•Brent Gretzky, 16-year-old brother of Wayne: "Los Angeles. That means I can fly to L.A. and check out the women."
Reaction in Edmonton, where the Oilers have won four of the last five Stanley Cups, was a bit more downbeat. "I feel like I did the day Elvis Presley died," one fan told The Edmonton Sun. Oiler owner Peter Pocklington's effigy was burned outside the Northlands Coliseum and city hall, and outraged citizens organized boycotts against two of Pocklington's companies, Gainer's meat packing and Palm Dairies. Edmonton radio stations were inundated with calls from fans incorrectly blaming the trade on Gretzky's wife, U.S. actress Janet Jones, whom Gretzky married in an Edmonton wedding of royal style on July 16 and who is expecting the couple's first child around the New Year. Jones was called a "witch" and a "Jezebel," and newspapers across Canada quickly splashed racy headlines—'JEZEBEL JANET!'—comparing her to Yoko Ono, who was blamed for breaking up the Beatles because of her relationship with John Lennon.
No one in Edmonton cared that Carson, the Southfield, Mich., native who was sent to the Oilers by the Kings, is seven years younger than Gretzky and scored 55 goals last year—only the second teenager, after Gretzky, to score more than 50 goals. No one wanted to hear about all those first-round draft choices, or about Gelinas, whom Fletcher calls "arguably the most talented player to come out of last year's draft."
Gretzky was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, brash on the ice and classy off it, the heart of a young, proud city stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It would be difficult to overstate what Gretzky—winner of eight of the last nine NHL Most Valuable Player awards, seven of the last eight scoring titles, holder of 41 individual NHL scoring records—meant to this remote prairie metropolis of 683,000 people. As Sun columnist Graham Hicks wrote: "He was our best reason for living here."
When the news of the deal first broke, Gretzky said that he had asked to be traded. The truth is he acquiesced to the idea and eventually forced the issue when he learned that Pocklington was shopping him around. Gretzky had signed a five-year contract with the Oilers in 1987; it paid him an annual salary of some $1.5 million. After June 15, 1992, Gretzky would be a free agent without compensation. Last February or March, according to Gretzky, Pocklington approached him and asked to renegotiate his contract so it would run for two more years. Gretzky, who has been saddled with long-term deals since he was 17, told him, " 'Absolutely not.' I'd finally got my contract down to four years, and I didn't want to give that up."
The day after the Oilers won their fourth Stanley Cup, Gretzky learned from his agent, Mike Barnett, and his financial adviser, Ian Berrigan, that a group of Vancouver businessmen was trying to buy the Canucks and had offered Pocklington $22.5 million (Canadian) for Gretzky's services. Gretzky told his linemate Jari Kurri that he had a feeling he wouldn't be with the Oilers next season. "Unless I signed a new contract, which I wasn't willing to sign, I knew I was going to be traded." Gretzky says now.
In Pocklington's eyes, Gretzky—the third-leading scorer in NHL history, with career totals of 583 regular-season goals and a record 1,086 assists in just 696 games, the most exciting player in hockey, and the MVP of last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs—was a diminishing asset. Pocklington could command a Kings' ransom for Gretzky if he dealt him now. In four years, Gretzky could skip town for nothing.
In those intervening four years Gretzky might well have helped the Oilers win four more Stanley Cups and an even more commanding place in sports history. But hey, what's that compared with $15 million? Pocklington claims not to have needed the money. "All my companies are very healthy financially," he said last week. Still, in the early '80s his financial empire, which currently includes real estate holdings, the meat packing plant, the dairy, the Oilers, the Edmonton Trappers (a Triple A baseball team), and the Edmonton Brick Men of the Canadian Soccer League, suffered a severe financial setback when the oil and real estate markets collapsed. He secured a loan using Gretzky's personal services contract with the Oilers as collateral, and reportedly still has some $67 million (Canadian) in loan arrangements with the Alberta government.
The Kings had been making overtures to Pocklington about Gretzky for the past two years. Jerry Buss had originally inquired, and after Buss sold the team last winter to McNall, his minority partner, the new owner reaffirmed his interest in Gretzky.
"A couple of days after Wayne's wedding he [Pocklington] called me and said, 'If you're serious about number 99, we should talk,' " McNall recalls. "He said that Jerry had originally offered him $15 million and any three players on the roster, and we used that as a starting point for the negotiations. I never did get him off that $15 million figure. The money issue was settled the fastest."