Friday, August 09, 2013

Gretzky Trade at 25: The Philadelphia perspective

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

On August 9, 1988, as Wayne Gretzky was the centerpiece in a blockbuster trade between the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings that shook the foundations of Canada, thousands of Flyers fans experienced a real taste of freedom upon hearing the news, whenever that was.

Freedom from Want: Gretzky would no longer be the main obstacle preventing damn good Philadelphia teams from winning the Stanley Cup.

Freedom from Fear: Flyers fans need no longer hold their breath for the inevitable, that Gretzky would no longer torch their beloved team in well-timed bursts of offense which helped the Oilers beat the Flyers in two Stanley Cup Finals.

Freedom of Speech: Jealous hockey fans in the Delaware Valley could go on trashing Gretzky's reputation as "The Great One," except this time, the words wouldn't ring hollow as the Los Angeles Kings, even with #99, were not going to be pulled up into the ranks of the elite with a rocket's trajectory as the Oilers were in the early part of the decade.

Freedom of Vision: Now placed on a team with exactly one superstar player, whose new franchise's success rate in Philadelphia was Gretzky would no longer haunt the dreams, nightmares and daymares of Flyers fans with dazzling passes and surreptitious scoring that dashed all hopes for a championship.

Or so we thought. It would take a while to see that Gretzky's impact remained quite the same in southern California as it did in northern Alberta.

"The Edmonton Oilers without Wayne Gretzky is like apple pie without ice cream, like winter without snow, like the Wheel of Fortune without Vanna White -- it's quite simply unthinkable," Nelson Riis, a member of Parliament from British Columbia, said in a story from the next day's Inquirer, driving home the cultural impact of the deal.

But while 25 million people wigged out North of the Border, one million hockey fans in the Delaware Valley had to stew through a hot summer and then the following Autumn before coming to terms with the results of that sudden change.

One generation ago, there were only four ways for events that were not local to filter out to the rest of the world: the national news, cable television, the next day's newspaper and word-of-mouth.

On a hot day in early August, how many kids brought up on the pain Gretzky inflicted on their favorite team would be glued to the TV waiting for word to come down, instead of being outside playing, at the pool, or engaging in endless rounds of video games or sports-card trading?

Would adult Flyers fans pause amidst their daily non-work routine, particularly those with children, to flip on the big three networks, pause and take notice of something relatively trivial? How many residents could flip on ESPN back then, with the arcane rules of the city and surrounding areas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey leading to patchy service at best?

And anyone worn out on the capricious rumors and poorly-timed jokes of the past, mostly circulating about Mike Schmidt or Julius Erving or Ron Jaworski being traded to another team for scraps, could have sensed that this Gretzky news was too far-fetched to be believed.

Gretzky coming to Philadelphia was always a weird, tantalizing possibility, a childhood fantasy borne of hate, fear and respect, too fantastic for words, but the fact that he was being traded, from one team 2,000 miles away to another one 3,000 miles away, made the idea seem that much more distant.

As far as the papers were concerned, wire service reports in both the Inky and Daily News comprised the "bulk" of the coverage, but wedged in between the doldrums of the Phillies season and the Eagles preseason. Jay Greenberg's "exclusive" with Gretzky wasn't even published in the DN until two days after the deal was consummated.

Those lucky enough to be able to stay awake on Saturday, October 15, 1988, tuning into Channel 57 to see the new-look Orange and Black, under Paul Holmgren's watch, take on the new-look Kings from the Forum in Inglewood, saw something we'd seen dozens of times before.

It didn't matter that the hosts switched from purple-and-gold to black-and-silver, Philly's team was once again outclassing Los Angeles.

Gretzky was held to one assist, a meaningless secondary helper on a meaningless late goal from Bobby Carpenter in a 4-1 loss that punctured the Kings' early run of success embodied in a 4-0-0 start.

Brian Propp, Dave Poulin and Ron Sutter turned a 1-0 Flyers lead into a four-goal bulge in the third period, and Ron Hextall backed it up with 30 saves, helping Holmgren to a 4-0-0 start to his first season behind the bench in his biggest victory thus far.

Almost six weeks later, the Real 99 decided to show up. With a vengeance.

In a game two days before Thanksgiving at the Spectrum, he fed Bernie "Pumper" Nicholls on two of his three third-period goals and was on the ice for the final four in the Kings' shocking 6-1 rout of the Flyers. For a team which had won only five games in the previous 15 years in Philadelphia, it was one of several stiff tests the new-era Kings would pass during the course of the 88-89 season.

For the fading Flyers, Gretzky's power was such that his performance enabled a sellout crowd to turn on their players in a cascade of boos. Appropriate, since the five-goal spread still stands as the second-worst licking the Kings have unleashed here in 45 years.

"You try not to even look up. We're used to the crowd yelling and cheering for us in this building," said Rick Tocchet, only one game removed from a hat trick in a 7-1 rout of New Jersey. "But these last games, they've been getting unruly. It's getting scary."

In early March, if you were once again lucky enough (or old enough) to stay up late to watch WGBS, you'd have sworn Gretzky was secretly wearing the Blue and Orange of the Oilers underneath the Kings' new duds.

He had a hand in every single score during a 6-2 Los Angeles laugher that came at the end of a Flyers' road trip. His two goals, one each in the first and last periods bookended a four-assist outburst in the second which pulled the game firmly in the hosts' favor.

Yup, the kid from Brantford, Ontario had strafed the Flyers for a three-goal game, a four-goal game, and a pretty famous five-goal game during the regular season with Edmonton. He even opened up Game 3 of the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals with two goals in a 15-second span in the game's first 85 seconds and posted a hat trick.

But he'd never before piled up six points in one game against the mighty Flying P, and he never even came close to it over the remaining 11 years of his storied career.

All told for Gretzky: three games, two goals and seven assists. Thousands of Philly faithful still hoping for the best but expecting the worst and hoping the news wouldn't reach them so quickly.

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