inundates NHL followers with the economic ramifications of every player transaction further commoditizing players as assets or liabilities based on their income. Hence, we rarely discuss the pure merits of a player without first considering his salary – a topic rarely uttered prior to the Gretzky trade. Now players are seldom traded in exchange for similar skilled players, or what were once called “hockey deals”, but instead traded because of the financial ramifications. A good example of this was illustrated this past year when Vancouver was forced to trade rising star goalie Cory Schneider to New Jersey because they couldn’t find a team willing to take on Roberto Luongo’s prohibitive salary despite him being one of the top goalies in the game. Our constant awareness of player salaries has tainted how they are viewed by the public and their value as athletes to their teams.  This seems to run contrary to the spirit of competition and yet it has become so prevalent to think of players earnings that we forget about their skills and their character along the way.

It’s true that the overall talent of the current NHL is impressive, and more balanced than in previous generations.  The evolution of the game with the extraordinary size and skill of today’s players, combined with the broader international influences from countries like Russia and Sweden has made the NHL one of the world’s most exciting sports leagues to watch.  But how many hockey players today truly differentiate themselves and capture our imagination the way Gretzky did from his peers?  In the modern game, Sidney Crosby is the closest example, but is he exponentially better than the next best player in the game like Gretzky was?  Clearly he is not, but what is certain, is that no player in the current NHL comes close to what Gretzky represented to his era, until Mario Lemieux came along and tested his brilliance. Pittsburgh at least knew better than to sell one of the top players ever to play hockey like a thoroughbred at a horse auction.

Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington may have made $US15 million in the Gretzky trade and received enough talent in return to win another Stanley Cup in 1990, but what did Canada get in return?  Quebec and Winnipeg lost their teams when they were relocated to American cities shortly thereafter and ironically Edmonton and Calgary were close to losing their franchises as well.  Although Winnipeg just got its team back from the farcical Atlanta Thrasher experiment, there is still room for more Canadian based teams to be added to the NHL.  Without question one could be added in Toronto and perhaps another in Hamilton or southwestern Ontario and at the very least a team could be returned to Quebec City; however, there appears to be very little interest from the league to grow the game further in Canada. Instead the league does everything it can to prop up and maintain failing franchises that have no business being in the NHL while potential season ticket holders across Canada look at other ways to spend their disposable income.  Even recently when Phoenix’s future seemed uncertain prior to being purchased by a group of investors willing to keep the team in Arizona, the city that was most commonly bandied about as a possible destination was Seattle. Meanwhile Quebec City is on the cusp of finishing the building of a stadium large enough to house an NHL team and yet they’re not even being discussed as an immediate suitor.

Furthermore, since the Gretzky trade only three Canadian teams have won the Stanley Cup and the representation of Canadian hockey players, although still a majority has diminished significantly over that time.  Also, a recent study commissioned by Bauer Canada reveals that more serious declines could be forthcoming with only 10% of all Canadian children choosing to play hockey today. Canada has won Gold in two of the last three Olympics and are the favourites nearly every year to win the world juniors, but it’s clear the world is catching up and there are signs that there might actually be a slow decline happening.  If not for a dramatic overtime goal by Crosby, versus the United States in the Gold medal game at the Vancouver Olympics, the perception of the overall state of Canadian hockey would be dramatically different and likely regularly cited as a national concern. Hockey might be a part of Canada’s national fabric today, but where will we be on the 50th anniversary of the Gretzky trade, when 90% of today’s kids are choosing sports like basketball and soccer over hockey? How will history remember the Gretzky trade if Canada measurably declines as a hockey superpower and the game becomes more entrenched in the United States?  Certainly Gary Bettman will be enjoying a glass of Chianti and a Cuban cigar somewhere on a beach in Fort Lauderdale while 50-year-old Canadians are forced to watch Oklahoma City play Kansas City for the Stanley Cup.

The Gretzky trade itself isn’t solely to blame for all of the imperfections that have evolved in the NHL over the last 25 years.  Clearly the topic requires a much more thorough treatment then what’s been presented here, but since Gretzky last wore an Edmonton uniform the game has changed measurably and in my opinion it’s no coincidence that his trade to Los Angeles marks a meaningful historical shift.  His greatness was used as a platform to build the sport in America and as a result the NHL has grown significantly as a financial entity.  However, there has been a cost to this growth and it’s the NHL’s soul. Most of today’s athletes have become interchangeable well-oiled machines that as a whole are impressive physical specimens but they also have largely become typecast, robotic, cliché bores who lack the personality, character and appeal of the players of previous generations.  This suits the league perfectly as their commodities are better off nameless and with similar skill sets. It ensures fans don’t get too attached to any one player and puts the focus on the relative financial value of each player within a salary cap.  As a result, it has dehumanized the fan experience and reduces athletes to dollar symbols.  Also, the growth of Canadian hockey has been marginalized at the cost of growing the game in the United States. Canada’s dominance as a hockey super power seems more tenuous than ever before and it’s most concerning that there are troubling signs emerging at the grass-roots level.  Are all of these variables somehow correlated to Gretzky being traded 25 years ago?  One thing is certain; since I was an 11-year-old boy there hasn’t been a single player transaction that has rivalled the impact of the Gretzky trade for a professional sports league, and the country of Canada.  We can also be certain that we will never again see a player in our lifetime of his greatness play in the NHL in a Canadian city for a dynasty.






  1. Adam Grenda

    Excellent article Nick. Coincidentally, my daughter Chloe was born exactly 25 years after the Gretzky trade!! I also believe players in the NHL these days are seen foremost as dollar signs, in reference to their value against the salary cap. I think hockey is now too expensive for the lower middle class and in some cases the middle class to afford, especially at a competitive level. Gone are the days of the 15 dollar wooden hockey sticks that both we as kids would play with and your favourite NHL star! Take a good look at the hockey (sports) card industry: in 1988 there was no such thing as a 25 dollar pack of cards! Ill try to summarize….the innocence is is gone in pro sports from a fan perspective. From the owners to the players, they are stretching the ” love of the game factor” to the breaking point for most fans.

    Adam Grenda.

    • Hi Adam,

      Thanks for commenting and congrats on the birth of your daughter – isnt it ironic that Chloe is born on the 25th anniversary of the trade?

      Clearly the cost of the game is a huge reason why there is a decline in participation in Canada. The truth is everyone is trying to make money off of kids playing hockey. Whether it’s Bauer or Topps, companies are pushing and exploiting the limits on what people are willing to pay to play hockey as well the costs of being a fan ie tickets, hockey memorabilia etc. It’s really quite sad how expensive it has become for a kid play to play hockey today and its turning off the vast majority of families. Believe it or not Adam there are packs of cards today, like “The Cup” that go for 250-400 a pack – no bubble gum included!

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