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Where Were You the Day Wayne Gretzky was Traded?

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Looking back at a different time in sports history.

Wayne Gretzky
Yeah, not this trade but I just wanted to use this picture.

If you were not alive or not of age at the time, it may be impossible for you to conceive of the shock, the impact, and the technology involved in learning about the Wayne Gretzky trade 30 years ago this week.

There was no internet.

There was no 24-hour news.

There was barely any free agency.

And “best in the sport” superstars simply were not traded.

Basically, you’d find out about a major mid-summer trade only by reading it in the newspaper or, if you happened to catch a bulletin, on the radio or TV news. (ESPN’s Sportscenter, and SportsChannel America, were things at the time, but were hardly ubiquitous in people’s homes.)

So if you’re too young to gather all that, check out any of the many 30th anniversary retrospectives being published or broadcast this week.

And if you were around, how’d you find out?

‘Your Mom is Crazy’

I was no fan of Gretzky, and in fact I thought Mario Lemieux was the superior player. But Gretzky was Gretzky. Even though Peter Pocklington’s penny-pinching reputation was getting out there (that’s how Paul Coffey became a Penguin), it was inconceivable that the best player in the world, in the midst of a dynasty interruptus (the Oilers could never put more than two consecutive Cups together), would be dealt from Edmonton.

And yet it happened.

So part of the reason it happened was Oilers owner Pocklington’s own budget needs. Another part was Gretzky, as the best player, feeling obliged to make sure he raised the salary ceiling for all of the players, something that wasn’t going to happen with Pocklington.

So here’s how I found out, and didn’t believe it:

My buddy John and I always spent our summer days, when we weren’t rounding other kids up for a roller hockey game, playing “step ball” against the front porch steps. It was a baseball-like game with a tennis ball, I was the Toronto Blue Jays and he was the Kansas City Royals. We’d go through the whole team’s lineups for a simulated game, the “batter” pitching the ball against the steps while the “fielder” tried to defend the street.

(If the ball bounced all the way over the street and cleared the opposite curb, it was a home run. Clear it on a bounce and it’s a double, etc.)

We always had to pause the game — “CARRR!” — when a car would come by. Well here comes a car on a hot summer afternoon and it’s John’s mom coming home early from work. Instead of pulling into the driveway she stops, rolls down her window (you used to have to manually “roll” car windows down) to talk to us...

Here is where I should tell you John’s mom was a diehard baseball fan, listening to every game on the radio while she smoked her Marlboro reds. (Yes, back then TONS of people smoked cigarettes. And listened to baseball games on the radio.) She couldn’t care less about hockey.

“Hey boys, that Wayne Gretzky was traded.”

{John and I pause. We look at each other. We look back at her and wave her away.}

“That’s not possible, Mom.”

“Very funny.”

But she insisted, “No they said it on the radio. Isn’t he really good?”

“It was probably someone else,” I said, early in a life of correcting other people about hockey trivia.

“No, they definitely said it was Wayne Gretzky,” she reassured us, “to Los Angeles,” and drove on into the driveway to start her evening.

“Johnny, your mom is crazy. This couldn’t happen, and even if it did, no way the Kings could land Gretzky.” (The Kings were awful back in those days.)

And yet.

Imagine a time when you heard a MASSIVE news nugget from someone, yet you had no way to confirm it.

There was no smart phone in your pocket. No internet to run and check. No 24-hour TV sports news coverage. (ESPN was probably running a monster truck pull or “strongest man” competition or something.) No sports talk radio even.

So here we are, in the middle of summer and baseball season, and two young hockey fans just heard the most unfathomable hockey news possible from a shaky but sincere source...and we had to spend the rest of the day wondering if it was true.

I don’t even remember when I confirmed that it was for real. I remember later being shocked at the cost — $15 MILLION DOLLARS (a lot of money, even in sports, back then) plus all those players and picks — but don’t even remember discussing it with my dad, the diehard hockey fan who guided me to the sport and Al Arbour’s Islanders.

In a way it didn’t feel real until a few months later when that season’s hockey cards and NHL Guide & Record Book came out, each with that awkward photo of Gretzky in a button-down shirt holding that silver and black(?!?!) Kings jersey.

All I remember from that day is John’s mom, interrupting our ballgame, telling us the impossible had happened. And she wasn’t lying.