Gretzky Going Hollywood Changed Everything for Hockey in California

The biggest trade in NHL history, a stunning move that sent The Great One from the Oilers to the Kings, transformed the hockey landscape in California for good.
January 27, 2017, 6:55pm
Wayne Gretzky at his introductory press conference with the Los Angeles Kings.
Photo by Reed Saxon/Associated Press

Los Angeles TV station general manager Charles Velona had a choice: Show the 1981 NHL All-Star Game live—hosted by LA for the first time—or re-run the 1970 Peter Sellers comedy There's a Girl in My Soup.

He chose the Hollywood star. "We've put games on at various times—6 PM, 10 AM, 5 PM," Velona told the Los Angeles Times, "but people don't want to view hockey."

So the 1981 All-Star Game was shown on tape delay in its host city. This was hockey in Los Angeles before Wayne Gretzky.


Seven years later, the Kings traded for Gretzky, the closest thing to a movie star that hockey has ever seen.

"Suddenly, the Kings were cool," recalls fellow teammate and Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille in a conversation with VICE Sports.

Almost three decades after "The Trade of the Century," hockey is still booming in Southern California. The Kings have won two Stanley Cups since the deal, and the NHL All-Star Game returned to Staples Center in 2017. And nowhere is the sport's local strength more evident than in the number of kids getting into it.

"Surfers go home!"

That's what Minnesotans shouted at Southern California teenagers who had just upset the host team at a Minneapolis tournament in the mid 80s, according to the LA Times.

Indeed, there was youth hockey in Southern California before Gretzky, but it was a challenge for kids to even get ice time.

"There wasn't a lot of opportunity," remembers Joe Trotta, who played in North Hollywood in the mid 70s. "We weren't able to be on the ice everyday." Trotta, now head coach of the El Segundo Strikers, part of the Los Angeles Kings High School Hockey League (LAKHSHL), was referring to the few rinks around at the time.

"There were over 2,000 kids at my high school, and I was the only one who played ice hockey," laughs Ken Martel. USA Hockey's technical director (American Development Model) attended Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights in the early 80s. "Before Gretzky, [rinks] kind of dried up a bit."


But then, The Great One shook the local hockey landscape in 1988 after a stunning blockbuster trade sent him from Edmonton to Hollywood.

"When Wayne came on board, it was instant," says Robitaille, now president of business operations for the Kings. "Within four years, there were 10 to 12 rinks which were built."

"Wayne Gretzky completely legitimized the sport in LA.," says Trotta. A few years after the trade, Gretzky led the Kings to their first Stanley Cup final in 1993, which they lost in five games to the Canadiens.

In 1990-91, just a couple seasons after Gretzky's arrival—these are the earliest numbers that USA Hockey has—there were 4,483 registered players in California. A quarter-century later, there are more than 28,000.

This 500-plus percent increase easily outpaces USA Hockey's own 178.1 percent national growth over the same time. In fact, California now has the sixth-most registered players of any state, as of 2017.

These figures include adults. Perhaps even more impressive then is the sport's popularity at the 8U level. Over the last five years, 8U participation in California has shot up 62.5 percent, whereas nationally, it's only inched up 2.2 percent.

Speaking of introductory hockey, 'Lil Kings has been a particular success. The annual program, sponsored by the Kings, gives 8U kids new to sport complete equipment, and a week of professional on-ice sessions for just $150. It's sold out every year, according to the team, going from 180 skaters in its inaugural offering to 520, 720, and most recently 1,020 participants.

"The program actually started a few years before, in Pittsburgh. We were the second NHL club to adopt it," notes Chris Crotty, the Kings' director of hockey development. "It was so successful here in LA that they have now rolled that program out with the entire NHL."

The Kings also want to get into high school sports. "The Ducks started a really successful high school league about five years ago," says Crotty. "It literally started with one team and now they have north of 40."

In 2016, the Kings opened the LAKHSHL with eight teams. It expanded to 15 the following year.


"What high school hockey is doing is for the first time," says Crotty, "it's really connecting the sport of hockey to communities."

There are now 70-something high school programs in California, says Martel, something he described as "mind-boggling."

It's not just participation that's swelled, it's also talent. Between 'Lil Kings and LAKHSHL, there's Jr. Kings, which started as one peewee team in the early 80s and has blossomed to more than two dozen squads, both male and female, covering many ages. Alumni Bobby Ryan, Emerson Etem, and Beau Bennett would go on to become NHL first-round draft picks.

The Jr. Kings are members of the bustling Southern California Amateur Hockey Association, which boasts 21 active clubs, including the Jr. Ducks.

"My brother coaches junior hockey out east and he does some recruiting in the LA area," says ex-King Steve Heinze, who coaches the LAKHSHL's Santa Barbara Royals, "which was unheard of when I grew up."


Photo courtesy LA Kings/Getty Images

Could all this have happened without Gretzky?

"No," states Robitaille. "We wouldn't have had that many rinks. There would've still been a growth but not that many rinks."

An LA Times article, published three months before the Gretzky deal, was even less optimistic. "With the disappearance of ice rinks and lack of sponsors, along with the high cost of play, the existence of California teams… is being threatened."

Now, hockey's future in Southern California—from just a handful of rinks pre-Gretzky to 29 from Bakersfield to San Diego—is secure. But is there still room to grow?

Famously, the Kings' original owner Jack Kent Cooke, bemoaning his team's low attendance, quipped, "There are 800,000 Canadians living in the Los Angeles area, and I've just discovered why they left Canada. They hate hockey."

That's not the case anymore. Former Canadian NHLers like Brandon Convery, Nick Vachon, Rob Blake, Nelson Emerson, Glen Murray, and Jamie Storr, attracted to the weather and lifestyle, among other things, have settled in the Los Angeles area and coach youth hockey for the Kings. Heinze, an American, and Czech-born Jaroslav Modry are also part of these programs. This doesn't include the many NHLers associated with the Ducks' youth hockey initiatives.


"Our coaches," asserts Kelly Sorensen, the Jr. Kings' executive director, "are on par with anywhere in the world from a youth hockey development standpoint."


The band (and Lemieux) back together in 2015 for the unveiling of Robitaille's statue outside Staples Center. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

So there's an almost perfect marriage between this exploding desire to play and world-class infrastructure. Almost. Sorensen believes the only gap California hockey players need to close is the ability to compete consistently.

"That's where I feel we're a little behind the curve. From a talent and ability standpoint, our young athletes are just as good as they are anywhere in North America," he says.

The former Detroit Red Wings draft pick thinks the young players could benefit from USA Hockey changing its one-game playoff format.

"A one-game showdown… is a lot less taxing on a young player's mind," he says. "I'm a big proponent of battling through a long, arduous series between two teams. There's a psychological impact there."

Convery agrees. "I think the biggest difference between when I grew up… nowadays, they don't watch hockey, even though they have more access to it.

"If California—or the rest of the country at the youth level—can be more of a student of the game, I think the skill level would grow even quicker than it already has."

If anything, these concerns demonstrate how far along Southern California youth hockey has come: Great is worrying about being greater. In that spirit, Robitaille discloses, "In the next ten years, I'd like to see the USHL come in on the West Coast." He believes this goal is attainable.


Photo courtesy LA Kings/Getty Images

Until now, the best Jr. Kings had to leave to continue their hockey education. For example, Ryan and Etem both headed to the CHL, while Bennett went to the University of Denver. The arrival of the USHL—the top junior ice hockey league in the country, consisting of teams in the Midwest US—could potentially complete the loop locally from Jr. Kings to being drafted by an NHL team.

On a grassroots level, hockey still needs to expand its footprint over Southern California. Heinze evokes the experience of growing up in North Andover, Massachusetts. "Out East, [hockey] was sort of like baseball or soccer [in California]. Everybody did it. In gym class or in the street or out in the pond. Everybody at least had a taste of it."


But short of a new Ice Age, how do you get everybody a taste of hockey in sunny Southern California?

In 2017, the Kings announced that they are donating $1 million to the Los Angeles Chapter of the YMCA. While YMCAs don't have ice rinks, they can host ball hockey. To that end, the team, with the support of Delta Air Lines, has also committed to providing them 5,000 hockey sticks.

"Then we're going to start going to other clubs of LA," declares Robitaille, "and get underprivileged kids who have probably never held a hockey stick and really teach them the game.

"I grew up that way! People think we play on the ice in Canada all the time, but the whole spring and fall, we would play in the schoolyard. Just a tennis ball and sticks. That's one of my greatest memories."


Gretzky's impact in California is still being felt today. Photo by Reed Saxon/Associated Press

The Ducks themselves are heavily invested in roller hockey. They own multiple inline rinks and started the elementary school-level i3 Roller Hockey League.

Andrew Yi, who coaches LAKHSHL's Valencia Vikings, played the sport in college. "The skill set with stickhandling, passing, vision, all that stuff, shooting—it's all similar, all transferable [to ice hockey]," he says.

And to meet the burgeoning demand for girls youth hockey, both NHL organizations have stepped up their involvement. The Kings have 8U, 10U, and 12U girls teams, and hope to eventually have squads for all age groups.

Robitaille is also working on more rinks. "We're talking to everybody who's willing to talk to us. We've had talks with five different communities. I'd love to have three or four done [in the next five years]."

What everybody's working on is establishing a tradition of hockey excellence in Southern California at all levels. It's happening as we speak, as sons are carrying on their fathers' legacies.

Nick Vachon is the general manager of the Jr. Kings. Ty Gretzky runs Gretzky Hockey School, which operates in five North American locations, including Simi Valley.

"They want to grow the game. They want to help our club, but ultimately, they want to really develop more hockey throughout Southern California," Vachon said of the Kings.

The Kings, commemorating their 50th anniversary in 2017, are well on their way to celebrating a century in Los Angeles with such insight. And fittingly, it's Gretzky, Vachon, Blake, and Robitaille—the stars whose names hang in the rafters of Staples—guiding these future Kings.