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The Gretzky Trade: 25 years later

EDMONTON – It’s without a doubt the most shocking day in Edmonton sports history: the day the Edmonton Oilers traded arguably the greatest hockey player to ever tie up a pair of skates.

On August 9, 1988, then Oilers owner Peter Pocklington sat down in front of a horde of media at the Molson Brewery in downtown Edmonton and made an announcement some thought would never happen and every Oilers fan hoped they would never witness.

“The Edmonton Oilers have agreed to trade Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles.”

The most memorable moment from the announcement came when Gretzky couldn’t hold back his emotion when it was his turn to speak.

“I’m disappointed about having to leave Edmonton, I truly admire all the fans and respect everyone over the years,” said a tearful Gretzky. “Promised Mess I wouldn’t do this.”

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The deal had been in the works immediately after the Oilers won the 1988 Stanley Cup. Gretzky and Pocklington had been in negotiations but couldn’t agree on a salary.

“I really had no intentions at that point in time of leaving and stiffing the Edmonton Oilers, but I wanted to get paid fair market value, and I felt like I owed it to myself to do it, and I felt like I really owed it to my teammates,” said Gretzky, years after the trade.

Retired Oilers play-by-play man Rod Phillips believes it was a business move by Peter Pocklington.

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“It was for money for Peter Pocklington and nothing else.”

Something Pocklington doesn’t deny.

“To make hockey economically possible, we needed the money, we needed to keep rebuilding to keep the dream alive,” said Pocklington, years after the deal.

It’s been 25 years since that historic day, but for those who were close to the story, it’s a day they’ll never forget.

“It was a devastating time for hockey fans here,” says Phillips. “I phoned Glen (Sather) in Banff and I said ‘What’s going on? We’re hearing rumors about Gretzky,’ and he said ‘I can’t say anything right now but I can tell you Rod, don’t go too far from your telephone.'”

“Back then they didn’t have internet and all those sort of things, so all I wanted to do was make sure I had the story in the paper the day of August 9th, and I managed to get Glen (Sather) on August 8th, and, yeah, he confirmed it,” says Hall-of-Fame writer Jim Matheson.

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Phillips looks at the 25th anniversary of the Gretzky trade as one to commemorate not celebrate.

“People that are my age still think about it as one of the worst days in the history of the city and the hockey team, so there are no positives from that story.”

Immediately after the trade was announced, Oilers fans didn’t hide their anger. Anti-Pocklington memorabilia was sold and a group even started an initiative to purchase the franchise. Pledge forms were handed out, allowing anyone interested in buying the team to invest $10,000 in shares.

Alderman Lance White spearheaded the campaign. He was convinced the city was cheated by the Gretzky trade and it was time to fight back.

“Is it healthy for our city? Is it healthy for our hockey team? Is it healthy for our kids in the city to see those kind of things happen?” asked White.

White’s vision never materialized.

As much as Oilers fans hated the trade, the deal was a turning point for the NHL. Wayne Gretzky went to Los Angeles and played a crucial role in growing hockey in not only California but many markets across the United States. In fact, there is a belief the league wouldn’t have expanded to cities like Anaheim, San Jose, Phoenix, and Tampa Bay if Gretzky had stayed in Edmonton.

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“Suddenly Goldie Hawn was at all the games and Tom Hanks was at games,” says Matheson. “I remember going into the dressing room after one game and Wayne pulling me aside and said ‘got somebody here who wants to meet you, wants your picture taken with him.’ It was Kevin Costner.”

Statue that depicts Wayne Gretzky holding the Stanley cup over his head while a member of the Edmonton Oilers on March 23, 2002 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Robert Laberge/Getty Images/NHLI
Wayne Gretzky poses for this 1972 photo. Shawn Chaulk, a quick-to-smile former Newfoundlander whose hoard of everything Wayne Gretzky makes grown men weak in the knees, says it's all been nothing more than an attempt to get closer to the game he loves. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Wayne Gretzky wipes away tears during a press conference to announce his being traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings at a press conference in Edmonton on August 9, 1988. Wayne Gretzky's trade to the Los Angeles Kings from the Edmonton Oilers on Aug. 9, 1988 continues to create a ripple effect 25 years later. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ray Giguere
Los Angeles Kings players wear #99 Gretzky jersies prior to the ceremony retiring former Los Angeles King Wayne Gretzky at The Staples Center on October 9, 2002 in Los Angeles, California. Harry How/Getty Images/NHLI)
The Wayne Gretzky statue is dressed in a Los Angeles Kings jersey outside Staples Center before the Kings take on the New Jersey Devils in Game Three of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final on June 4, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Canadian Ice Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, wipes tears from his eyes during a news conference in Toronto 22 November 1999 as part of his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Gretzky, better known as the "Great One," whose career in the National Hockey League stretches from 1979 to 1999, played for Edmonton, Los Angeles, St. Louis and the New York Rangers, scoring 894 goals and winning four Stanley Cups. JOHN HRYNIUK/AFP/Getty Images)
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Football star quarterback Joe Montana (L) tennis star Andre Agassi (C) and hockey great Wayne Gretzky (R) stop and pose for photographers before the groundbreaking ceremony for their new "Official All Star Cafe" in Times Square 24 August. Other partners in the cafe Ken Griffey, Jr. and Shaquille O'Neal were busy and could not attend the groundbreaking. AFP PHOTO. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Trevor Gretzky, youngest son of New York Rangers hockey player Wayne Gretzky, sits behind his father's name card as Gretzky answers questions from the media at a press conference announcing his retirement 16 April, 1999, at Madison Square Garden in New York. AFP PHOTO/Matt CAMPBELL . MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images)
New York Rangers hockey player Wayne Gretzky waves farewell at the end of a press conference announcing his retirement 16 April 1999 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. With Gretzky are his wife Janet (L) and sons Ty (bottom left) and Trevor (bottom right). AFP PHOTO/Matt CAMPBELL . MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images)
St. Louis Blue's coach Mike Keenan (R) hands newest team player Wayne Gretzky (L) a glass of water 28 February during a press conference in Vancouver, Canada, after being traded from the Los Angeles Kings. Gretzky will play his first game with the blues against the Canucks 29 February. AFP PHOTO Dan LEVINE . DAN LEVINE/AFP/Getty Images)
New St. Louis Blues Wayne Gretzky scores his first goal against the Vancouver Canucks, 29 February in Vancouver, during his first game with the Blues after being traded from the Los Angeles Kings. AFP PHOTO Dan LEVINE . DAN LEVINE/AFP/Getty Images)
New St. Louis Blue Wayne Gretzky (2nd L) practices while watched by reporters at a Vancouver, Canada, practice facility 28 February after being traded from the Los Angeles Kings. Gretzky will play his first game with the St. Louis Blues 29 February against the Canucks. AFP PHOTO Dan LEVINE. DAN LEVINE/AFP/Getty Images)
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St. Louis Blue Brett Hull (L) chats with his new teammate Wayne Gretzky (R) 28 February in Vancouver, Canada, during his first workout since being traded from the Los Angeles Kings. Gretzky will play his first game with the Blues 29 February against the Canucks. AFP PHOTO Dan LEVINE. DAN LEVINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Wayne Gretzky(L),wearing his usual number "99" jersey, jokes with former Edmonton Oilers teammate Mark Messier(R) 21 July at Madison Square Garden as the New York Rangers announce the signing of Gretzky. Messier,currently the Rangers captain,and Gretzky won four Stanley Cups with the Oilers. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA . STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (L) talks to Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Naslund (R) following her ceremonial puck drop prior to the Canucks preseason game against the San Jose Sharks, 06 October 2002, in Vancouver, Canada. The queen is on an 11-day visit to Canada. At center is former Edmonton Oilers Wayne Gretzky. AFP PHOTO/Kim STALLKNECHT . KIM STALLKNECHT/AFP/Getty Images)
A banner is raised to honor legendary hockey players who were voted to the All-Time Legendary All-Star team including Bobby Hull #9, Wayne Gretzky #99, and Gordie Howe #9, during the first intermission of the 54th NHL All-Star Game on February 8, 2004 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
Canadian ice hockey star Wayne Gretzky arrives for training in Nagano 19 February. Canada play the Czech Republic tomorrow in the semifinals of the Olympic men's ice hockey tournament. OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Nagano, JAPAN: POUR ILLUSTRER LES PAPIERS SUR LES FIGURES MYTHIQUES DES JEUX OLYMPIQUES D'HIVER (FILES) Canadian hockey star Wayne Gretzky smiles during the Canadian Olympic team's practice session in Nagano 11 February. Canada plays its first game 13 February. ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Team Canada's Wayne Gretzky (L) and Brendan Shanahan talk on the ice during their practice session at the Spectrum in Philadelphia 06 September. Team Canada plays the Swedish squad 07 September their second round playoff game. CARLO ALLEGRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Wayne Gretzky, head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, reacts to play on the ice against the Los Angeles Kings on September 20, 2005 at Glendale Arena in Glendale, Arizona. The Kings defeated the Coyotes 8-4. Barry Gossage/Getty Images)
Wayne Gretzky #99 of the Edmonton Oilers shakes hands with Craig Ludwig #17 of the Montreal Canadiens during the Molson Canadien Heritage Classic on Nov. 22, 2003, at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. Dave Sandford / Getty Images)
Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers is surrounded by teammates and opponents as he takes a group photo with the Montreal Canadiens after the Molson Canadien Heritage Classic Megastars Game on Nov. 22, 2003, at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Canada. Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images
Wayne Gretzky #99 of the Edmonton Oilers Alumni takes a slapshot during practice November 21, 2003 in Edmonton, Alberta, for the upcoming Heritage Classic hockey game to be played between the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens on November 22, 2003 in Edmonton, Alberta. Dave Sandford/Getty Images
Executive director of team Canada Wayne Gretzky holds up a number one after his team defeated the U.S. 5-2 in the mens ice hockey gold medal game of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games February 24, 2002 at the E Center in Salt Lake City, UT. Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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TORONTO - SEPTEMBER 14: (L-R) Joe Thornton, Brad Richards, Kris Draper, Wayne Gretzky, Martin St. Louis, Mario Lemieux, Ryan Smyth of Team Canada pose for a team photo after defeating Team Finland in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey Championship game on September 14, 2004 at the Air Canda Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Canada defeated Finland 3-2. Elsa/Getty Images
Ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky waves to fans as he holds the Olympic flame after lighting the cauldron during the 2010 Winter Olympic opening ceremony in downtown Vancouver on February 12, 2010. The identity of the athlete who had the honor of lighting the cauldron at the culmination of the opening ceremony was a tightly-guarded secret although polls showed ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was favorite among Canadians. The lighting of the cauldron is the final stage of a marathon which has seen the Olympic torch cross the globe. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images). MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Canadian ice-hockey legend Wayne Gretzky watches the Canada vs Great Britain men's curling round robin session 8 match at the 2010 during the Vancouver Winter Olympics on February 20, 2010 at the Olympic Center in Vancouver. AFP PHOTO / Robyn BECK. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
Wayne Gretzky attends the Hockey Hall of Fame Induction ceremony at the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 9, 2009 in Toronto, Canada. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
EDMONTON, CANADA - OCTOBER 18: The number 7 Paul Coffey Retirement banner takes its place in the rafters beside those of Edmonton Oilers greats Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky and Al Hamilton, during a special ceremony honouring Paul Coffey on October 18, 2005 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Tim Smith/Getty Images)
Former NHL player Wayne Gretzky, wife Janet Jones-Gretzky and their son Trevor Gretzky arrive at the 12th Annual Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational Gala At ARIA Resort & Casino on April 5, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational

Gretzky’s time in Edmonton is long gone, but his accomplishments will never be forgotten, nor will they likely ever be duplicated.

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During his nine NHL seasons with the Oilers, “The Great One” led the team to four Stanley Cups, captured the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player eight consecutive years, and was awarded the Conn Smythe on two occassions.

Wayne Gretzky’s statistics during his time in Edmonton are mind-boggling. He recorded 1,669 points, 583 goals and 1,086 assists. He established single season NHL records with 215 points and 92 goals. He racked up over 200 points in a season four times. During a five year span from the 1981-82 season to the 1985-86 campaign ‘The Great One’ averaged 207 points.

Wayne Gretzky still holds or shares 61 NHL records: 40 for the regular season, 15 for the Stanley Cup playoff and six for the All-Star Game.

And, while 25 years have passed since the infamous trade, long-time Oilers fans will not soon forget August 9, 1988.

“You’ll never get over that one,” says Tom Cutts.  “It was the end of innocence in hockey, done, over. It’s now a business.”

“It was like disbelief,” he recalls. “Something’s going to happen… somebody’s going to jump in the minute… or Gretzky’s going to change his mind. For about a week, it didn’t sink in.”

Die-hard Oilers fan Kelly Hodgson can remember the moment he found out about the trade.

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“I was in hockey camp at the time, and I came back from the morning skate and my mom had this on the TV, and she’s like ‘Gretzky just got traded.’ I was like ‘get out of here, there’s no way.’ I remember my whole family just stood still, not even sat down on the couch… we just stood … ‘Are you kidding me? Is this really happening?'”

“I really was devastated he wasn’t on our team anymore. I thought it had a negative impact on the Oilers for sure. But, thinking big, I think of what he did for LA and for what he did for the NHL and really, what he did for sport in general, because nobody was untouchable after that point.”

“It changed sports,” says Hodgson, “not just the game of hockey and not just the NHL,  but I think it changed sports as a whole.”

Global News would like to hear about your memories of the day The Great One was traded. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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