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Brian Burke said no to a Gretzky trade in 1988 for the Canucks — what if he had said yes?

How Gretzky going to the Canucks would have led to the destruction of the NHL.
Wayne Gretzky if he had been traded to the Vancouver Canucks in 1988.

Over 30 years ago, one trade shook the hockey world and changed the fabric of the NHL forever. But it almost went down in a very different way.

On August 9, 1988, the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, but they came very close to trading him to the Vancouver Canucks instead. Brian Burke, then Director of Hockey Operations with the Canucks, says that he is the one who said no to the deal.

This isn’t a new story — it was known that the Canucks were involved in trade talks and Burke has discussed his part in it before — but it was given new life earlier this month when Burke discussed the deal on Sportsnet in the animated segment, “Hey Burkie.”

The Oilers wanted $25 million, Kirk McLean, Greg Adams, and three first-round picks — a steep price to pay, but seemingly reasonable for the greatest hockey player of all time and not far off from what the Kings ended up paying.

“Pat says to me, ‘Figure out if we can afford this,’” recalls Burke. So he went home and ran the numbers. He concluded they couldn’t afford it. Ultimately, it came down to the money. As much as the idea of trading two important players and three first-round picks rankled Burke, it was the $25 million that made Burke say, “No.”

Keep in mind, the entire Canucks franchise had cost Frank Griffiths just $8.5 million a little over a decade earlier. The highest salary on the Canucks that we know of belonged to Barry Pederson at $350,000. As Burke says, the highest ticket price for a Canucks game was $30 — even bumping up the ticket price by $5 wouldn’t have made $25 million make sense for the Canucks.

The Kings ended up paying $15 million in cash to go with five first-round picks — three future picks and 2nd-overall pick Jimmy Carson and 7th-overall pick Martin Gelinas. In a strange twist of fate, both Carson and Gelinas would eventually play for the Canucks. 

It’s a great story and a tantalizing prospect: what if Burke had said yes? What if the Canucks and not the Kings had traded for Wayne Gretzky in 1988?

It would have destroyed the NHL.

The magic of Gretzky with Bure

Before getting into all the negative consequences of Gretzky going to Vancouver, let’s start with the positives. Gretzky would have immediately transformed the Canucks into a contender. The 1988-89 Canucks were led in scoring by Petri Skriko with just 66 points; Gretzky had 168 points in his first year in Los Angeles.

Of course, the Canucks didn’t have players quite of the calibre of Bernie Nicholls and Luc Robitaille to play with Gretzky, but the likes of Skriko, Trevor Linden, and Tony Tanti could have thrived with him, not to mention defenceman Paul Reinhart. Besides, another superstar was on his way.

A year after trading for Gretzky, the Canucks draft the Russian Rocket, Pavel Bure. He arrives in Vancouver in 1991 and electrifies Canucks fans with his speed, stickhandling, and finish. Imagine, Bure and Gretzky on the same team and not just in every Canucks fan’s NHL 95 game in season mode.

Surely the Canucks, led by Gretzky, Bure, and Linden, could bring the Stanley Cup to Vancouver, right?

Here’s the problem: even with Gretzky, the Kings never won the Cup. The closest they came was in 1993, when Grezky erupted for 15 goals and 40 points in 24 games, only to fall in five games to the Montreal Canadiens. The Kings missed the playoffs the next three seasons despite Gretzky.

The Canucks, meanwhile, would be missing two key components of the team that came one game away from the Cup in 1994: Kirk McLean and Greg Adams. Of the two, McLean is the most important. Even the best offensive teams need goaltending to win the Stanley Cup.

Behind McLean, the Canucks had journeyman Steve Weeks and prospect Troy Gamble. They’d eventually trade for Kay Whitmore to backup McLean in 1992. None of those three could hold a candle to McLean in his prime. Of course, the Canucks could have acquired another goaltender, but there’s no guarantee that he could have put together a playoff performance like McLean in 1994.

Unforeseen consequences of trading for Gretzky

Then there are the three first-round picks that would have been included in the deal. The first of those picks is inconsequential. The Canucks took defenceman Jason Herter 8th overall in the 1989 draft and he played just one game in the NHL. 

Things get interesting with the next two picks, however. In 1990, the Canucks drafted Petr Nedved 2nd overall. Nedved played just three seasons for the Canucks before a contract dispute led to him signing with the St. Louis Blues as a restricted free agent. Craig Janney was awarded to the Canucks, but was traded back to the Blues for Jeff Brown, Bret Hedican, and Nathan LaFayette.

Brown and Hedican were key components of the Canucks’ defence for their 1994 playoff run. As much as Gretzky would have made a monumental difference offensively for the Canucks, they would have been in real trouble defensively without Brown and Hedican, particularly without McLean behind them.

Finally, there’s that third pick in 1991: Alek Stojanov. 

Yes, that name should be familiar. He’s a key component of Canucks lore, not because of how he played for the Canucks — he was one of the worst Canucks of all time — but because of who he was traded for in one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history.

Stojanov was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for future Canucks captain, three-time First Team All-Star, Ted Lindsay Award winner Markus Näslund. That’s right: if the Canucks had traded for Gretzky, then Näslund would have never become a Canuck.

That may seem like not a big deal, but Näslund rescued the Canucks from their darkest hour. He, along with Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison on the West Coast Express line, revitalized the Canucks and brought fans back into the building after so many were disillusioned during the Mark Messier/Mike Keenan era.

But we’ll get back to that.

The death of the NHL in California

Here’s the biggest issue with Gretzky going to the Canucks instead of the Kings: it could have killed hockey in the southern United States. And that, in turn, could have killed the NHL.

Gretzky’s presence on and off the ice put hockey on the map, not just in California but across the U.S. With no Gretzky in Los Angeles, it’s easy to see how interest in hockey in the City of Angels could wane quickly. Instead of thriving, the franchise quietly folds a few years later, much like the California Golden Seals before them.

Without that foothold in California, there’s no Anaheim Ducks and no San Jose Sharks. In fact, there’s no Mighty Ducks film franchise at all, movies that helped hockey gain a foothold in popular culture that pushed its popularity across the U.S.

Why? Because Michael Eisner, the former Disney chairman, used to attend Kings games and he helped push the Mighty Ducks trilogy of films because he wanted a hockey team of his own in Anaheim. At the time, hockey was a fringe sport in the States — Gretzky helped push it into the mainstream.

Without Gretzky becoming a star in L.A., he never appears on Saturday Night Live, which happened after his first season with the Kings. He definitely never joins Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson on the ProStars animated series. His face isn’t plastered on products everywhere in the U.S. and, as a result, the NHL gets much less exposure.

It’s easy to see how the NHL’s southern expansion simply doesn’t happen without the Gretzky trade. The Winnipeg Jets don’t get moved to Arizona, the Minnesota North Stars don’t go to Dallas, and the Hartford Whalers don’t go to Carolina. There are no Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers, or Tampa Bay Lightning.

No southern hockey means a financial crisis for the NHL

Some of the above may seem like positives for some hockey fans, but the truth is that the expansion south brought huge financial gains to the NHL, particularly major television markets like Los Angeles and Dallas. Without the influx of cash from new American markets, the NHL never takes off financially and remains a niche sport in Canada and the northern U.S.

Teams that were forced to move might have instead simply folded. It’s not that the North Stars or Whalers would have stayed in Minnesota and Hartford; perhaps they wouldn’t exist at all. 

The strain on the pocketbooks for Canadian teams would have become particularly unbearable, especially as the Canadian dollar crashed towards the end of the 90’s. With no American buyers eager to move the Jets or Quebec Nordiques to the States, perhaps they fold too.

Those financial strains would be particularly tough for a team that had just spent $25 million to acquire Wayne Gretzky.

If the initial cost of acquiring Gretzky was already too much for the Canucks to bear, there’s Gretzky’s salary to consider as well. Gretzky ended up getting paid $2 million USD per season in Los Angeles. The Canucks would be in immediate financial trouble, which they could stave off for a few years with playoff revenue and merchandising, but what about when they start missing the playoffs after 1994, the same way the Kings did after 1993?

The Canucks would have been forced to trade Gretzky, perhaps recouping some cash in the process. They might have been able to trade him to an American team, as the Kings did when they sent him to the St. Louis Blues in 1996, but Gretzky wouldn’t have ignited the same fervour in the U.S. in 1996 as he did in 1988. Besides, St. Louis doesn’t have the same cachet as Los Angeles.

The end of the Canucks and the NHL

After the Gretzky trade, the Canucks could have followed the same playbook as they did in real life, looking to another former Oilers great to revitalize the franchise. Instead, with the addition of Messier, the Canucks fall into a dark period in their history, with no Näslund at the end of the tunnel to pull them out.

The Griffiths family would be forced to sell and perhaps to ownership that sees no need to keep the franchise in Vancouver with its waning attendance and interest to local fans, who are disillusioned by years of missing the playoffs. Or perhaps they too fold, like the Jets, Nordiques, and Kings.

At this point, Gretzky, realizing he missed his chance in Los Angeles, puts his name behind a new operation: a return of the World Hockey Association. Gretzky, who wanted to move into ownership, owns and plays for a new Los Angeles team and convinces other teams to join him for a small, six-team league.

With financial backing from a few rich owners — friends of Gretzky — the new WHA lures away a number of free agents from the NHL, as well as top talent from Europe. The competition between the upstart WHA and the NHL proves detrimental to both, as more teams fold over the coming decade.

The NHL’s low profile in the U.S. means minimal money coming in from TV contracts and the WHA struggles to find stable financial footing. Eventually, top talent starts migrating to European leagues and the KHL. The NHL contracts again and again until the league is left with just a handful of teams, a shadow of its former self. Eventually, they are forced to join forces with the WHA, the same as the WHA did in years past, except this time the shoe is on the other foot: the NHL ceases to exist and the remaining teams become part of the WHA.

The NHL is no more.

So, it’s probably for the best that Gretzky went to the Kings instead.