This Week in Sports History: The Day When NHL Players Became Commodities


Welcome back to Peculiar Side of Sports.  Every so often something in sports perplexes me, and I just hate not knowing something.  So, I do what any normal, sane sports fan does – I search ad nauseam for the answer by any means necessary.  The good news is that I take all my hard work and relay the results to you.  If you are a fan of Sports History, check out the other articles I have written – “Sports History” covering virtually all major sports.

Today, I take a look back to the most memorable, important events that have taken place between August 4th through 10th in sports history.  While there are certainly many candidates, I have narrowed it down to two or three for each day.  I ultimately selected the one event I feel had the biggest impact on the players, teams and fans at the time of the event, as well as the legacy it has left on sports history.  If you want to scroll to the list, it is at the conclusion of this article.


August 9th, 1988.  The sports world, particularly the hockey world, was in utter disbelief as the unthinkable happened – the greatest player to have ever played the sport was traded – sold.  Wayne Gretzky, by far the most beloved athlete in the history of Canada, and the greatest to have ever laced skates, was traded from his home country’s Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in a move that left a bitter wake that resonates to this very day.

There are several sporting events that I remember as a kid – Kirk Gibson’s homerun in the World Series, Michael Jordan winning, well, everything, Ben Johnson winning the 100m in South Korea before being stripped of the gold medal, and Montana to Clark in the end zone.  They are all vivid, clear and I am quite certain they will stay treasured memories until I’m old and grey (or balder).  But none of them, not even close, will I remember in such technicolor as when a sobbing Wayne Gretzky addressed the nation on August 9th, 1988.

For me it wasn’t just that he was the best player.  He was the guy everyone looked up to.  He represented all that was good in sports, from his (mostly) spotless character, to his unassuming personality on the ice with his teammates and his somewhat awkward sense of humour, such as his appearance on Saturday Night Live.  He represented the game in the purest, truest sense.  Any hockey fan can just picture #99 before he bore the number, as a kid on a frozen pond skating all hours of the day.  For almost all hockey fans, he was our dream.  He was who we aspired to be when playing road hockey.

And then he was dealt.  He was the guy who wasn’t supposed to be dealt  He was untouchable, a Canadian boy on a Canadian team with many Stanley Cups under his belt.  He was an Oiler and should always have been that.  Oilers owner Peter Pocklington had different ideas.  He had a commodity that everyone wanted, someone worth his weight in gold or oil.

With the owner in financial disarray, the team (and his other businesses) needed money – a lot of it, and fast.  While the Oilers had other good players they could have sold, it was Gretzky that the Kings wanted.  Not to mention, having the best player on the planet in the biggest mostly untapped market in the United States was very important for the NHL.  Of course the Kings had Marcel Dionne, but with struggling gates and limited success, the left coast needed something more.  They needed a saviour of sorts, someone to draw fans to the game and hopefully lift the team to success on the ice.

As difficult as it was to watch the transaction unfold, 25 years later it cannot be denied that Wayne Gretzky’s trade was one of the defining moments in NHL history.  Aside from personal success on the ice in Los Angeles, the legacy left by the transaction is monumental.  Consider how many teams now play in the West, and even the Southwest. Would their be teams today in California, Texas, Colorado and Arizona?  How about the two Florida teams or even Carolina?  Wayne Gretzky being traded to Los Angeles completely changed hockey boundaries.

After the Gretzky trade, no player was safe.  Of course beforehand hockey was a business and players were traded.  The same is true in other sports as well.  Just as baseball changed forever when Ruth was traded to the Yankees, hockey changed with the Gretzky move.  He was the best player in the world by far, and was just entering his prime on a team who was perfectly cast ensemble.

When he signed in LA, his new contract was as great as the player himself.  In fact, many attribute to the skyrocketing of player salaries through the 90’s and 2000’s to that contract.  Since, there has been one strike and three lockouts, which were mostly about player salaries being out of control.  Basically, the Gretzky contract in LA raised the bar league-wide, and it only escalated over the years.

Of course Gretzky arrived in LA as a legitimate sports star.  With hockey not on the map in most markets across the US, outside of the traditional ones in the North and East of course, he was one player who even non-hockey fans could recognize.  So, just as young kids across Canada grew up pretending to be #99 as they played street hockey, their counterparts in new markets across the US started to do the same.  It is not a coincidence that there has been an increase in first round draft picks from California in the years following the Great One’s arrival in LA.

There are many great sports moments that took place between August 4th through 10th, as you will see below, but for me the importance of the Gretzky trade transcended his sport more than any other.  The effects were immediate, but are still resonating throughout the sporting world today.


Here are the other important events that took place between August 4th through 10th:


August 4th 

1983 – During a warm-up, New York Yankee Dave Winfield threw a baseball and accidentally killed a seagull.  Toronto police arrested him after the game for “causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.”

1984 – Carl Lewis won his first of four gold medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, tying the mark set by Jesse Owens 50 years before.

1986 – The United States Football League called off its 1986 season. This was after winning only minimal damages in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.


August 5th  

1921 – The first baseball game was broadcast on radio.

1967 – The Denver Broncos beat the Detroit Lions in a preseason game.  It is important because it was the first time an AFC team beat an NFC team.


August 6th

1890 – Cy Young pitched his first game.


August 7th

2006 – Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s homerun record with his 756th.


August 8th

1988  – The Cubs played their first game at Wrigley  – at night!

1990 – Pete Rose began his prison sentence.


August 9th

1934 – Babe Ruth announced retirement from baseball.

1980 – Jack Nicklaus won his final PGA Championship.


August 10th 

1929 – Babe Ruth became first player to hit 500 home runs.

1951 – First baseball game brodcast in colour.


Thanks for reading!  Have an interesting question you want answered?  Feel free to leave comments below.  Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter – @RoryHarbaugh, as well as the site – @lastwordonsport.

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