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.

2020 NHL All-Star Skills: Winners, fun moments, Hertl as Bieber

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All-Star Skills competitions bring about memorable moments in plenty of years. Yet, when Tomas Hertl donned a Justin Bieber mask, fans received something truly unusual: nightmare fuel.

Luckily, that (honestly chilling) vision was just one memorable image from the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills competition. Let’s go over the events, winners, and other fun stuff.

Keeping the St. Louis (and surrounding areas) faithful happy

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Ryan O'Reilly rocked a Chiefs helmet during warm-ups, while Jordan Binnington also supported the Super Bowl-bound team. The Chiefs did the Blues a solid during their Stanley Cup run, so why not pay it forward? Most importantly: it looked funny.

Matthew Tkachuk also went for a cheap pop from the St. Louis crowd by taking off his jersey to reveal St. Louis Cardinals garb during the Shooting Stars competition.

The greatest fan service came during appearances by big names of old. Wayne Gretzky — announced, accurately if amusingly, as a former Blue — really kicked things off. Brett Hull took a shot during the Shooting Stars event, and Keith Tkachuk also joined in alongside Matthew and Brady Tkachuk.

Personally, though, the best moment of all of those cameos came when Al MacInnis showed that he could still provide one of the hardest shots of any human.

Dude is 56. Allegedly.

Shea Weber ended up reclaiming his Hardest Shot title, while Patrick Kane won Shooting Stars.

Hertl wears the Bieber mask, creates nightmare fuel

As great as Hertl was at playing off of Jordan Binnington’s feud/friendly wager with Jordan Binnington (the Blues can fill you in on that), the actual execution of the mask makes me think of Michael Myers. You know, the creepy-masked slasher movie villain guilty of untold fictional executions in the “Halloween” series.

It’s still funny stuff, so enjoy the video above. Just maybe don’t let those images of Hertl as Bieber sink into your soul.

*Shudders*

Hertl explained after the Skills competition that the mask slipped, which made it difficult for him to put a decent shot on Binnington. That slip might also explain why it made it look like Bieber was the face for the rebooted “Shape,” which would make Bieber the next William Shatner.

Anyway, Binnington made that save, and also made the St. Louis crowd happy by winning save relay with 10 saves.

Binnington also got to chirp “Biebs,” saying he expected more. Nicely done.

Who won 2020 NHL All-Star Skills events, including Elite Women’s 3-on-3

So, the strangeness was mostly contained in those moments above. Granted, the Shooting Stars seems like it needs some fine-tuning, and I personally prefer styrofoam or otherwise breakable targets to the digital ones in this year’s accuracy competition.

But beyond those quibbles, the rest of the action was straightforward enough that we can breeze through the winners in one convenient spot.

Winners of Elite 3-on-3 Women’s Hockey: Canada 2-1

Hardest Shot: Shea Weber (106.5 mph)

Fastest Skater: Mathew Barzal (13.175 seconds) upset Connor McDavid (13.215)

Accuracy Shooting: Jaccob Slavin (9.505 seconds)

Save Streak: Jordan Binnington (10 saves)

Shooting Stars: Patrick Kane (22, then 2 in tiebreaker)

Itching for more All-Star Skills fun? Check out the 2019 edition.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL All-Stars enjoy ‘really hard’ and ‘unique’ Shooting Stars event

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ST. LOUIS — If it were up to Patrick Kane the NHL All-Star Skills would bring back events like the Puck Control Relay. So despite winning the first ever Shooting Stars challenge Friday night, he yearned for the past.

“I’m a fan of the original Skills stuff, like Puck Control Relay and the actual [Accuracy] targets, the foam targets that blow up,” Kane said. “But I understand where they’re is trying to go with it, where they’re trying to create something different and use technology to their advantage. I think it was a pretty fun night all around.”

The 10 players stood on a platform behind one of the nets in the lower bowl of Enterprise Center. Their goal was to hit targets on the ice, including one that was in the shape of The Gateway Arch. Kane and Mitch Marner each scored 22 points before the Blackhawks forward won after a tiebreaker.

“It’s a little gimmicky, but at the same time you try to have fun with it and enjoy the event,” Kane said. “I think we all had a little pact between that we were going to shoot for the Arch and try to get as many points as we can. It was fun to win it.”

[NHL All-Star Game 2020: Rosters, schedule, jerseys, how to watch]

“Bad preparation by me. I never practiced that,” joked Bruins forward David Pastrnak, who finished with 10 points. “Should’ve built a 30-feet high [platform] and practiced that before All-Star. Unfortunately, I was a bad pro and didn’t do it. That way I can’t deserve a win.”

Now that NHL players got a taste of how the event works they’ll know what to expect next year if they’re All-Stars again. Some, like Pastrnak, can even build a platform in their backyards to practice if they desire.

“I don’t remember them being that small yesterday when we just had a few practice shots,” said Matthew Tkachuk. “Today, it was tough. You can see the winner had 22. So at 22 that means you hit two of the arches — put two in the netting — and then you probably miss the Arch and you get two points. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard, but it’s fun.”

The crowd was engaged and not just because Matthew Tkachuk wore a Yadier Molina Cardinals jersey or that Keith Tkachuk had a try. It was a fun, new event introduced by the NHL. Yes, some tweaks are definitely required before the 2021 event in South Florida — adjust the points system, start the targets at center ice — but it definitely beats previous events that killed the energy in the rink.

“It was a little different. Pretty unique,” said Sabres captain Jack Eichel. “It seems like the crowd had a good time with it. They were trying to do something new to try and spark the fans’ interest a little bit. I thought it was cool.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Patrick Kane beats Mitch Marner in tiebreaker to win first Shooting Stars event

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To jeers from the St. Louis faithful, Patrick Kane won the first rendition of the “Shooting Stars” competition at the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Event.

Now, the crowd wasn’t booing just because Kane plays for the Blues’ rival Blackhawks in the Central Division. Some might have been grumbling because of some rules confusion. In particular, shooters going for 10 points often felt like they hit the mark, only to realize that they were foiled by the arc. That happened most dramatically when Mitch Marner thought he hit 10 during the tiebreaker round against Kane (and Ryan O'Reilly?). Once it was clear Marner got nothing, Kane pulled off the equivalent to getting a field goal to win in NFL overtime.

Shooting Stars brings some fun. It also is the sort of activity where you can get a pop from the crowd by bringing in retired stars. The audience received two such treats, as Keith Tkachuk joined his ragamuffin sons Brady and Matthew Tkachuk for an attempt. Brett Hull also took to the stage on behest of Ryan O’Reilly.

People worked the crowd beyond that. As often as Matthew Tkachuk plays the role of pro wrestling villain, he drew some easy cheers by showing off a Cardinals jersey. (To be fair, Matthew spent plenty of time in the area, so he might be a “shoot” Cardinals fan, to use pro wrestling parlance.)

So … maybe this one needs some fine-tuning, but it was really fun, including strong showings from Marie-Philip Poulin and Hilary Knight. Hockey combining Dude Perfect trick shot videos with Skee-Ball seems like a winner. Now they just need to print out tickets so people can earn worthless nicknacks.

Results

Patrick Kane – 22, “2” in tiebreaker

Mitch Marner – 22, narrowly missed 10 in tiebreaker
Matthew Tkachuk – 20
Marie-Philip Poulin – 15
Hilary Knight – 14
Ryan O’Reilly – 14
David Perron – 14
Tyler Seguin – 14
David Pastrnak – 10
Brady Tkachuk – 6

Shea Weber reclaims NHL Hardest Shot title

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ST. LOUIS — Shea Weber won the 2020 Hardest Shot title with a slap shot of 106.5 mph during Friday’s NHL All-Star Skills event.

“I think I knew all along that we were all just a part of the show,” said defending champion John Carlson, who finished second with a 104.5 mph shot, about going up against Weber.

The Montreal Canadiens captain won the event three straight times from 2015-2017 but did not participate the last two years. Weber topped the field of six players, which also included Elias Pettersson, Mark Giordano, Seth Jones, and Victor Hedman, with a 105.9 mph first shot.

Weber then topped his first attempt with the 106.5 mph blast.

Weber’s two best results in his Hardest Shot career remain the 108.5 mph from 2015 and the 108.1 mph the following year in Nashville.

Before the event got under way Blues legend and seven-time Hardest Shot champion Al MacInnis stepped on the ice, wood stick and all, and blasted one 100.4 mph. That shot tied his best result from the 1998 event, which he won.

FINAL RESULTS
Shea Weber 106.5 (winner)
John Carlson 104.5
Elias Pettersson 102.4
Mark Giordano 102.1
Victor Hedman 102.1
Seth Jones 98.8

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.