Edmonton wonders what could have been had Gretzky stayed with the Oilers

EDMONTON – Kevin Lowe has clearly done some figuring.

How many Stanley Cups could the Edmonton Oilers have won had Wayne Gretzky not been traded to the Los Angeles Kings, pulling the plug on one of the most electrifying hockey dynasties in NHL history?

The Oilers won with Gretzky in 1984, ’85, ’87 and ’88. Lowe, a defenceman on those teams and now a member of the Oilers’ front office, figures at least four more championships were out there for the taking.

They won once more in 1990 under the leadership of Mark Messier and reached the semifinals the following two seasons. It’s conceivable that Gretzky could have given them more of an edge in those years.

The Kings went to the final in 1993 with a team heavy with former Oilers, including Gretzky and Jari Kurri, and the Rangers won the cup with seven ex-Oilers in 1994, including Messier and Lowe himself.

“There’s your information: from ’88 to ’94, Oilers players, sprinkled around throughout the league, were still playing significant parts in teams going to the finals,” Lowe says. “I think Wayne at one point thought we would have won eight or 10 cups.

“It’s such a shame that it had to end.”

Ultimately, with all of the variables that go into a Stanley Cup win, it’s a mug’s game. Still, thoughts of what could have been had hockey’s Great One stayed an Oiler, still burn Edmonton hockey fans to this day.

It’s been more than 20 years since Gretzky left Edmonton for the glitz of Hollywood and he still holds a special place in the hearts of Edmontonians.

“He became the Great One in Edmonton, so obviously we hold a claim to the Great One,” says Mayor Stephen Mandel.

Gretzky was just 17 when he came to Edmonton from Indianapolis in the 1978-79 season, when both teams were still part of the now-defunct World Hockey Association.

He grew up both on and off the rink in the city and the people of Edmonton adopted him as one of their own.

David Mills, a history professor at the University of Alberta, says Gretzky came along at just the right time for a city basking in the oil-fuelled economic success that came with 1970s.

“I think it’s quite clear that Gretzky raised the profile of Edmonton at a time when Edmontonians were beginning to see themselves as important players on the national scene and people started talking about Edmonton as a world-class city,” Mills says.

“The Oilers didn’t disappoint at a time when Edmontonians were looking for signs that they were recognized—that they are not simply a snowbound small city on the periphery of the Prairies.”

Winning was simply expected when Gretzky and the Oilers were in their prime. The team was the hottest ticket in town. As the records began to pile up, Gretzky became the national and international face of hockey and he took Edmonton with him.

“There were two things people knew about Edmonton,” says Ken Tingley, historian laureate with the City of Edmonton. “It was West Edmonton Mall and it was Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers.”

That’s why Aug. 9, 1988, hurt so deeply for so many.

Just weeks after thousands filled the streets to watch Gretzky marry his actress-girlfriend Janet Jones, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington announced that Gretzky had been traded to L.A.

Gretzky cried at his goodbye news conference—they are tears that have yet to dry, some say. One of the local papers used the biggest font possible to declare “Gretzky Gone.” Not since the end of the Second World War had type that big been used.

Fans were outraged as they debated whether Gretzky had asked for a trade to please his new wife or Pocklington simply sold him off to make a fast buck.

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There was no end to the hyperbole. Some likened the trade to a death in the family while the mayor at the time, Laurence Decore, lamented that the city’s heart had been torn out.

Wynn James, who has had Oilers season tickets since the WHA days, was part of a movement to withhold payment from the team in an effort to force Pocklington to relinquish ownership. He remembers one meeting of disgruntled season-ticket holders where 4,000 people showed up.

“I was totally dismayed, of course, that he was being sold,” James says. “It just wasn’t right and fair and that’s what I was trying to address.”

The Oilers did have to lower the prices for some tickets and James has held his seats to this day.

Lowe remembers the players being angry as well.

“It was shocking for everybody, but it took time for that to grow,” he says.

“It was tough on the players that stayed here, because there was a lot of questions about why it had to happen. I know guys like Mark Messier particularly really found it difficult.”

Gretzky ultimately came out of the trade fairly unscathed in the eyes of Edmonton. The ovation he received when he returned with the Kings was both long and standing.

Olivia Butti, the former city councillor charged with devising a way to honour Gretzky after he left, remembers 18,000 people showing up at the arena when the city unveiled a statue in his honour the following off-season.

“Everybody felt that he was our boy—Edmonton’s son,” she says.

Pocklington didn’t come off so well. He’s still viewed with contempt by many in the city.

His recent fraud case in California was front-page news in Edmonton. When one city councillor recently compared the Oilers’ current owner, Daryl Katz, to Pocklington during a debate over a new arena city hall, the mayor tersely ruled her out of order.

The ties that bind the Great One to Edmonton have faded with the passage of time, but there are some still there.

Of course, Gretzky’s 99 hangs from the rafters inside what is now Rexall Place. Outside is the statue—Gretzky holding the Stanley Cup over his head. One of the roads that leads to the rink is named Wayne Gretzky Drive.

His merchandise is still a hot seller, says Wayne Wagner of Wayne’s Sports Cards and Collectibles in the city’s west end.

“In the city, it is still very high. He is still one of the most popular players around here,” Wagner says flipping through a five-inch thick binder of Gretzky hockey cards. “I think worldwide, he has cooled down a little bit, but in Edmonton he will always be looked at as one of the greats.”

Edmonton still has the slogan City of Champions, although Mandel says he thinks its time has passed, arguing Edmonton is much more than sports.

Mandel says history is the strongest tie.

“We’ve done things, you know, the statue, the road—but history. You can’t change history,” he says.

And history is all Oiler fans have had of late.

Outside of an unexpected visit to the Stanley Cup final in 2006, success has been hard to come by and there have been problems with attracting talent. Dany Heatley refused a trade to Edmonton when he was with the Senators in 2009. Chris Pronger asked to be moved after the 2006 season. The Oilers finished last overall in the league last year and are near the cellar again in this campaign.

“Obviously oil drives the economy,” says Lowe. “But I think Gretzky and the Oilers really helped to put Edmonton on the map in the world and that’s not going to go away for a lot of years.”