PHT Time Machine: When Wayne Gretzky made his return to Edmonton

As Tom Brady returns to New England for this week’s NBC Sunday Night Football matchup, this edition of the PHT Time Machine will take a look back at when hockey’s G.O.A.T., Wayne Gretzky, made his return to Edmonton on October 19, 1988 for the first time after being traded to Los Angeles. 

By the time Wayne Gretzky had been traded to Los Angeles he had already established himself as the game’s greatest all-time offensive player. He was only 27 years old, had only played in 696 career games, and was already third on the NHL’s all-time points list (1,669), fifth on the all-time goals list (583), and had already helped drive the Oilers to four Stanley Cups throughout the early-mid 1980s, making them one of the league’s all-time great dynasties.

And then on August 9, 1988, just months after the Oilers had won the fourth of those Stanley Cups, Gretzky was shockingly traded to the Kings for a mountain of cash, Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, and three first-round draft picks.

There was a tearful press conference, a lot of shock — and anger — in in Edmonton, and some new excitement for hockey in the state of California.

A visit back sooner than anticipated

Nobody would have to wait long for a reunion.

The NHL schedule makers sent Los Angeles to Edmonton just 10 weeks after the trade, and seven games into the 1988-89 season.

The Kings came in while riding one of their best starts in franchise history, while Gretzky had put up a Gretzky-like 15 points in their first six games.

There was a ton of anticipation for how Gretzky would be received. There was even a small belief that he might get booed by the Edmonton crowd, while Gretzky himself hated the idea of going in to play against a group of players he called his best friends that he had won championships with.

“I’d really rather not have to go in there,” Gretzky was quoted as saying in a Sports Illustrated piece at the time. “We were the closest team, I think, that’s ever been assembled in pro sports. It’s going to be extremely tough.”

He also hated the idea of having to play one-on-one against former roommate Ron Lowe (who he expected to knock him down in front of the net) and the other part of Edmonton’s two-headed monster at center, Mark Messier.

When it came time for the game, Gretzky was greeted with raucous cheers from the moment he stepped on the ice for warmups, and then received an extended four-minute standing ovation after the national anthem and the ovations continued throughout the game.

The Oilers would end up winning the game, 8-6 in classic 1980s fashion, while Gretzky recorded a pair of assists (one shorthanded, one on the power play).

“It was a tough night for everyone,” Gretzky said afterward. “I’m sure it was tough on them, too. But I know how that room (locker room) operates. I appreciated the applause, but in some sense, it probably got those guys started.”

He would go on to win his ninth league MVP award that season and lead the league in assists for the 10th consecutive season.

He would also help the Kings eliminate the Oilers in the playoffs that season in seven games.

The Oilers would bounce back the following season to win their fifth Stanley Cup (while sweeping Gretzky and the Kings in the Second Round), but who knows how many more they could have won had they never traded Gretzky. Aside from being eliminated by Gretzky and the Kings in the year of the trade, the Oilers would lose in the Conference Finals in 1991 and 1992.

Just one year after Gretzky’s initial return to Edmonton he would make history in another return trip to Edmonton, breaking Gordie Howe’s all-time points record with his 1,851st point in an overtime win against the Oilers.

In one of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent NFL history, Tom Brady returns to New England, where he won six Super Bowls and became the winningest quarterback in NFL history, as the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers visit the Patriots on this week’s edition of NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET with a special on-site edition of Football Night in America from Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., followed by kickoff at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock and Universo.

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