Monday, August 11, 2008

Gretzky to LA: The Trade That Changed the Game for the Better?

Wayne Gretzky's legendary NHL career spanned 20 NHL seasons, spanning two leagues and five teams. The majority of his career was spent between two teams, Edmonton and Los Angeles. Gretzky was traded to LA before the 1988-89 season, which drastically increased hockey's popularity in America. All of a sudden, there was the star of the National Hockey League playing in one of America's major media markets. Gretzky was a huge hit in LA, and Gretzky (and all LA Kings) merchandise was flying off the shelves. In fact, the Kings changed their colors from the old school purple, yellow and white, to the sleeker silver and black for Gretzky's first season as a King, proving once again that the NHL is a business above all things. Los Angeles embraced Gretzky, and the Kings were a threat to such media mainstays as the Lakers, Clippers, and Raiders in terms of popularity.

While Los Angeles hockey fans were thrilled with the Canadian export of The Great One, it can be said that LA is not your prototypical hockey market. 80 degrees and sunny conjures up the thought of baseball games, and certainly not hockey. This got the league thinking: if hockey works in a non- traditional market like LA, why wouldn't it work in other non- traditional markets? So the so called "sun belt" expansion began. In '91-'92, the San Jose Sharks join the league, followed by the Tampa Bay franchise in '92-'93, Anaheim and Florida in '93-'94, Phoenix in '96-'97, Carolina in '97-'98, and Atlanta in the '99-'00 expansion. Some of the added teams have been successes, San Jose is a perennial playoff contender, Anaheim has a cup, as well as Carolina and Tampa Bay. How ever, the failures—really fail. Atlanta had promising young players once upon a time, but then fell off the face of the earth, taking Florida and Phoenix with it.

Before you blame the failures on commissioner Bettman, hear me out—or rather, read me out, if you will. Los Angeles' owner at the time was Bruce McNall; yes, the guy who can be linked to the rising tide of player salaries by making two million off the sale of the Kings (yes, there is more to it then that, but I won't get into it). Among other things, McNall may have suggested expansion before Bettman took office in 1993. Before McNall's tragic downward spiral, he was named as the Chairman of the NHL Board of Directors in 1992. It is believed it is then he suggested the expansion of the NHL into non- traditional hockey markets, even though it was a plan implemented by Bettman.