NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was working for the NBA 25 years ago and doesn’t recall exactly where he was. His most vivid memory came a couple of weeks later when he saw the Aug. 22 Sports Illustrated cover that featured Gretzky and Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson.
"Remember thinking at the time that that demonstrated a huge step forward for hockey and its credibility," Bettman told The Canadian Press on Thursday. "It was obviously something that, in the annals of sports, was one of those seminal events that gets a tremendous amount of attention because of its import and impact."
Sports Illustrated’s cover read, "Great move, Gretzky." At the expense of the Oilers and their fans, it also turned out to be a great move for hockey in the United States, which benefited from expansion and an infusion of players at the youth level.
"People paid attention to hockey in places where they might not have focused on it as much, and it was clear there was a great deal of interest in the game," Bettman said. "Wayne’s presence in L.A. was the catalyst for that."
When Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles, The Forum wasn’t a loud or intimidating place to play. Sellouts and celebrity appearances became the norm, thanks to the NHL’s biggest star.
Not long after, Gretzky’s impact was felt beyond Los Angeles. The league added a second California team in 1991 with the expansion San Jose Sharks and a third in 1993 with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Bettman became commissioner several months before the Mighty Ducks and Florida Panthers debuted and the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas and in the midst of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first season. The league’s expansion across the Sunbelt continued under Bettman’s watch, due in no small part to the Gretzky trade.
"It was the reaction of people to the game," Bettman said of the cause and effect. "Wayne’s presence in L.A. and the success the Kings had demonstrated that hockey had credibility in so-called newer or non-traditional markets."
Gretzky was never able to lead the Kings to a Stanley Cup. In 2012, they became the fifth team in a "non-traditional market" to do so, joining the Stars, Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Ducks.
Small-market teams aren’t immune to financial difficulties like what the Oilers dealt with leading to the trade. But no longer can owners get $15 million for a player like Peter Pocklington did from Bruce McNall for Gretzky.
And changes to the NHL’s business structure have given them increasing ability to compete.
"As you see from looking at how the game’s been played and the playoff races and the regular-season races, we have perhaps the best competitive balance that not only we have ever seen but that any sport has ever seen," Bettman said. "Every team has a chance of making the playoffs, you see that, and playoffs are incredibly not just entertaining but unpredictable."