It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 25 years since “The Trade”. On August 9, 1988, Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings by the Edmonton Oilers. Yes, I know that there were other players involved. But Wayne was the big name in that deal. He had the greatest impact on those two franchises and on the NHL. But beyond that, he had an impact on hockey in the Southern US. His arrival in L.A. thrust hockey into the spotlight of America’s sports culture. Suddenly, hockey was cool in the Sun Belt. Suddenly, Kings games were a hot ticket. Suddenly, Kings games were sold out…all of them. Suddenly, Hollywood stars started going to Kings games to be seen by the paparazzi, rather than to hide from them. The quality of celebrity attendees at Kings games rose from Lynda Carter (TV’s Wonder Woman from the 70s) and Adam West (TV’s Batman from the 60s) to Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn and John Candy (Believe me, they were big in movies in the 80s).
But beyond that, the newfound popularity of the Kings began to spread to a lot of the Southern states. Living in Arizona (since we didn’t have an NHL team of our own), I was one of many people who followed the Kings (although, in my case, I started following them a couple of years earlier). But the result was that hockey became far more popular in states below the Mason-Dixon Line than it had ever been before. Even though many of these cities already had minor-league teams, hockey was still a fringe sport in most of these communities. There were always the die-hard fans, many of them transplants from colder climes, but suddenly there were more “casual” fans being exposed to hockey on TV and checking out the minor league version in their own cities. There was an upsurge in popularity among many minor league teams and that resulted in expansion of some of the Southern leagues. Based on this expansion, the NHL made moves to expand into the previously untouched (with the exception of the Kings and the Atlanta Flames) Southern United States.
In 1990, the NHL put a second team in California with the expansion San Jose Sharks, who were followed a year later by the Tampa Bay Lightning. In 1993, the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas and the league’s Southern expansion continued with the addition of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and the Florida Panthers. The Winnipeg Jets moved south and became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996 and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997. The Nashville Predators joined the league in 1998 and the league returned to Atlanta with the Thrashers in 1999.