Five Stages of the Trade That Sent Wayne Gretzky to St. Louis
We revisit the brief Wayne Gretzky-Blues era that lasted 31 games after the Kings shipped The Great One to St. Louis back in 1996.
Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters
On Saturday, the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks will face off in a Winter Classic alumni game that will be played outdoors, at a baseball stadium, and will include Wayne Gretzky.
It's kind of strange that Gretzky is the most surprising part of that sentence.
But it is. Outdoor games at eccentric locations are old hat now, but Gretzky wasn't supposed to play in this one, having hinted that an alumni appearance for the Oilers earlier in the year was his last game ever. But he apparently changed his mind, and will suit up for St. Louis. And that's fun, because it gives an entire generation of young hockey fans a chance to go: "Wait, Wayne Gretzky played for the St. Louis Blues?"
He did indeed, although it didn't last long and it didn't go especially well. You kind of had to be there.
But some of you weren't. So today, let's look back at the events the led up to the deal and some of the weirdness that followed, as we walk through the five stages of the (other) Wayne Gretzky trade.
The Build Up
We all kind of assume that Wayne Gretzky was a Los Angeles King for life.
Well, not for his whole life, since he'd already spent a good chunk of that shattering records with the Edmonton Oilers. But for the rest of his career, sure. Gretzky was going to be the guy who broke in as a flashy youngster in Edmonton before moving down south to redefine the way an entire country viewed the sport, and then he'd ride off into the SoCal sunset.
Still, we knew there was a chance that a move could happen someday. As the old saying went, "If Wayne Gretzky can be traded, then anyone can be traded," which is a group that technically would include Wayne Gretzky again. But if it did, it would be a blockbuster, and it would probably take months to put together and go down in the offseason. That's what had happened in 1988, when the trade that sent Gretzky from Edmonton to L.A. was considered the biggest in the history of pro sports and had Canadian politicians demanding legislation to stop the deal. Another Gretzky deal could happen, but it would be a monster.
Wayne Gretzky, a hastily thrown together trade deadline rental? No way.
That's why it was stunning, and more than a little confusing, when reports started to emerge in early 1996 that Gretzky could be on the block. But the Kings weren't contending, and Gretzky was reported to be unhappy. With free agency looming and the Kings struggling financially in the wake of one-time owner Bruce McNall's legal scandals, what had seemed unthinkable suddenly looked very real.
Wayne Gretzky was getting traded, and the deal was going to go down quickly. This was really happening.
By February 1996, it was clear that a deal was imminent, probably even in advance of that year's March 20 trade deadline. As far as a destination, the usual suspects were floated. The Canucks, who'd missed out on Gretzky in 1988 (and turned out to be a year away from landing a big-name veteran of their own, although they'd rather not talk about it). The Blackhawks, who always seemed to be in on the big names. The Maple Leafs, because you can't have a good trade rumor without the Leafs being mentioned. And, yes, the Blues, although initially as a long shot.
But the clear favorite was what seemed like the obvious choice: the Rangers. Every star player of the 90s made a stop in New York at some point, and they seemed like a natural fit. The Rangers were contenders, they had plenty of money, and they could even reunite Gretzky with Mark Messier. As the rumors grew from plentiful smoke to outright fire, the hockey world waited for Gretzky to make his inevitable move to Broadway.
And that's where Mike Keenan came in.
Keenan, of course, had a history with the Rangers. He'd coached the team to their drought-busting Stanley Cup win in 1994, then immediately bolted for St. Louis, citing a shady reading of the small print in his contract. The Rangers complained to the league, and rookie commissioner Gary Bettman eventually suspended Keenan for 60 days and fined him $100,000.
It was a massive penalty, one that would be hard for a man like Keenan to forget. So when it became apparent that the Rangers were on the verge of landing the greatest player of them all, maybe we should have expected that Keenan would find a way to ruin the party.
Days after talks between the Rangers and Kings had hit a snag—reportedly over New York's desire to lock Gretzky into an extension before finalizing a trade—Keenan made his move. He stepped in and struck a deal that sent Roman Vopat, Patrice Tardif, and Craig Johnson to the Kings along with first- and fifth-round picks in exchange for Gretzky.
I'll pause here so you can wonder who those players are.
None of the three amounted to much in L.A. Johnson become a dependable depth player for several seasons, while prospects Tardif and Vopat were outright busts. Neither of the players chosen with the draft picks, Matt Zultek and Peter Hogan, ever played an NHL game.
From the Kings' perspective, the deal was a failure, although they were able to clear salary and end their relationship with Gretzky on reasonably solid terms. But for the Blues, it was a win. They'd gone out and acquired the best player to ever lace up skates, and they'd done it at a discount.
Now they just had to figure out what to do with him.
Gretzky made an impact in St. Louis before he even stepped on the ice, as Keenan immediately stripped Shayne Corson of the Blues' captaincy and handed it to his new star. (Gretzky would later recount a bizarre scene in which he and Corson argued over why the other should be captain.)
Leadership roles aside, the move looked like a slam dunk for the Blues. They already had arguably the greatest pure goal-scorer in NHL history in Brett Hull. Now they'd acquired the greatest setup man ever. Put them on a line together, and there'd be no stopping them.
In his very first game as a Blue, Gretzky played 27 minutes and scored a breakaway goal.
The 1995-96 Blues were an interesting team. They were almost impossibly old and stacked with future Hall of Famers like Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, Dale Hawerchuk, Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis. On paper, they should have been dominant. But on the ice, they were barely .500, struggling down the stretch even with Gretzky in the lineup. The Great One played well, notching 21 points in 18 games, but the chemistry with Hull never really developed. The Blues finished the season with just 80 points.
Still, that was enough to get them into the playoffs, where they faced the Maple Leafs in the first round. They won that series in six games, despite losing Fuhr on a controversial play. That set up a second-round matchup with the Red Wings, who'd won the Presidents' Trophy with a ridiculous 131 points. The Blues played them tough and took them to double overtime of Game 7, which ended with Steve Yzerman scoring one of the most famous goals of the decade—one that was preceded by a sloppy Gretzky turnover in the neutral zone.
And that was it for the Wayne Gretzky era in St. Louis. After 18 regular-season games and 13 more in the playoffs, he went into the offseason without a contract, and facing the possibility of yet another new team.
The Blues did eventually offer Gretzky a deal, but by then a growing rift with Keenan had all but ruled out a return to St. Louis. Gretzky went into the summer of '96 expecting to land in Canada with either the Maple Leafs or Canucks. But Toronto ownership didn't think they'd make enough money off the move, and Vancouver's CEO meddled enough to scuttle a done deal.
That left one obvious choice, and after two weeks of rumors, Gretzky finally signed with the Rangers. He'd go on to play three more years in New York before retiring in 1999. He never won a Cup in New York, but he was among the league's best players to the end, posting well over a point-per-game in the midst of the dead puck era.
That stint with the Rangers became the last of three enduring images of Gretzky. The wiry but unstoppable kid in Edmonton; the trendsetting celebrity in Los Angeles; and the proud veteran waving goodbye in New York.
But somewhere in the middle there, ever so briefly, Gretzky was also a St. Louis Blue. And for one day this week, he will be again. Just in case you blinked and missed it the first time.