wayne gretzky

How Gretzky trade changed the hockey landscape in LA

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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.

Oilers’ Yakimov going back to KHL — this time, on loan

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14:  Bogdan Yakimov #39 of the Edmonton Oilers looks on prior to the start of the game against the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center on October 14, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
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Bogdan Yakimov is on his way back to Russia.

On Wednesday, the Oilers announced they’ve loaned Yakimov to KHL club Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik, the same team he joined after leaving AHL Bakersfield last season.

The 83rd overall pick in 2013, Yakimov has appeared in one game for the Oilers since getting drafted. He’s spent almost all of his time in North America in the AHL, and didn’t impress the club last year when he bolted the farm team to return to his native land.

“He made a career decision to return to Russia and I’m not sure how he played or how many games he played,” Oilers head coach Todd McLellan said at the time, per the Edmonton Sun (McLellan was then informed Yakimov was away for 11 games).

“Well, that’s 11 games he didn’t spend with us. During his time away, there were a number of players recalled. I would have preferred to see him in an Oilers uniform and he was real close. Now he has to reset his Oiler clock and get playing again.”

All told, Yakimov played in 36 games with the Condors last season, scoring five goals and 15 points.

At 6-foot-5 and 232 pounds, Yakimov has impressive size and is still only 21 years old, so he’s got some value. But it remains to be seen whether he wants to try and push for an NHL career, or opt to stay in the KHL.

 

Max is back: Lapierre to attend Rangers camp on PTO

PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 01: Maxim Lapierre #40 talks with Craig Adams #27 of the Pittsburgh Penguins before a face-off during the game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Consol Energy Center on April 1, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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After a year abroad, Maxim Lapierre is getting a shot to rejoin the NHL.

Per TVA, Lapierre has agreed to join the Rangers in training camp on a professional tryout. The news comes after he split last season between Swiss League outfit Lugano and Swedish League side Modo, with midseason rumblings there were NHL teams interested in bringing him back.

In New York, Lapierre will be reunited with Alain Vigneault, his former head coach in Vancouver. Vigneault has brought in a few former Canucks during his time with the Rangers, including Tanner Glass, Nicklas Jensen and Michael Grabner.

Lapierre, 31, last played in the NHL during the ’14-15 campaign, splitting time between Pittsburgh and St. Louis. A known agitator, he finished the year with 11 points in 80 games, and appeared in all five games of the Pens’ opening-round playoff loss to the Rangers.

Prior to his time in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, “Yappy Lappy” played in Montreal, Anaheim and Vancouver. His best season came in 2008-09, when he scored a career-high 15 goals and 28 points, earning a handful of Selke votes.

Ready for No. 1 duties, Elliott wants to be ‘backbone’ for Flames

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 15:  Brian Elliott #1 of the St. Louis Blues tends goal during the first period against the San Jose Sharks in Game One of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 15, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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At 31, Brian Elliott will be one of most experienced guys on the Calgary roster next season.

But he’s also ready to embark on something unique.

Elliott will have the chance to be a clear-cut, unquestioned, No. 1 starting netminder for the first time in his career when the Flames open play in October — an opportunity he’s ready to embrace.

“As a goalie you want to be wanted. You want to have that opportunity,” Elliott said on Wednesday during his introduction to the Calgary media. “I’m going to do my best to be the backbone of the team and try to be a leader and just do whatever I can to be the rock for the guys on the back end and let the guys do the rest of the work.”

There’s little doubt about Elliott’s role in Calgary for next season. He was stellar in ’15-16, posting a .930 save percentage and 2.07 GAA, helping the Blues advance to the Western Conference Final. And the Flames further anointed Elliott as the No. 1 by signing career backup Chad Johnson to fill the No. 2 role.

So, next year is sorted.

But what about after that?

Elliott is a UFA after this season, and so is Johnson. Flames GM Brad Treliving did say at the draft that Elliott’s contractual status and cap hit played a role in the acquisition, adding that discussions about a new deal could be in the works.

“As part of this deal, Doug [Armstrong, Blues GM] allowed me to talk to [Elliot’s] representative, so there may be the opportunity to look at an extension,” Treliving said at the time. “We’ll look at that. There’s no need to rush, but maybe there is a need to look at something.”

It’s been long rumored that Calgary wasn’t looking for a long-term solution in goal, but rather a “transitional guy.” That’s why Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, currently under contract for two more years, had been tied to the Flames.

Looking down the road, it’s clear Calgary is anticipating one of their draftees pans out in goal. The club took Providence standout Jon Gillies 75th overall in 2012, Mason McDonald 34th overall in ’14, and Tyler Parsons 54th overall this  year — but none of them are close to being NHL ready.

Which brings us back to Elliott.

Given how erratic things were in Calgary’s net last year both performance- and contractual-wise, one would assume Treliving would like to keep “Moose” around for more than just this season.

With ‘no expectations’ for Franzen or Vitale to play, Wings aren’t worried about cap situation

Detroit Red Wings v Edmonton Oilers
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At first glance, Detroit’s current financial situation isn’t good. Petr Mrazek’s recent two-year, $8 million extension pushed the payroll to nearly $78 million, well over the $73M ceiling for next season.

But there is a catch.

“Certainly we have no expectations that [Johan] Franzen and [Joe] Vitale are playing hockey this year,” GM Ken Holland said Wednesday, per MLive. “I talked to Vitale after we traded (for) him. He’s having on-going issues with concussion.

“He certainly not expecting to be in camp. I’m not expecting to see Johan Franzen on the ice.”

Vitale, acquired from Arizona as part of the Pavel Datsyuk deal at the draft, carries at $1.16 million cap hit. Franzen, who played in just two games last year while dealing with concussion issues of his own, carries a $3.95M hit.

Putting those two on long-term injured reserve would almost get Detroit right back into cap compliance. Holland can also exercise a similar option with Teemu Pulkkinen, who underwent shoulder surgery this offseason (and makes $812,500).

Thing is, cap compliance isn’t all Holland wants to accomplish.

Though he re-signed Danny DeKeyser to a big six-year, $30 million contract earlier this week, Holland still wants to add to his blue line. The Wings have a surplus of forwards, and Holland has said he’d “love to get a top-three defenseman” prior to the start of next season.

A top-three defenseman will undoubtedly cost a fair bit of money. Which means a fair bit of money would need to go the other way in return.

Detroit has reportedly spoken to Anaheim about acquiring Cam Fowler. Fowler, 24, would be a good fit — he’s got a very reasonable contract ($4 million annually through 2018), the type of money the Wings could bring aboard if they were to part with the likes of, say, Gustav Nyquist ($4.75 million through 2019).

The catch, of course, is that the asking price for defensemen is sky high. It cost the Oilers Taylor Hall to get Adam Larsson out of New Jersey, and there are teams like Boston — still desperately searching for a “transitional” defenseman — that have publicly stated the acquisition cost is steep.

So while Detroit might not be worried about its cap situation for next season, it has to be concerned about having what it takes to upgrade the defense.

Related: Blues GM says he might just keep Kevin Shattenkirk