The 25th anniversary of “The Gretzky Trade” was recently commemorated by various media outlets throughout Canada.
Regardless of the reasons behind the trade, it’s widely agreed the move forever changed the NHL, and its ripples are still being felt today.
The Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons, however, recently claimed the trade also hurt all Canadian NHL teams.
“What is more Canadian than Wayne Gretzky – and what has done more to hurt hockey in Canada than Gretzky’s famed trade to the Los Angeles Kings 25 years ago? In all the noise and celebration of the Great Moment, that reality seems lost”.
Simmons noted how few Canadian NHL clubs won Stanley Cups since the Gretzky trade, plus the relocation of the old Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix and the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado occurred soon afterward.
He suggests the trade and “the Gary Bettman vision for expansion – putting teams in non-traditional hockey markets” made the NHL bigger but not necessarily better.
Simmons also lamented the lack of franchise in Quebec City, a second team in Toronto and the absence of Stanley Cup parades in Canada over the past twenty years.
While Gretzky’s trade undoubtedly was a catalyst for the league’s American expansion in the 1990s, it wasn’t “Bettman’s vision for expansion” which was responsible for it.
In 1989 (the year following the Gretzky trade), under the plan called “A Vision of the Nineties”, the NHL Board of Governors decided to add seven new franchises throughout the 1990s, with San Jose, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Atlanta cited as potential locations.
By December 1992 (the month Bettman’s hiring as league commissioner was officially announced), the NHL had already expanded to San Jose, Tampa Bay and Ottawa, with expansion to Florida and Anaheim announced for 1993-94. Expansion to Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota came after Bettman’s hiring. Relocation of the Stars from Minnesota to Dallas occurred following Bettman’s hiring, but the move was building for years, and the new commissioner had little input into the move.
Of the markets the league expanded to, Ottawa and Minnesota could be considered traditional hockey markets. San Jose blossomed into a hockey market, while Nashville is slowly but surely becoming one. Tampa Bay, Dallas and Anaheim have had varying degrees of success.
The Atlanta Thrashers failed and were reborn as the new Winnipeg Jets, while the Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers have struggled for years. Those clubs were more the victims of years of mismanagement than an unwillingness of their respective markets to embrace them.
As for Simmons’ main complaint – the Gretzky trade was bad for hockey in Canada – that claim simply doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. Mismanagement and economics had more to due with the struggles of Canadian teams over the past quarter-century than Gretzky’s departure.
True, Gretzky’s trade signaled the beginning of the end of the Oilers dynasty, but that was largely due to then-owner Peter Pocklington’s financial problems, resulting in a subsequent steady exodus of the Oilers top stars to other NHL teams.
Throughout the Nineties up until middle of the last decade, every Canadian team except the Maple Leafs were hobbled by a weak Canadian dollar, hampering their ability to retain their best players and bid competitively for free agent talent.
The weak “loonie” was also among the reasons behind the departure of the Jets and Nordiques, and why the Oilers, Calgary Flames and Ottawa Senators operated on shoestring budgets from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s.
Since the end of the season-killing lockout of 2004-05 and the imposition of a salary cap, the Canadian dollar has risen to par with the American dollar, enabling all Canadian teams to spend to the cap ceiling on almost an annual basis.
Mismanagement unfortunately also played a significant role in the inability of Canadian teams to win the Stanley Cup over the past twenty years.
The Flames, after nearly a decade as an also-ran (largely because of economics which resulted in losing stars like Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis and Theo Fleury), made a surprising march to the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, falling in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Then-GM Darryl Sutter subsequently made a series of questionable moves via trades, free agency and at the draft table, resulting in the slow decline to also-ran status by the dawn of this decade. Sutter’s replacement, Jay Feaster, has only now begun a long-overdue roster rebuild.
The Oilers, under new ownership, also made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 against the Carolina Hurricanes, and also fell in seven games.
Like the Flames, Oilers management made a series of questionable, sometimes expensive moves which failed to pan out. Under new ownership once again, they’re currently stocked with budding young talent thanks to several years of high draft picks, but remain weak defensively and have questions in goal.
The Ottawa Senators from 1999 to 2004 built themselves into a competitive team despite nagging financial issues, which included bankruptcy in 2003.
With their ownership stabilized following the sale of the club later that year to billionaire Eugene Melnyk, the Senators became a Stanley Cup Finalist in 2007, falling to Anaheim in five games. Unfortunately, a series of questionable player moves led to its decline, forcing management to rebuild again with affordable young players.
Over the past two years, the Senators have stocked themselves with budding talent and appear poised to once again become a top team in the Eastern Conference. Concerns over their finances, however have once again emerged, which could once again threaten their ability to keep their promising roster intact in the coming years. Sens fans can be forgiven for feeling a collective sense of deja vu.
The Vancouver Canucks from 2007 to 2011 built themselves into a league powerhouse, culminating in their march to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, falling in seven games to the Boston Bruins.
Despite doing well over the past two regular seasons, however, the Canucks have bowed out early in the playoffs. Having heavily invested in several key players who are now ageing, they enter this season lacking cap space, forced to invest in more affordable players to fill gaps in their lineup.
Mismanagement was largely to blame for nearly twenty years of mediocrity for the once-mighty Montreal Canadiens, the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup.
Over the last two decades the Canadiens iced only two rosters which finished in the top four of the Eastern Conference regular season standings, and only once advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. During the past eight years the Habs have been consistently among the NHL’s richest teams, but unable to translate that wealth into a championship roster.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the NHL’s wealthiest team, but they too were plagued by mismanagement for years, especially during the previous CBA, when they become the only team during that period not to make the playoffs.
As for the Thrashers-turned-Jets, they’ve only been in Winnipeg for two seasons, so it’ll take time to determine if their current management has them on a path toward either Stanley Cup contention or mediocrity.
Regarding Simmons’ belief there should be another NHL franchise in Toronto and a return to Quebec City, the former is hampered by the lack of a viable venue, while the latter is constructing an NHL-caliber arena in hopes of attracting a franchise via expansion or relocation.