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DeCock: Wayne Gretzky trade, 25 years ago, led to NHL in N.C.

By Luke DeCock – staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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Wayne Gretzky stood outside a conference room at the Embassy Suites in Cary, his eyes bleary from an overnight flight, a cup of coffee steaming in his hand. He had flown in to join his new team, the Phoenix Coyotes, the deal that made Gretzky a partner in the purchase of the franchise having closed the night before.

So there he stood in 2001, in a place he may never have imagined going, in a place where there would never have been NHL hockey had Gretzky not been traded 25 years ago Friday in a deal that shook not only the hockey world to its foundations but an entire country.

The trade that sent Gretzky, in the prime of his unmatched career, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, paved the way for the NHL as we know it today, a league that spans all of North America, not just from east to west, but north to south as well.

(When the trade went down, Gretzky was in Los Angeles, staying at Canadian actor and friend Alan Thicke’s house, babysitting 11-year-old Robin Thicke, who 25 years later has the No.1 song in the country.)

How the Gretzky trade spawned the expansion of the NHL into California and other nontraditional markets across the Sun Belt is an old story, but it’s an important one for hockey here, because that trade set in motion a series of actions that would one day result in the Hartford Whalers moving south to North Carolina.

Which is how Gretzky found himself in Cary, a place with no relevance to his playing career, to begin his ill-fated career as an owner. (The Coyotes would go bankrupt and require an NHL bailout that resulted in Gretzky losing millions.) That night, before hosting the Coyotes, the Hurricanes honored the superstar at an arena he had never seen before.

The Hurricanes had other ties to the trade, most notably Martin Gelinas, who played here in 1998-2002. Gelinas was only 18 and had yet to play an NHL game when he was included as part of the package the Kings sent to the Oilers for Gretzky, along with Jimmy Carson, draft picks and cash.

“You want to be known for something else,” Gelinas said a few years ago. Around here, he was: Gelinas scored the goal that sent the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals, the culmination of a hard-working 41/2 seasons with the Hurricanes.

In terms of actual hockey, Gretzky’s impact on the state was limited. He played in four games in Greensboro during the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons for the New York Rangers, going scoreless in three of them and recording a goal and two assists in the other. (He was supposed to appear in a preseason game in Charlotte in 1991, when he played for the Kings, but he only made it as far as warm-ups. The game was canceled when the ice was unplayable.)

That didn’t stop the Hurricanes from drawing 19,358 to the Greensboro Coliseum, still a franchise record, for the first of Gretzky’s four visits to North Carolina in November 1997. He never played in Raleigh, retiring in 1999 before what is now called PNC Arena was finished.

It never would have happened without the trade that stretched the NHL’s thinking as much as it stretched its borders, opening the door to teams in Texas and Florida and Tennessee and, yes, North Carolina. Which is how Gretzky found himself that morning in 2001 in a place he never imagined he would be, beginning the next chapter of his career in a place where there was only NHL hockey because of him.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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