Jun. 30, 2010 - Issue #767: The Bestest of Edmonton 2010
Chronic pain: Gretzky statue a constant reminder of the Great One's cultural legacyStatues in Edmonton tend to be reserved for dead people or ideals: see Winston Churchill glowering from his plinth in the downtown square that bears his name, or the bronze fireman and small child in Old Strathcona commemorating resue, or Robbie Burns on bended knee in front of the Hotel Macdonald. We break this rule for one man: Wayne Gretzky.
A life-sized bronze replica of the Great One hoists the Stanley Cup outside Rexall Place; a fitting reminder of the magic he brought to Edmonton and the anguish his departure caused. It only gets weird when you consider that the statue was unveiled in 1989—one year after Gretzky was traded, when he was still in the prime of his career and playing for the Los Angeles Kings.
"For many people, prior to the trade, it was inconceivable that he ever would be anything other than an Oiler," says Terry McConnell, author of I'd Trade Him Again: On Gretzky, Politics, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Deal. The statue was "a way of recognizing the fact that, yeah, he was gone, but he'd left his mark and he wouldn't be forgotten."
Hockey fans certainly needed a way of digesting their anger and despair. When the trade became official in August of 1988, Oiler fans burned then-owner Peter Pocklington in effigy and made death threats. Trading Gretzky, generally regarded as the best player of all time, then at the height of his powers and fresh off leading the Oilers to a fourth Stanley Cup in five years, made Pocklington public enemy number one by a wide margin. McConnell says Oilers fans still struggle with it.
"If you were to ask most people today, they will tell you that it's an awful thing to happen," he says, "it never should have happened, and Peter Pocklington's to blame."
Fans reacted so strongly, McConnell says, because they felt that Gretzky made Edmonton an exceptional place.
"As long as Wayne Gretzky played here, they felt that they lived in a special town," he says. "People will tie up their own self-identity in their sports teams."
And so to patch up our battered post-trade identity, we performed the curious feat of commemorating a person mid-career. The irony was deepened by the end of the 1989 season when Gretzky's Kings upset the defending champion Oilers in the second round of the playoffs.
McConnell says the changing economics of the sport made trading Gretzky inevitable. Pocklington, millions of dollars in debt, knew he wouldn't be able to meet Gretzky's price when his contract ended in 1989. Rather than lose his franchise player to free agency, Pocklington decided to trade him. It caused a wound in Edmonton's collective identity that still lingers, 22 years later.
"Most people, I'm sure, have found a measure of peace with it, but at the same time, they don't understand, nor do they want to understand, that they were not going to be able to keep Wayne Gretzky," says McConnell. "They don't care to know that, they don't want to know that, they just think that something should have been done."
Even more difficult to swallow for fans is the idea that Pocklington didn't act as some malevolent, money-loving renegade; trading away the best player ever for the sole purpose of touching the big money. McConnell says both Pocklington and then-coach Glen Sather gave Gretzky the chance to veto the trade before it was made public.
"Was Peter the one responsible? Yes. Was he solely responsible? No," says McConnell. "It happened because Wayne Gretzky wanted it as well." V vueweekly.com comments: powered by Disqus
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