The California Cold Rush
*This is the first of a seven-part season series, titled ‘The California Cold Rush’ that will explore key points in the growing popularity of hockey in California over the last 25 years, which has ultimately led to the much-anticipated Outdoor Game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks to be played at Dodger Stadium on January 25, 2014.*
On August 9, 1988 Wayne Gretzky was part of a trade that sent him from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.
It is a simple fact with profound meaning and indefinite implication.
On January 25, 2014, the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks will face off in a regular season NHL game at Dodgers Stadium, where the seating capacity is approximately 53,000.
That is a LOT of humans….human hockey fans, the majority of whom likely reside in Southern California.
The idea of such a game in such a location would have been absurd three decades ago, but so much has changed in the Golden State, and a large portion of that can be attributed to the arrival of Gretzky himself. On the 25th Anniversary of his descent upon Los Angeles, it’s only fitting that this is where the story begins.
In 1988 the Los Angeles Kings were the only National Hockey League team for miles. There were no other teams in the western or southern United States, which meant no teams in Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, or Florida.
Hockey was barely considered one of the four major sports on the west coast, and if someone was showing Kings pride in black, white and silver, they were mistaken for a Raiders fan.
When Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley were traded to LA for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft picks, and $15 million, it was a trade that rocked the hockey world – much like the earthquakes California is actually known for.
The fact that Canada’s darling, the game’s greatest player, could be traded to the Entertainment Capital of the World, was unfathomable, and everyone in the hockey world was knocked off their skates.
“I was in Montreal at my parents’ house and our PR manager at the time called me in the morning and said, ‘Look, a trade just happened, will you have time to do interviews later?’” recalls Luc Robitaille, now the Kings President of Business Operations.
Just having completed his sophomore season playing for the Kings, Robitaille was then given an extensive laundry list of media members to call, and spent the ensuing afternoon on the phone.
“I was really excited because Gretzky was my idol,” admits Robitaille. “It was absolutely amazing that I was going to have an opportunity to play with my idol.”
Robitaille wasn’t the only one thrilled to have Gretzky in Los Angeles, and the fluctuation in the fan base was immediately noticeable.
“If we had 50,000 or 100,000 fans, suddenly we had five million fans in LA,” Robitaille says.
“It changed the perception of hockey. People thought you couldn’t have success on the west coast, but suddenly the Kings were a better team. It put hockey on the map.”
According to Robitaille, having Gretzky on the team also changed the way the team was received on the road, most notably in test markets, the sites of many exhibition games at the time.
“We’d sell out every pre-season game and Wayne was the focal point,” explains Robitaille. “There’d be a Wayne Gretzky poster, there’d be an event the night before the game, an event after the game – we always joked that it was like a rock tour because there was an event in every city we went to.”
Cities like Anaheim, San Jose, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, Nashville and Tampa Bay soon became owners of hockey teams, and Robitaille credits this to Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles.
“It changed the game – everybody thought it was a game played back east and you couldn’t have success in LA. He came and it got us our own west coast division because of Wayne, which is truly incredible when you think about it.”
As miraculous as it seemed at the time for Gretzky to be playing for a hockey team in California, perhaps The Great One himself, didn’t see it quite as surprisingly.
Scott Egebjerg, a current Kings season seat member, was a stick boy for the visiting team’s locker room from 1983-1989, and remembers many encounters with Gretzky while he played for the Oilers.
“A lot of times he’d be the first guy in, so we’d just chat, and he would ask me where there was a good place to live in LA. This is a couple years before the trade, so I didn’t think much of it at the time,” tells Egebjerg.
Egebjerg asked Gretzky whether he planned on playing in LA one day, to which Gretzky replied, “Scotty, never say never.”
In August of 1988, just days before the trade was announced, Egebjerg received a call from a friend in the Kings front office, who, without getting into detail, advised him that if he still planned on purchasing season seats for the following season, he would best be served putting himself on the list as soon as possible.
Following the trade, Egebjerg’s first encounter with Gretzky happened to be at an exhibition game in San Diego, where Egebjerg had gotten permission to attend as a fan.
“I was outside the Kings locker room when the whole team walked in, and Wayne walked up to me and said, “Like I said, Scotty, never say never.”
On January 25, 2014, 25-plus years later, there will probably be about 50,000 fans uttering those same words.