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Sports fans love to reminisce over the days that it all went wrong: the wasted draft pick, the tragic trade or the defecting hero. These may not be, by definition, the worst roster moves ever made, but they were the ones that affected us on a personal level. These are the events that caused -- and still cause -- us to sit on our bar stools and lament the cruel twists of life.
It's hard to keep proper perspective on the dealings of the Edmonton Oilers. Once you've traded Wayne Gretzky, nothing should come as a surprise. It was a rude awakening for the good people of Edmonton, who'd had nothing but success from the minute their Oilers were accepted into the National Hockey League. But after Gretzky was traded, the Oilers did things like draft Jason Soules, lose marquee players like Curtis Joseph to free agency and turn their backs on a hometown kid like Ray Whitney.
| August 9,
| Oilers trade C Wayne Gretzky, LW Mike Krushelnyski and D Marty McSorley
to Los Angeles for C Jimmy Carson,
LW Martin Gelinas, three 1st-round picks and cash
You don't just steal another country's national treasure. That's how wars start. But, alas, some crisp U.S. dollars went north, and Canada's greatest asset went to Hollywood. It's the heartbreaking trade by which all heartbreaking trades are measured, a deal so excruciatingly painful that Canadians continue to include it among the reasons for the country's financial instability more than a decade later.
Paul Kennedy/Sports Illustrated|
If a sense of loss could be measured like seismic activity, the Gretzky trade would be off the scale. It forever changed Canadians' outlook on professional sports, and it forever changed former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington's nickname from "Peter Puck" to something slightly, though entirely, different.
Many blamed Pocklington. Some blamed Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones, whose acting career stood a better chance in L.A. than Edmonton. Still others blamed Gretzky for playing along with the charade that the trade was a necessary evil. There was no way Pocklington could have pulled the trigger, many believed, if Gretzky had made enough waves about staying with the Oilers.
In the end, Wayne Gretzky's legacy is seen in a bigger scope. He made hockey work in Los Angeles. He spurred expansion in warm-weather markets like Phoenix, Miami and Carolina. He gave us hope in the chivalry of sports in a time when so many other athletes were (are) raping and pillaging behind the mask of their celebrity.
With Gretzky, the Oilers were an instant success story in the NHL, making the playoffs in each of their first nine seasons and winning four Stanley Cups. It didn't take long for the trade to haunt them, however, when Gretzky returned with the Kings in 1989 and knocked his former teammates out of the playoffs in the first round.
Edmonton would restore some of its pride when Mark Messier willed the team to a fifth Cup in 1990, but it's been all downhill since then as the Oilers have been unable to compete in the open market. After missing the playoffs altogether from 1993-1996, the Oilers have become everybody's favorite underdogs every spring, but haven't been past the second round since 1992.
|| A Nation in Mourning: A Canadian Writes
Of Gretzky And His Country's Grief
Sports Illustrated -- August 22, 1988
By Jim Taylor
On the day Wayne Gretzky was traded, the man from the swimming pool company came to the house on Varadi Street in Brantford, Ont., to begin ripping up the backyard where No. 99 had learned to play the game. "A gift from Wayne and Janet," said Walter Gretzky, Wayne's father, who had first flooded that backyard 23 winters ago when the legend was four. "He's been after me for a couple of years to put it in," he shrugged. "Now I guess we might as well. . . ."
Paul Bereswill/Sports Illustrated|
A swimming pool where Wayne Gretzky learned the moves that would redefine the limits of professional hockey? For Canadians, that said it all for a lousy week. It wasn't just that Gretzky had been traded. They could live with that. Bobby Orr, the Gretzky of his era, switched teams. Phil Esposito, Brad Park and (sob!) Paul Coffey were traded. Even Oiler fans, enraged over what they considered a sellout and a double cross, couldn't dispute club owner Peter Pocklington's right to make the Gretzky deal. From a cold-blooded business standpoint, No. 99 was just another commodity to be moved while the market was at its peak.
But the greatest player the game has ever seen -- our player, dammit! -- sent off to Hollywood just 24 days after Edmonton and Canada had gone crazy over his wedding? O.K., so Wayne and his wife, actress Janet Jones, can make zillions in endorsements and live happily ever after raising the child they expect in January, and maybe Wayne can save the Kings and move the game past intramural beanbag tossing in the minds of California sports fans. But, Canadians wailed, what about us?
That's the nut of it. Forget the controversy over whether No. 99 jumped or was pushed; the best hockey player in the world was ours, and the Americans flew up from Hollywood in their private jet and bought him. It wasn't the Canadian heart that was torn, it was the Canadian psyche that was ripped by an uppercut to the paranoia.
-- Jim Taylor is a sports columnist for the Vancouver Province
Wayne Gretzky Simply Outgrew Edmonton
Toronto Sun -- August 10, 1988
By Jim Proudfoot
Never, though, has there been a sports transaction of this magnitude. The Great Gretzky, 27, is just at the peak of his almighty powers. Handshakes all around and the Los Angeles Kings are made a championship contender in the National Hockey League, complete with a personality who'll give them a high profile in a metropolis of celebrities and star-worshippers. The Oilers, in return, get playing talent that'll keep them strong for years to come, plus (and this was critical) a staggering sum of money.
Here was an opportunity Peter Pocklington, the owner of the Edmonton organization, couldn't possibly pass up - providing the move was something Gretzky himself wanted. And it obviously was. Gretzky is a rich young man, but in L.A. his potential dwarfs what awaited him if he remained with the Oilers. So let's face it: The Great One finally outgrew Edmonton.
This transaction will be depicted as a sellout and a betrayal on Pocklington's part, but after what he went through during the prolonged 1986 strike at his Gainers' meat-packing plant in Edmonton, this hostile reaction is bound to seem comparatively mild. In Peter Puck's mind, he's just taking care of business and Gretzky, seeing the logic of it all, happily agreed.
Paul Bereswill/Sports Illustrated|
"Does this mean Canada is losing Gretzky?" was the query from a youthful caller, phoning this office yesterday.
My reply: "You don't know this guy."
Say It Ain't So, Wayne
The New York Times -- August 10, 1988
By George Vecsey
In Edmonton, it is still summertime. People still flock to the world's largest indoor mall. The Oilers are still printing up their schedules for the next hockey season. But life has changed forever in Edmonton. Wayne Gretzky is gone. ...
... Wilt Chamberlain was traded twice not long after his 50.4 average in the 1961-62 season, but Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics were winning the championships. The New York Nets sold Julius Erving because their owner couldn't pay his bills. The Boston Bruins broke hearts by trading Phil Esposito to the hated Rangers. M. Donald Grant traded Tom Seaver from the Mets in a financial dispute. The Los Angeles Rams traded Eric Dickerson, a franchise running back, to Indianapolis last year. Reggie Jackson and many other superb baseball players have moved around on their own volition in the era of free agency. Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull moved to other hockey leagues after their prime. And athletes like O. J. Simpson, Unitas, Joe Namath, Oscar Robertson, Henry Aaron and Mays made cameo appearances in other uniforms at the end of their careers. Pele of Brazil crossed the equator to play soccer for the Cosmos.
But other great warriors stayed "home" until the end. Stan Musial. Ted Williams. Joe DiMaggio. Brooks Robinson. Walter Payton. Maurice Richard. Bill Russell. And none of them -- none -- ever meant quite as much to one sport, to one town, as Wayne Gretzky meant to Edmonton.
Oilers try to cope with life after Gretzky
Toronto Sun -- August 10, 1998
By Frank Orr
When he was asked about the state of his health, John Muckler, co-coach of Edmonton Oilers, gave the reaction many members of that organization probably were using yesterday.
"It's a lucky thing I believe in life after death," Muckler said.
Furious Fans Blame No. 99's Wife, Boss
Toronto Sun -- August 10, 1998
By Sun staff
Wayne Gretzky's new wife Janet Jones and Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington are topping Edmontonians' hate list in the wake of the Great One's trade. ...
... One caller to a radio phone-in show slammed Jones, who became Gretzky's bride July 16, as an imitator of Yoko Ono, the wife of the late Beatle John Lennon.
|| Brad Evans, Edmonton, Alberta
Working one afternoon in a restaurant in Edmonton, bit of a blue collar family joint, often frequented by the players, when the news came on the bar TV. Word spread instantly and almost every person crammed around the one TV to hear the news. The silence was deafening. Gretzky, the most identifiable Canadian in the WORLD, THE quintessential gentleman hockey star, the absolute heart, brain, hands and soul of the beloved Oilers had been "sold" by the much-loathed owner Peter Pocklington.
I think that this incident, more than any other in my memory, showed that the game, and all pro sports, truly are a business where the players are simply commodities, and if anyone thinks otherwise, they are painfully naive. In addition, though it was excellent for the overall growth of the game in the U.S., it forewarned us of the threat to the survival of most of the Canadian franchises.
Kirk Benson, Anchorage, Alaska
I was sitting in my grandfather's living room in Tucson when I heard the breaking story that Wayne Gretzky had been traded from Edmonton to L.A. on Aug. 9, 1988. Because of the lack of hockey coverage there, I hadn't heard the rumors the days before, so it came as a total shock.
It took me until the next day to be angry. My initial reaction was "why?" How could the most dominant athlete of any sport in any era be traded at the height of his career, after winning a Stanley Cup three months earlier?
I have a you-know-what list about five people deep, but Peter Pocklington is still at the top of it.
Peter Wilkinson, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
It was more than a loss of the greatest player to ever play the game, it was the loss of innocence. The loss of the notion that players played the game for the game and not for any large sum of money. Not that any of the Oilers (especially Gretzky) were hard up for cash compared to ordinary folks, but the trade was instigated solely due to money -- on both sides.
Gretzky could have stayed in Edmonton and the franchise could have set a standard for championships that would have been unbroken for another century. Instead, the owner made a "business" decision, deciding that his prize asset was starting to get long in the tooth, and that his "market value" (not unlike a race horse) was steadily decreasing. Since the owner needed money, he could not afford Gretzky and he traded for comparatively lackluster talent, and lots of cash. The cash was used to pay off his debts and not help the club in any way.
Bill Robbins/Sports Illustrated|
This was the start of the end of something that, for Edmonton fans and fans around the world, was very special.
I am not ashamed to admit, that on that day, I wept, and wept ... and although I could not articulate the feeling at the time, I instictively knew that the sport of NHL hockey, would never be the same again.
| June 17,
| Oilers draft Jason Soules at No. 15 overall
It's not Jason Soules' fault. We just needed a starting place to illustrate the Oilers' absolute lack of first-round draft success. And what better place to start than with the first player drafted by the Oilers after they traded Wayne Gretzky?
Nor is it Soules' fault that some of the names that were chosen after him in 1989 include Olaf Kolzig, Adam Foote, Byron Dafoe, Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov.
Soules never played a game for the Oilers ... or any NHL team. Not exactly the way to start replacing the greatest player in hockey history. But Soules is only one of 22 top picks made by the Oilers (excluding 2001), 18 of which have had little or no impact on the team.
Oh, Edmonton started strong. In their first ever draft in 1979, the Oilers took Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson with their first three picks. The next year, they took Paul Coffey in the first round. The year after that, Grant Fuhr.
With 15 goals in 175 games, Boyd Devereaux was one of the Oilers' best top picks.|
But the 17 players chosen first (excluding Jeff Beukeboom in 1983 and Jason Arnott in 1993) by the Oilers between 1982 and 2000 have combined to score 23 goals and 45 assists in 338 games for Edmonton.
For a franchise that can't afford to keep its stars or buy new ones, that would seem to be a major failing in an area crucial to the team's survival. Glen Sather has swindled many a GM over the years, but he didn't do much to stock his own cupboard.
| July 15,
| G Curtis Joseph signs with Toronto
One of Sather's best moves was fleecing then-St. Louis GM Mike Keenan out of Mike Grier and holdout goalie Curtis Joseph for Marty Reasoner. One of Sather's worst moves, as it turned out, was NOT trading CuJo three years later.
Curtis Joseph's play against Dallas in the 1997 playoffs made him a hero in Edmonton.Joe Patronite/Allsport
When Joseph's contract expired, he walked. And Edmonton, which was in the midst of an ownership change and unable to bid for the All-Star goalie, was left with nothing. Maybe they were naive, or maybe CuJo was particularly deceitful, but the Oilers may have held on to him to the end thinking his good-guy nature would keep him in the fold.
|| What Gives, Cujo?
If Playing For A Winner Is What Counts, You Don't Take The Money And Run To Toronto
Edmonton Sun -- July 16, 1998
By Dan Barnes
There's something irritating about Curtis Joseph signing with the Leafs.
It's not the money. If somebody offered you or me $ 2 million US more every year to do a job somewhere else, there would be vapor trails out of town.
It's the false hope Joseph gave Oiler fans, some of whom were actually under the impression, to the bitter end, that he might stay in Edmonton.
As he was packing up his stuff at the end of last season's playoff run, he told reporters that prospects for his return might well depend on the Oilers' ability to re-sign Doug Weight and keep the core of a good team intact.
He also said that his wife Nancy wanted him to be happy and he could only be happy in a place where he could win.
OK, fine. As of yesterday morning, when Joseph signed with the Leafs for $ 24 million US over four seasons, Weight was a restricted free agent whose rights are still owned by the Oilers. And the Leafs were still a wretched, aged hockey club, one with 11 fewer wins and two fewer playoff berths than the Oilers in the past two seasons.
So what gives, Cujo?
You took the money and ran. No big sin there. That's what unrestricted free agency is all about. The good people of small-market Edmonton are just going to have to get used to developing younger players into better players and watching them leave for big money elsewhere. Heck, they should be used to it already.
But you ought to have told Oiler fans the truth, that you would go to the highest bidder. Not that you might think about staying in Edmonton if Weight, Ryan Smyth and Dean McAmmond were all re-signed. Because it was never a factor after you found out the Oilers were going to offer $4 million US per year to play here.
If the Oilers had offered $5.5 million US instead, you might have stayed. Only then would Weight's fate have been a consideration.
|| Paul, Whitehorse, Yukon
The Oilers' failure to deal Curtis Joseph before the '98 trade deadline was probably one of the more bitter heartbreakers (as opposed to sweet heartbreakers). My gut feeling is then-GM Glen Sather wanted the Rangers to pick up Joseph, as the media suggested would happen. Even back then, I have little doubt Slats was eyeing the Big Apple, and wanted to make sure his star goalie would join him there, or at least be able to wait for him.
Instead, the Leafs snapped up Cujo, and the Oilers were left with nothing. Don't get me wrong -- I think Tommy Salo is perhaps the most underrated goalie in a league full of overrated puck-stoppers. But Edmonton lost the best goalie it has ever had, Grant Fuhr included.
| November 6,
| Florida claims LW Ray Whitney on waivers
OK, so it wasn't the Second Leaving of Gretzky. But for former Oilers stickboy Ray Whitney, being allowed to be snatched on the waiver wire must have had a sense of betrayal to it.
It was supposed to be a joyous homecoming for Whitney, who worked in the Oilers clubhouse during the 1987-88 Stanley Cup season. When he was scoring 235 points in 71 games for his local youth team, he probably imagined himself someday bringing the crowd to its feet at Northlands Coliseum. His father, Floyd, was the Oilers' practice goalie for several years.
So long, Ray Whitney, we hardly knew ye.
But Ray was drafted by San Jose in 1991, and the Sharks proceeded to butcher the development of their youth-riddled lineup that included Whitney, Pat Falloon, Rob Gaudreau and Johan Garpenlov.
Between injuries and stints in the minors, Whitney had only 48 goals in 200 games with San Jose. When he became a free agent in 1997, he fulfilled his dream and went to camp with the Oilers.
But it was a short dream. Nine games into the season, he was off to Florida for the mere $30,000 asking price. Whitney said he held no hard feelings toward the Oilers. "They gave me a chance to get back in," he said. "I had offers over the summer to go elsewhere, but I figured Glen would do more for me than other GMs who didn't know me personally."
And he used the move as motivation, scoring 32 goals in 68 games that season with the Panthers. He then scored 26 and 29 the next two seasons and played in the 2000 All-Star Game (teaming with former employer Mark Messier on a goal) ... all of which made him very attractive to Columbus in the 2000 expansion draft.
Which probably was NOT his dream growing up in Fort Saskatchewan.
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