Gretzky Trade Didn’t Transform the NHL in 1988

The 25th anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings came and went on August 9 with a smattering of interest in the United States and a great deal of introspective writing in Canada. After all Gretzky was the All-Canadian boy and he seemingly forced himself out of Edmonton because the Oilers owner Peter Pocklington couldn’t afford to pay him and the other stars that General Manager Glen Sather and chief scout Barry Fraser drafted and placed on the Oilers roster.

There has been one myth that has been created over the years that is strictly that—a myth.

Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles signaled the beginning of acceptance of the sport of ice hockey in California and in “non-traditional” hockey markets in the United States. The league’s owners decided to move into places like San Jose, California, Tampa, Florida, Miami, Florida, Anaheim, California, relocate franchises to Dallas, Texas, Denver, Colorado, Phoenix, Arizona, Raleigh, North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia, Columbus, Ohio and St. Paul, Minnesota because of growing interest in the sport thanks to Gretzky’s presence in Los Angeles.

It is a nice tale but not true. Gretzky did raise the National Hockey League’s Hollywood profile but to suggest the Gretzky trade spurred the league to get into new market is not correct.

Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles did nothing to raise the NHL’s television profile in the United States. Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles was also the NHL’s first season on Sports Channel America, an entity owned by Charles Dolan and Cablevision. The NHL got some money from Dolan but nearly disappeared from most hockey TV watchers in the United States who didn’t have a local team. It wasn’t until Gretzky’s fourth year in Los Angeles that the NHL returned to ESPN.

Gretzky went to an area that had an NHL franchise since 1967. Los Angeles interests were seeking an NHL team in the 1940s as was a group who wanted to put an NHL in San Francisco in the late 1940s. The NHL ownership at that time ignored the requests for franchises in California. The NHL became interested in those markets in the 1960s for two reasons. The Western Hockey League, which included LA, San Francisco, Vancouver and Seattle along other cities, was threatening to claim big league status and television had transformed a mom and pop business—the National Football League–into the United States’ most popular sport. The six NHL owners wanted in on that action.

Gretzky might have been in Hollywood but cable TV’s multi system operators were not interested in adding Sports Channel America to their MSOs. The NHL had trouble getting a proper cable TV contract and finally got a full over-the-air US television syndicator, Rupert Murdoch’s FOX to carry games beginning in 1995, seven years after the Gretzky trade.

The NHL did expand but so did Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. The NHL owners decided in 1990 to add nine teams for two reasons. In the United States, the 1986 tax code revisions changed the way municipalities could finance a civic project like a stadium or an arena. Under the right set of circumstances, a sports owner could get up to 92 percent of all revenue generated in a building with only eight percent going back to the municipality to pay down the debt and a bigger national TV footprint.

Numerous cities started to bid for franchises in the United States.

The Gund family had enough of the Minnesota market and wanted to move their business to the San Francisco Bay Area. The Gunds left Bloomington, Minnesota and took some North Stars players with them. New ownership in the Twin-Cities failed and Norman Green took the team to Dallas where a new arena was eventually built for the NBA Mavericks and the NHL Stars.

For some reason, the NHL owners decided to charge $50 million for franchises and eight were created which gave the old owners $400 to split amongst themselves. The NHL awarded two franchises to Ottawa and the Tampa Bay area and with that came problems as neither franchise were properly financed.

The league then found properly financed backers in Anaheim—the Walt Disney Company and in Miami in Wayne Huizenga. The Anaheim arena went up after the 1986 tax code revision. The Miami arena was a disaster and was out of the big time sports business some eight years after Huizenga picked up the Miami franchise in 1992.

Gary Bettman was hired as NHL Commissioner after the owners made the decision to expand and the league had 26 teams. It has always been incorrect to suggest that Gary Bettman was responsible for the NHL entering the US Sun Belt.

Bettman did preside over the league when Quebec City officials could not build Quebec Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut a new arena and the team moved to Denver. There have been some suggestions over the years that Denver interests wanted an NHL expansion team when a new Denver arena opened and did Bettman a favor by providing Aubut some leverage in his talks with Quebec City and Quebec provincial officials for a new arena in 1995.

Bettman had come from the National Basketball Association and one of the NBA’s more prominent owners, Phoenix’s Jerry Colangelo told me in 1994, that the NHL was looking to move into the Mountain time zone (Denver and Phoenix) for TV purposes. Colangelo, coincidentally had a building available in Phoenix.

Winnipeg Jets ownership sold the franchise to a group which brought it to Phoenix in 1996.

The city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut would not build a new arena for the Hartford Whalers so Whalers ownership shopped the team around and landed in North Carolina in 1997.

Raleigh had put a bid in for one of the four expansion slots that became available in 1997. Nashville city officials, who had courted New Jersey Devils owners John McMullen to move his team in 1995, made a presentation for a franchise as did Ted Turner for Atlanta, three Houston groups, a St. Paul, Minnesota group and a Columbus, Ohio group. Nashville, with a new arena, Atlanta, with a promise of a new building, St. Paul with a municipally funded building and Columbus with a privately financed arena landed the expansion teams.

St. Paul has been a solid franchise but Nashville had to rework an arena lease to an even more owner favorable deal. Atlanta was crushed by poor ownership and the franchise was relocated to Winnipeg. Columbus city officials had to bail out the franchise and the arena.

Gretzky has been credited with changing people’s views of hockey and with that came the construction of ice rinks in southern California and other locales in the United States. But to suggest that was because of Wayne Gretzky is again revisionist history. People didn’t invest in rinks just because of hockey.

Figure skating was a huge draw on TV during the Olympics and some of the United States best skaters were based in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place where the water never freezes to allow outdoor skating.

Rinks could offer public skating session and book hockey leagues, hockey camps, speed skating camps and figure skaters who have the means to pay for expensive ice time and lessons. Some rinks made it, some failed but Gretzky wasn’t the sole reason for rink expansion.

Gretzky was a failure as a team owner in Phoenix/Glendale, Arizona. But he was the face of bad ownership. The saga of the Phoenix Coyotes failures lie in an incredibly stupid decision by Phoenix politicians in the late 1980s after municipalities and sports owners began to understand the changes prompted to the US tax code revisions in 1986.

Colangelo wanted a new, municipally-funded, arena for his Suns and somehow convinced elected officials to design an arena in such a way that it would be spectacular for basketball but awful for virtually every other sporting event including hockey. The building had thousands of obstructed view seats and was unusable for hockey.

The hockey team ownership had a deal to move to Scottsdale that fell through and then opted to get involved in an arena-village set up in Glendale. The franchise moved but the financial problems didn’t. Gretzky was caught in that situation.

Gretzky has been out of the NHL since his involvement in the Phoenix financial meltdown.

The NHL had a chance to expand into non-NHL cities and jumped on the opportunity. The United States is producing NHL and world caliber players from non-traditional hockey areas–Southern California, Arizona and Texas but that would have happened anyway with or without Gretzky.

The National Hockey League did benefit from the Gretzky trade in additional exposure but it is wrong to suggest Gretzky spurred the business to new heights since the favorable conditions existed for expansion thanks to the United States Congress and President Ronald Reagan’s signature on the 1986 tax code revisions. Edmonton nearly lost the Oilers in the late 1990s but Bettman worked out a deal to keep the team in town. The team might have ended up in Minneapolis or Houston. The downturn in the Canadian economy in the 1990s destroyed Quebec and Winnipeg and nearly toppled over Edmonton. The league came up with a form of revenue sharing to help the Canadian small market franchises.

Los Angeles went to one final round series with Gretzky and eventually Gretzky was traded to St. Louis. The trade put Los Angeles on the hockey map but Edmonton won another Stanley Cup in 1990 and then totally dismantled the team by trading Mark Messier to the New York Rangers in 1991.

Twenty five years later, Edmonton is looking for a new arena. The league still has some problem franchises and is still looking for more United States television revenues. The Gretzky trade didn’t hasten an expansion to the United States Sun Belt cities. It would have happened whether he played in Edmonton or Los Angeles.

Evan Weiner can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com. His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at Amazon.com and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports are available at www.smashwords.com, iTunes, nook, versent books, kobo, Sony reader and Diesel.

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