Since I was old enough to understand the game of hockey, January 26 has become synonymous with one name: Wayne Gretzky. Arguably the greatest player in hockey history, Gretzky turns 52, a number that is, in case you’re wondering, ten shy of the amount of NHL records he holds – most of which may never be broken.
It was because of Wayne Gretzky that I first began my allegiance with the Los Angeles Kings. In his first season in Los Angeles, the Great One took a 14th-place team the year before and brought them to 4th-overall including an opening-round playoff upset against his old team, the defending champion Edmonton Oilers. The Kings would eliminate the defending champs again the following year as they ousted the Calgary Flames.
While Gretzky’s contributions to the game of hockey far exceed what he accomplished in a Kings uniform, it was his arrival to the City of Angels that helped grow the sport of hockey exponentially in California, a state whose climate is anything but the arctic tundra feel hockey hotbeds like Edmonton, Chicago and Montreal experience. Yet, each year at the draft, the amount of California prospects being selected grows a little more each year and, as much as Kings fans don’t want to hear it, the expansion of the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks can be largely attributed by Gretzky’s impact in California.
With his trade to the Kings in August 1988, Number 99 was making a significant gamble. He had left the dynasty Edmonton Oilers to join the seventh-worst team in the NHL. Not only that but to get the Kings near the top of the sports echelon in Los Angeles, it appeared to be a near-impossible feat. The Lakers were in the middle of their own dynasty, the Dodgers were en route to winning a World Series crown and the Raiders chock full of talent including a backfield with two Heisman winners in Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson and the Kings, despite landing the game’s greatest player and even copying the aforementioned Raiders for their new color scheme, had their work cut out for them.
But the Forum in suburban Inglewood became the hottest ticket in town. Every seat was full, many of which occupied by the hottest celebrities.
The Los Angeles Kings eventually went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 but lost to the famed Montreal Canadiens. Despite falling short, it appeared as if the franchise was continuing to head in the right direction. Not so. The Kings never made the playoffs again with Gretzky and by February 1996, he had been traded away to St. Louis.
During his seven-and-a-half year tenure in Los Angeles, Wayne Gretzky energized a sport and a team that rarely received the benefit of the fourth or fifth page in the sports section. Outside of becoming the all-time points and goals leader (and both accomplishments were magnificent to experience), Wayne Gretzky left a lot more to Los Angeles and California as a whole than people realize.
It took a long time for the Los Angeles Kings to return to prominence and despite not having played with the team for so many year, the Kings organization does need to thank Wayne Gretzky for all that he is done not only putting the franchise on the map but bring them vast success.
Fondly, I will always remember Wayne Gretzky’s time in Los Angeles. His days donning the silver and black put a giant smile on my face and for that, I am forever grateful for the presence of Number 99.
Happy Birthday Great One and many, many more.