The 25th anniversary of the Wayne Gretzky trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings came and went on Aug. 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 in 1988 because the Oilers owner Peter Pocklington couldn’t afford to pay him and all the other greats that General Manager Glen Sather and chief scout Barry Fraser drafted.
But there has been one myth about The Great One that has been repeated over the years that is strictly that—a myth.
The myth? Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles signaled the beginning of acceptance of the sport of ice hockey in “non-traditional” hockey markets in the United States.
The league’s owners decided to move into places like San Jose, Tampa, Miami, Anaheim, and relocate franchises to Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Raleigh, N.C., Nashville and Atlanta because of growing interest in the sport.
Gretzky did raise the National Hockey League’s Hollywood profile but to suggest the Gretzky trade spurred the league to get into new markets is simply not true.
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. Cable TV’s multi-system operators were not interested in adding Sports Channel America to their MSOs.
It wasn’t until Gretzky’s fourth year in Los Angeles that the NHL returned to ESPN. And the NHL finally got a proper cable TV contract when full over-the-air, U.S. television syndicator Rupert Murdoch and his FOX station began carrying games in 1995—seven years after the Gretzky trade.
Los Angeles has had an NHL franchise since 1967. Los Angeles interests in seeking an NHL team first began in the 1940s.
The NHL ownership at that time ignored the requests for franchises in California. But the league became interested in those markets in the 1960s for two reasons. The Western Hockey League, which included LA, San Francisco, Vancouver and Seattle along with other cities, was threatening to claim big league status. Second, TV had transformed another mom and pop business—the National Football League—into the United States’ most popular sport. The six NHL owners wanted some of that action.
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 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.
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 into Denver and Phoenix for TV purposes.
Colangelo, coincidentally had a building available in Phoenix. So, 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.
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 main reason for rink expansion.
Gretzky was the face of bad ownership as a team owner in Phoenix and Glendale, Ariz. 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 by the U.S. tax code revisions in 1986. The tax 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 8 percent going back to the municipality to pay down the debt.
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, such as Southern California, Arizona and Texas but that would have happened anyway with or without The Great One.
And for the record, Los Angeles went to one final round series with Gretzky, who was eventually traded to St. Louis.
Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at email@example.com. He has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.