Edmonton, August 9th, 1988. A little boy plays in a homemade sandbox built behind his home, blissfully unaware that the most traumatic thing to happen to his city’s sporting world is happening that very second. Hockey is the last thing on the boy’s mind as he chases his little brother around the back yard, but the boy’s mother and father are glued to a TV set and watch on in confused horror as the greatest hockey player to ever play the game is traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The boy continues to play outside, soaking up the warm August sun.
Wayne Gretzky was traded. The greatest player the game has ever known was taken from the smallish city in Northern Alberta that had made him one of their own and dropped into the flash and brilliance of Los Angeles. For Edmonton the loss was tremendous. Wayne Gretzky had become a beloved icon here. The city was hockey mad, the team had just won its 4th Stanley Cup in 5 years, and the stars were all still young.
In the years that followed The Trade the little boy grows up to be an Oiler fan, to be expected of a young man in Edmonton. The Oilers form part of his identity. He learns to skate, figures out that he’s a right-handed shot despite having only lefty sticks, plays community league hockey, and becomes a defenseman. Too bad because he REALLY wants to score goals. He learns about the Stanley Cups, the Records, the Dynasty, and the Glory second hand. He learns about The Trade.
Where were you when you found out Gretzky was traded? The very question itself suggests the response should be exact. I was at work that day and everyone huddled around a small TV. I was sitting alone in my basement crying for the first time since my mother died. I was at my friend Dennis Reynolds’ house and we watched the press conference together. Whatever it was, it was exact, and it was etched into your memory. It was for many people the loss of a child-like innocence. Hockey is a children’s game at its core, but the NHL is a business. For the 1st time in Edmonton’s brief existence in the NHL their fans were made explicitly aware of that, and the tiny child that occupied their imaginations was made to go away.
The boy, learns about The Trade. He learns from his family, his friends, his teachers. He learns from anyone who is willing to talk about it. He learns about Hurt. He learns about Betrayal. He learns about Greed. As an Oilers fan in Edmonton, he is told countless times about The Trade. How it was the first step in dismantling the last Dynasty in professional hockey. How Pocklington was a swindler and a crook who wanted money. How Janet Jones had forced Wayne to leave the city to pursue her failing acting career. The boy learns the swarm of emotions that he had never felt while he was playing in his sandbox that August in 1988. He learns them.
The Trade, as much of a positive impact as it has had on California hockey and US hockey in general, left scar in Edmonton that still hasn’t fully healed. The Canadiens got to keep Rocket Richard. The Penguins got to keep Mario. The Red Wings got to keep Yzerman. The Bruins used up everything that was good in Bobby Orr before he donned the Blackhawks sweater. Wayne Gretzky was still a young man in full health when he was traded. The team was even still good enough to win a Championship without him. And so the question remains, as it will forever like an itch that can never be scratched, how many more could they have won if Gretzky was never traded?
The boy grows up distrustful of his favourite team. He knows the owner doesn’t care about him, the product, or the city. More players are shipped away. Every famous name is eventually moved out for cheaper options. The team is horrible. The team is broke. The team is almost lost. The boy doesn’t even realize that he never had an innocence to lose. He learned his lost innocence in a shared experience that he never actually experienced.
The Trade changed Edmonton. The phrase “If Gretzky can be traded…” entered our collective minds, and it has been repeatedly (if not forcefully) kept there. In many ways a generation of Oiler fans have grown up jaded from the start. We were robbed of our heroes before we had a chance to know them, and the ones we did come to know were lost. We are a generation of fans who grew up knowing that Doug Weight, Cujo, Billy Guerin, and Ryan Smyth were going to leave for more money. It was inevitable. Hey, if Gretzky can be traded…
The boy has grown into a man and realizes that his boyhood idol was nothing more than the shadow of someone else’s memory. Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player to ever live, is as much a product of his own imagination as he was a real person. The man never saw him play for his favourite team. He never saw him win a Stanley Cup. He never felt the sting of losing him. He never felt betrayed by the owner who sold him. Those were someone else’s feelings. He had learned them.
The Trade was 25 years ago. Those who got to see Wayne as a member of the Oilers remember it well, those who did not remember it just as well.
Edmonton, August 9th, 2013. A man looks at his little boy playing in the sandbox he built for him in his back yard.