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...."
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.
Orr left Boston for Chicago, sure. But he had never played pro in Canada. Neither had Esposito or Park or Gordie Howe. They were great Canadian hockey players who had been part of the annual exodus to American teams. Gretzky came to Edmonton at age 17 (his rights sold to Pocklington after eight games in Indianapolis) and became the best as a Canadian playing for a Canadian team. Did Maurice Richard or Jean Beliveau or Ken Dryden go traipsing off to some U.S. team? Would Montreal have dared to sell them without so much as a by-your-leave from the customers? Not bloody likely.
In the minds of Edmontonians and Canadian hockey fans everywhere, Gretzky had been theirs to keep. Oh, they had screamed at him in the other six Canadian NHL cities as loudly as the crowds did in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles (where his new fans originated the charming chant, " Gretzky sucks!"). They had called him a wimp and a crybaby—while they filled the rinks to watch the magic—but he was the best, and he was Canadian, and at Canada Cup time, when the Soviets came to renew the Them versus Us showdown that has been the ultimate hockey challenge since 1972, just knowing he was there would up the tempo of the national pulse.
We Canadians had his future clearly mapped. He would play—what, another four or five years?—then retire and raise little Gretzkys for Walter to teach the game as he had taught their daddy. The best hockey player in the world was and would remain as Canadian as "eh?"
And now he'll be playing for a team in the U.S. "All week I've been telling everybody," Walter Gretzky sighed, "it's like everything else: The Americans just come and buy us up."
"A trade to Vancouver wouldn't have had anywhere hear the impact," said Nelson Skalbania, former owner of the Calgary Flames. "It's not the trade that makes it huge, it's the trade to Los Angeles."
Worse yet, the evidence is mounting that despite his press conference claims to the contrary, Gretzky didn't want to go; that he asked to be traded to Los Angeles only after he knew for sure that Pocklington was going to trade him somewhere; and, that being the case, Los Angeles made sense as well as dollars. Pocklington questioned the genuineness of Gretzky's tears at the press conference, then said his words were taken out of context. An enraged Janet Jones scratched back. " Peter Pocklington is the reason Wayne Gretzky is no longer an Edmonton Oiler," she said. "I know the real story. I know the whole story."