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.

Flyers’ goalie nightmare continues with Elliott injury

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Life presents few constants: death, taxes, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ goalies letting them down.

The latest nightmare comes as the Flyers announce that Brian Elliott will miss approximately two weeks with a lower-body injury. Looking at the Flyers’ schedule, it would probably be safest to assume that Elliott will miss 5-6 games, as there’s a substantial gap between Philly’s Dec. 1 game against the Penguins and their Dec. 6 contest against the Blue Jackets.

Sat, Nov. 17: vs. Tampa Bay
Wed, Nov. 21: @ Buffalo
Fri, Nov. 23: vs. New York
Sat, Nov. 24: @ Toronto
Tue, Nov. 27: vs. Ottawa
Sat, Dec. 1: @ Pittsburgh
Thu, Dec. 6: vs. Columbus

Elliott suffered his injury (or re-injury?) as Kyle Palmieri scored a wraparound goal during the Flyers’ eventual 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Elliott. Not that long ago, Elliott seemed to be getting on track, rattling off a four-game winning streak while allowing just four goals Oct. 30 – Nov. 10 (albeit with one of those victories happening in a relief appearance).

Even during these past two losses, the 33-year-old has mostly given the Flyers a chance to win, allowing two goals each time (though that Palmieri goal was the end of his Thursday night).

With Michal Neuvirth still on the shelf, the Flyers go back to what sometimes feels like an unendingly bleak situation. Calvin Pickard has been the Flyers’ go-to guy, and that hasn’t worked out well at all. While Elliott’s been merely adequate overall (.911 save percentage), Pickard’s sporting a disastrous .865 save percentage over seven games.

This isn’t the first time such woes have inspired many to wonder if the Flyers should just bite the bullet and given much-ballyhooed goalie prospect Carter Hart some NHL-level exposure, and it’s probably not going to be the last time people call for such a decision.

Like it or not, it seems like management (maybe stubbornly?) is sticking to the plan with Hart, as the Flyers instead recalled Alex Lyon from the AHL.

GM Ron Hextall has been loading up with options in net, creating an unsettlingly stark quantity over quality situation. Along with Hart and Lyon, the Flyers could also conceivably turn to Anthony Stolarz if Pickard continues to struggle … yet those goalies are struggling in their own right.

If you look at the small sample size of AHL games for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, you won’t see much to like, and Hart’s shaky play (.893 save percentage in eight games) is no exception.

Between huge goalie headaches and plenty of fans calling for the ouster of head coach Dave Hakstol, the Flyers have been awfully frustrating lately. Despite all of their talent, perhaps it’s fitting that this team currently sits at a middling 9-9-1?

The temptation would be to imagine how different things would be for the Flyers if they could actually enjoy some good goaltending but … you and Flyers fans know that story all too well.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Archibald to have hearing for illegal check to head of Hartman

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Josh Archibald could be facing a suspension in the near future. The Arizona Coyotes forward will have a hearing for his illegal check to the head of Nashville Predators forward Ryan Hartman on Thursday night.

As you can tell from the video above, Archibald caught Hartman with a shoulder to the head right near the blue line. He was given a minor penalty for an illegal check to the head after the incident occurred late in the second period. Even though he’s not a repeat offender, You’d have to think that the obvious contact will result in him getting at least a one-game suspension.

After leaving the game momentarily, Hartman was able to return to the Predators bench during the third period.

Archibald has no goals, no assists and a minus-1 rating in nine games this season. The two penalty minutes he received for the high hit were his first two of the season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Predators have one big problem to solve

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Some NHL teams are closer to being perfect than others, but no group of players is without flaw. The Nashville Predators are off to a great start. They’re tied for the best record in the NHL at 13-5-1, but the Preds have a huge issue they’re going to have to address sooner or later.

When it comes to goals scored, they’re currently ninth in the NHL with 62. When it comes to goals against, the Predators (44 goals allowed) only trail Winnipeg by one for top spot. So, what’s the glaring weakness? It’s the power play, which currently ranks dead-last in the NHL at 10.8 percent. No other team is below 12.7 percent this season. Yikes!

The Predators are heading into this weekend’s game against the Los Angeles Kings on a three-game losing skid. They’ve dropped one-goal decisions to Anaheim (shootout), San Jose and Arizona. During that stretch, they’ve gone 0-for-15 on the man-advantage. You think a power-play goal here or there would have made a difference in three one-goal games? Definitely.

A perfect example of that came on Monday night in Anaheim. The Preds went 0-for-7 on the power play in that one, including a 4-on-3 man-advantage in overtime. Sometimes scheme is the issue, but other times it’s just about the opponent’s aggressive penalty kill, or their goalie. In overtime, it was all about Ducks goalie John Gibson, who stoned Ryan Johansen right in front of the net.

As TSN’s Travis Yost pointed out earlier this week, one of the major issues might be how much ice time their defensemen are getting on the man-advantage. Many teams have opted to use four forwards on the power play this season, but the Preds aren’t typically one of them. Because they’re loaded with defensemen like P.K. Subban (now injured), Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis, they feel like those players are the best options in that kind of scenario. Now that Subban’s been placed on injured reserve, they could decide to hand more ice time to their forwards.

Of the eight power-play goals they’ve scored this season, three have come off the stick of Filip Forsberg. No other player has more than one. And just one of the eight goals has been scored by a defenseman, and that’s Josi.

“I thought we started to get some looks in the overtime,” head coach Peter Laviolette said after Monday’s game against Anaheim, per The Tennessean. “We could’ve won the game a bunch of times on the power play and it just didn’t go for us, so that’s where we’re at right now with it. It’s gotta be better.”

The good news for Nashville, is that they’re going to be home for the majority of the remaining days in November and early December, which means they’ll have ample practice time to work on this significant issue. Eight of the Predators’ next nine games will be at Bridgestone Arena. The only road game they’ll play between now and Dec. 3 will be in St. Louis.

Imagine how dangerous the Preds will be if they get their power play sorted out? That’s a scary thought.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Niederreiter’s slow start; Gritty’s first snowfall

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• 16 teams made up of developmentally disabled hockey players are participating in a tournament that they’re dedicating to two people who died in the Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• This Washington Capitals fan went all the way to Antarctica to remind the penguins which team won the Stanley Cup last season. (Washington Post)

• Who’s the bigger threat on the power play, Alex Ovechkin or Patrik Laine? (The Point)

• One month into the 2018-19 season, it looks like both the Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens came away happy with the Max Domi-for-Alex Galchenyuk swap. (Featurd)

• Gritty got to enjoy his first snow fall on Thursday. Here’s what he had to say: “Zamboni dust! IT’S FALLING FROM THE SKY.” (NBC Sports Philly)

• Getting Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson’s name on the back of a jersey is not an easy accomplishment. (NHL.com)

• Since we just passed hall of fame weekend, Puck Junk decided to look at the bad hockey card hall of fame class for 2018. There’s some real beauties in here. (Puck Junk)

• The Oilers don’t like to put Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the same line unless they have to. But if Tuesday’s win over Montreal was any indication, those two will stick together. (The Score)

• Josh Ho Sang is clearly starting to get more comfortable in the AHL. Could an NHL call up be in the cards for him? (Trentonian.com)

• Cecilie Olsen is a 24-year-old woman that’s running a men’s professional hockey team in Norway. (ESPN)

• The Dallas Stars’ lack of scoring depth is well-documented. Their latest experiment consists of trying Brett Ritchie on the second line with Jason Spezza. (Defending Big D)

• Blackhawks forward Chris Kunitz has been through a mid-season coaching change that got off to a rocky start. Things ended up working out for that edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins though. Will the same thing happen for the ‘Hawks? (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Many of the Buffalo Sabres have shown remarkable improvement this season, but others, like Vladimir Sobotka, have regressed badly. (Die by the Blade)

• Rotoworld’s Gus Katsaros broke down Nino Niederreiter‘s slow start to the season. (Rotoworld)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.