Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky sat down with USA TODAY Sports’ Larry Berger to talk about everything from breaking Gordie Howe’s records to the future stars of the NHL.
Brian Matthews was a student at Loyola Marymount University in 1988 when Wayne Gretzky’s arrival transformed Los Angeles into the western capital of the hockey universe.
“There was a vibe,” Matthews recalled. “The Kings had Gretzky, and (Marty) McSorley and then Jari Kurri. They were fun to watch. They scored goals. They put up points. They were winning.”
But Matthews never would have dreamed that 29 years after Gretzky was traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings he would be back in Los Angeles watching his son Auston Matthews, a rookie center with Toronto Maple Leafs, playing in his first NHL All-Star Game at the Staples Center (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
The last time the NHL All-Star Game was in Los Angeles, in 2002, five U.S.-born players were on the rosters. This year, there are 12 U.S.-born players among 44 players, including Matthews, born and raised in Arizona, and defenseman Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Ronald “Popeye” Jones who was born in Texas and launched his hockey career in Denver.
“(The trade) probably had the greatest effect of any transaction in the history of hockey,” Nashville Predators general manager David Poile told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not sure Seth comes out of Dallas or Matthews comes out of Arizona without that trade.”
In 1987-88, NHL teams used 735 players, and 563 (76.5%) were Canadian, with 113 (15.3%) U.S.-born. In today’s NHL, 47.2% (416) are Canadian and 25.6% (226) are from the U.S.
Not since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993 has a Canadian team won a Stanley Cup championship. In the 24 seasons since, seven different U.S.-based franchises (New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings) have won their first Stanley Cup titles.
“Over the last 50 years, the three most important moments for the growth of hockey in America were Bobby Orr from Parry Sound, (Ont.) the Miracle on Ice and Gretzky from Edmonton to L.A.,” USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean said. “Two of those are ‘Thank you Canada.’ ”
When the Gretzky deal was made, he was coming off a 149-point season and was only 27 months removed from his record 215-point season.
Tom Laidlaw, a Kings defenseman in 1988, said Kings players knew instantly life had changed. “Wherever Gretzky was is where hockey was,” Laidlaw said.
Before Gretzky came to Los Angeles, Laidlaw said, the Kings were treated like outsiders. “We were already a good team, but you’d go into Montreal wearing the purple and gold (uniforms) and you would see all of their banners in the Montreal Forum and you felt like you didn’t fit in.”
Laidlaw said that feeling changed when celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, John Candy, Michael J. Fox began showing up at Kings games.
“Even on the road in some random city we were treated like some rock band coming to town,” Laidlaw recalled.
Laidlaw said it wasn’t just Gretzky’s play that expanded hockey’s fan base — it was his willingness to be an ambassador. He made countless appearances
“I think he knew at a young age the impact he would have, and wanted to have, on the game,” Laidlaw said. “Wayne understood his importance.”
Expansion might have occurred whether Gretzky was traded or not, but excitement generated by his presence in Los Angeles jump-started the growth.
“He sold hockey,” Poile said. “He got people interested in playing hockey. Rinks were getting built in southern states.”
The NHL was a 21-team league when Gretzky came to L.A. The NHL will have 31 teams next season with the Vegas Golden Knights joining. In 1987-88, Canada had seven NHL teams and the United States boasted 14. Today, the NHL has seven Canadian teams and 24 in the U.S.
Auston Matthews’ interest in hockey resulted from an uncle taking him to Phoenix Coyotes hockey games.
“If the Coyotes hadn’t come, then Auston most likely would be in baseball or some other sport,” Brian Matthews said.
The Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996. The season before, the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver. Jones said he became interested in sport following the Avalanche’s success.
“Hockey just kind of took off in Denver then,” he said.
Ogrean said the fact that the Americans have cut into Canada’s pie doesn’t mean Canada’s influence is waning.
“I don’t look at Canada’s level as having declined at all,” he said. “I look at the levels of other countries, especially ours, as having tides that have risen.”
He said USA Hockey’s program has improved because it has learned from watching Canadians and competing against them. “Their performance in tournaments is exceptional,” Ogrean said.
Despite a reduction in their percentage of NHL jobs held, Canadians have won the past two Olympic tournaments, the past two World Championships and the World Cup of Hockey. This month, the United States won the World Junior Championship, the showcase event for the world’s top teen-age NHL prospects.
Laidlaw is an assistant coach to former NHL player John Tonelli for a nationally-ranked New York-based bantam team. He sees the U.S. program continuing to grow.
“If it doesn’t skyrocket in the coming years it’s only because other countries like Finland and Sweden are also developing more players,” Laidlaw said.
Brian Matthews said hockey in the U.S. has come a long way, but he sees the potential for untapped growth.
“Hockey is almost a combination of sports that Americans like,” Matthews said. “You see some basketball in there, and some football … and it’s all done on a quarter-inch blade of steel.”
Matthews’ plea is for the NHL to figure out a way to open up offense. “Fans want to see goals, just like fans want to see home runs, want to see touchdowns and the three-point shot,” he said. “Until the league figures out how to do that, it may not have as explosive of growth as it could have.”
Today, USA Hockey boasts 364,489 registered youth players, more than double the number it had before the Gretzky trade.
“Canada has been No. 1 forever, but I think the gap is starting to close,” Poile said. “We are heading in the direction that someday the U.S. may have as much NHL participation as Canada.”