On this day in 1988, Edmonton Oilers center Wayne Gretzky is traded to the Los Angeles Kings along with Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley in return for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas and first-round draft picks in the 1989, 1991 and 1993 drafts. At age 27, Gretzky was already widely considered the greatest player in hockey history and was the owner of 43 National Hockey League scoring records.
Gretzky had won eight Hart trophies, the NHL’s MVP award, in his nine seasons with the Oilers, in addition to seven straight Art Ross trophies (1981-1987) as the league’s leading scorer. The previous season, the Oilers had brought home their fourth Stanley Cup championship during Gretzky’s tenure. Nothing short of a sports phenomenon, he was considered a national treasure in his native Canada and was beloved by the citizens of Edmonton.
Fan reaction to the trade ran the gamut from shocked and saddened to angry. After the announcement, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington defended the move by explaining that Gretzky had asked to be traded to Los Angeles, where hockey was still struggling for a foothold in the marketplace alongside the more popular basketball, baseball and football. Gretzky himself explained the decision this way: “I felt I was still young enough and capable enough to help a new franchise win a Stanley Cup.” After saying the trade was made “for the benefit of Wayne Gretzky, my new wife and our expected child in the new year,” the hockey star then walked away from the microphone, overcome with emotion at leaving the city where he had established himself as a Canadian hero.
About three weeks before the trade was announced, Gretzky had married American actress Janet Jones, and many fans believed she was the reason behind the decision. Los Angeles certainly seemed an appropriate destination for the young couple: In addition to being the capital of the film industry, it was also the second-largest city in the United States, a perfect place for “The Great One” to increase his visibility and value as a pitchman and help boost the popularity of hockey in the lucrative U.S. market. Of course, this logic did not stop Edmonton residents from protesting the trade by hanging Gretzky in effigy.