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.
Gretzky in a Blues jersey will always look weird. Photo by Sam Mircovic/Reuters
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.