wayne gretzky

How Gretzky trade changed the hockey landscape in LA


On the 23rd anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky sale trade, it’s only natural to take a look back at the trade’s importance on the league. Stephen Brunt wrote a good book about the entire deal in “Gretzky’s Tears” and Peter Pocklington was able to get his side of the story to the public in an even better effort: “I’d Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal.” Plenty has been made of what the trade meant for Sunbelt hockey, the Edmonton Oilers, and Canadian hockey as a whole. But what gets lost in the mix is the immeasurable impact Gretzky’s trade had on the local Southern California market. Outsiders understand that it was a big trade—but people don’t quite understand how it completely shifted sports landscape of the entire region.

The obvious, immediate impact was at the box office. From his first game of Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles, attendance at the Forum skyrocketed to levels that only Bruce McNall had dreamed of. Gretzky was the biggest name in a game that was still a regional sport in the United States. People may not have known about offsides, line-changes, or icing—but they knew about Wayne Gretzky. Instantly, he put the Kings on equal footing with Magic and the Lakers, Gibson and the Dodgers, USC football, UCLA basketball, and whoever the Raiders/Rams were trotting out onto the field. The team had a marquee name—more importantly, they had the only name in hockey that could transcend all sports and entertainment.

The old, recycled joke from comedian Alan Thicke captured the lack of interest in the pre-Gretzky era pretty well:

“What time does the Kings game start?”

“Depends, what time can you get there?”

Might not be the greatest joke from Kirk Cameron’s on-screen Dad, but it was painfully true. But everything changed when the Kings had their own superstar to grab the sports headlines away from the teams that dominated the LA sports landscape at the time: Lakers and Dodgers.

In the year before he arrived, the Kings averaged only 11,667 fans per game. In his first year, attendance shot up 27% to 14,667 fans per game. In the six consecutive playoff appearances for the Kings after Gretzky arrived, there wasn’t an empty seat for even a single game. The attendance peaked in 1991-92 when the Kings sold out every single game of their 40 game schedule. Not bad for a team that was used to playing to two-thirds capacity in the mid-1980s.

The Kings finished the 1987-88 season with a 30-42-8 record that was good for 18th in the 21 team NHL. In the year before Gretzky’s arrival, the Kings were 5th in the league in scoring—but dead last in defensive. Gretzky was expected to bring more than just a boatload of points; he was expected to bring wins.

Just important as the success in the stands, was the success on the ice. In the three seasons before Gretzky arrived in LA, the Kings had averaged 64 points per season. In the three seasons after he arrived, they averaged 89 points (including the second best record in franchise history in 1990-91). The Kings went from a near .500 team at home to one of the more difficult places to play. Did the fans show up because they won? Or did they win became more people showed up? Most likely it was a little bit of both.

Both the success at the box office and on the ice can still be seen at Staples Center today. There’s an entire generation of fans who are buying season tickets today because their parents jumped on the bandwagon when Gretzky came to town. John Hoven from the fantastic Kings blog Mayor’s Manor shows that the new fans have provided the gift that keeps on giving:

“In the years that followed the Kings found record attendance and Wayne Gretzky continued to re-write the NHL record book. However, his most significant impact on the hockey landscape is probably just now starting to be felt, some 20+ years later. Over the last few years, more and more California-born (and trained) players have been taken at the NHL Draft, including four last year and five this summer. Just another example of Gretzky giving back to the game of hockey, long after he’s retired.”

As time goes on and success continues to elude the Kings, many of the fans can still look back to the Gretzky era for their fondest memories. Gann Matsuda of Frozen Royalty is a perfect example:

“Looking back to before I started writing about the Kings and the NHL, 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.”

But most obviously, the biggest change to the hockey landscape in Southern California was the addition of another team. Before Gretzky arrived, hockey fans were usually transplants that had two choices: the Kings or the team from their old hometown. Often times, they chose the latter. With the buzz Gretzky created in the media, the success the Kings achieved on the ice, and McNall’s willingness to open his market (for a one-time cash grab), the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were born. Fans in Orange County and the Inland Empire suddenly had a much closer option to satisfy their hockey fix. Ticket prices had exploded as demand increased for the Kings—there were a segment of season ticket holders who jumped at the chance to cut down on their tickets prices and drive time.

It’s been a divided region ever since. Hard to believe that a region that had a hard time supporting a single team for two decades was able to add a whole new franchise only four years after his arrival.

Preds still haven’t found their scoring touch

Mike Fisher
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The Nashville Predators got off to a relatively good start this season, but something seems to have happened to their offense over the last six games.

Prior to Nov. 20, the Preds had only been shut out once in their first 17 games. Since then, they’ve been blanked three times and have just six goals in their last six contests.

If you remove Mike Fisher from the equation, the numbers are even more dreadful.

Fisher’s scored three of those six goals, while Filip Forsberg, Shea Weber, James Neal and Mike Ribeiro have none.

After Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Buffalo , here’s what coach Peter Laviolette told the Tennessean: “I thought we could’ve had more gas, to be honest with you. The energy just wasn’t there; maybe the second period had something to do with that or the road trip, which was a long trip. I’m not making any excuses, but I think when we play at a higher tempo that’s when we’re at our best, and we had more to push in that area tonight.”

The first game back home after a long road trip is typically a difficult one for most teams, so we’ll see how the Predators respond on Tuesday night when they host Arizona.

A month to remember: Duchene lighting it up in November

Matt Duchene, Nick Holden
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It wasn’t too long ago that a report surfaced saying that the Avalanche were willing to listen to offers on forward Matt Duchene.

When a player’s struggling and rumors start swirling, one of two things tends to happen.

Either the player involved lets it affect his on-ice performance in a negative way or he’s motivated by the trade talk and turns his struggles around.

Instead of pouting, the 24-year-old rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

In October, Duchene scored a goal and an assist in 10 games, but things changed in a hurry when November rolled around.

The Avs forward has picked up at least one point in 11 of 13 games this month.

Duchene has 11 goals and nine assists in November and he still has a game to go before the calendar flips to December.

“Obviously, things completely flip-flopped,” Duchene told the Denver Post. “That’s the coldest start I’ve ever had and things are good right now. Obviously, I know it could go right back, I could go cold again, that’s just the nature of the game. You just have to work every day to keep it going. The most important thing is to be able to provide offense and help the team win.”

PHT Morning Skate: A bride can have her burger and eat it too

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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

A woman in a wedding dress was caught eating a burger during Saturday’s game between the Stars and Wild. (Above)

Team Europe has a number of quality goaltending options to chose from ahead of next fall’s World Cup of Hockey. (NHL.com)

Watch as some players on Nashville’s roster try to guess the lyrics to different country songs:

Former goaltender Eddie Johnston sits down for a Q & A with ESPN.com’s Shelly Anderson. (ESPN)

Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher got into a “Twitter war” with former NHLer Jim Kyte. (Puck Daddy)

Oilers defenseman Andrew Ference made a generous donation to a Syrian refugee fund. (Huffington Post)

Julien explains comments about Lundqvist’s ‘acting’

Claude Julien

We’re now over two days removed from last Friday’s tilt between the Bruins and the Rangers, but the coaches from both teams seem unwilling to move on.

Moments after that game, Claude Julien claimed that Henrik Lundqvist did some “acting” on the ice to sell a goalie interference call on Brad Marchand.

On Saturday, Alain Vigneault fired back by saying that Julien needed to get his eyesight checked. Vigneault also compared Aaron Rome’s hit on Nathan Horton in the 2011 Stanley Cup final to Matt Beleskey’s hit on Derek Stepan in Friday’s game.

Now it was Julien’s turn to address the “issue” at hand.

Julien clarified his original comment about Lundqvist and he also tackled some of Vigneault’s comments.

“I think it’s pretty obvious what I said . . . I thought Lundqvist sold it,” said Julien. “Not for a second did I ever question Henrik Lundqvist as a person, or a goaltender or any of that. We all know how good he is as a goaltender, and I know he’s a good person. I’ve met him at the All-Star games and all that stuff.

Julien on his eyesight: “As far as my eyes, I’m not the one that compared Beleskey’s hit to Aaron Rome’s [hit]. We’ll just leave it at that.”

It’s time for both sides to move on.