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Canada mourns for Great One


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 1999

You could call it the day Canada was devalued.

Not its currency.

Its soul.

On Aug. 9, 1988, Peter Pocklington, owner of the Edmonton Oilers, traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.

He might as well have traded the Canadian Rockies.

Gretzky was a national treasure. He was 27, less than halfway into his NHL career, and already was considered the greatest player ever.

He owned 43 scoring records (he retired with 61), had been the league's scoring champion and Most Valuable Player in eight of his nine seasons with the Oilers and had led them to four Stanley Cup championships.

He was, as his nickname implied, the Great One.

No. 99, his number, became as famous as his name.

Laurence Decore, Edmonton's mayor, was as dismayed as anyone at the trade of what he called his city's "greatest ambassador. It's like taking all the bridges away and saying, "Edmonton, this is what you're going to look like.' "

Gretzky brought far more than talent to the United States when Edmonton sent him and two teammates to Los Angeles for three players, three first-round draft choices and more than $10-million.

He brought a presence that altered the profile of the sport.

The Kings had struggled almost since they entered the NHL in the expansion of 1967. Gretzky's arrival made their games the place to be. The glitterati littered the Great Western Forum, just as they had for Los Angeles Lakers games. Every Kings game was a sellout.

That success, in turn, helped extend major-league hockey beyond the northeast and northern Midwest states, where it had been ensconced for half a century. A southern tier of teams emerged, in Phoenix, Dallas, Nashville, Miami, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, awarded a franchise to replace the one that moved to Calgary in 1980.

Gretzky didn't belong only to Edmonton. He belonged to all Canadian hockey fans from every NHL city to the farthest outposts, and what hurt them almost as much as the trade was that Gretzky said he sought it "for the benefit of Wayne Gretzky, my new wife and our expected child in the new year."

Many of those fans thought he was lured to Hollywood by Janet Jones, the American actress whom he had married less than a month earlier. To them, the move was on a par with King Edward VIII's abdication of the throne of England for the woman he loved, American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Many fans blamed Pocklington, who insisted he was caught in the middle. "Wayne approached me and asked to be traded to the Los Angeles Kings," the owner said. "Wayne has given so much to (Edmonton) and to hockey in the past decade that I believe he has the right to set his own destiny. I have made a decision based on Wayne the person rather than Wayne the hockey player."

Before the trade was announced, Gretzky told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner: "I'm excited about coming to L.A. Hopefully I can turn what has been a losing franchise into a winner and create a lot of excitement."

Two seasons later, Edmonton again won the Stanley Cup. The Kings never won one with him (they lost to Montreal in the 1993 final), nor did the St. Louis Blues, for whom he played half a season, nor the New York Rangers, with whom he spent his final three seasons.

There never will be another Gretzky. The NHL understood who, and what, was leaving the ice when he retired at the end of last season.

When he played his final game, the league retired his number.

-- Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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