It was a trade that joined The Great One and Hollywood, giving the sport mainstream appeal in the United States for the first time.
Here are nine lasting legacies from it:
1. Growth across the United States
At the time of the trade, the Kings were the only U.S.-based NHL team west of Minnesota; the Colorado Rockies became the New Jersey Devils in 1982 and the California Golden Seals became the Cleveland Barons in 1976. Seven California-born players had played at least one NHL game.
Today, the Kings are one of seven U.S.-based teams west of Minnesota, with the potential for an eighth in Seattle soon. The number of California-born players who have played at least one NHL game is up to 44, including 11 last season.
Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles began a hockey movement that has spread throughout California and well beyond.
USA Hockey said it had a record 61,554 registered players, including 6,702 female players, from its Pacific region (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) last season. There were 11,287 registered players (female players and players age 6 and younger were not counted yet) from the Pacific region in the 1990-91 season, which was after Gretzky arrived but before the NHL began adding teams in San Jose, Anaheim, Dallas, Arizona, Colorado and Las Vegas.
As for California, in 1988 there were an estimated 2,925 youth players (18 and under) in the state, according to USA Hockey; last season there were 14,886, an increase of 409 percent). The state had 34,653 registered players (2,963 of them female) through USA Hockey last season, putting it sixth in the country behind traditional hotbeds Minnesota (71,517), Massachusetts (59,430), Michigan (53,780), New York (56,095) and Illinois (35,950).
The growth is staggering in the Rocky Mountain region (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah) and the Southeastern region (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington, D.C.).
There were 55,241 registered players (5,929 female) last season in the Rocky Mountain region, up from 7,304 in 1990-91. The Southeastern region has seen even more growth, with 62,060 players registered (5,172 female) last season compared to 4,462 in 1990-91.
2. Ducks duos
Without Gretzky popularizing hockey and the NHL in Southern California, the Anaheim Ducks might have never existed and the hockey world might never have gotten to see the dynamic duos of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, and Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
Former Disney chairman Michael Eisner used to attend Kings games with many other Hollywood elites. Disney used the Gretzky buzz to create the successful “The Mighty Ducks” movie franchise in 1992, and that spawned the NHL’s second team in Southern California.
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim debuted in the 1993-94 season with the Florida Panthers, and the NHL’s 25th and 26th teams were the latest additions in its Sun Belt expansion that was accelerated by the Gretzky trade.
Kariya was the Ducks’ first-round pick (No. 4) in the 1993 NHL Draft. He and fellow Hall of Fame forward Selanne played together from 1995-96 to 2000-01. Forwards Getzlaf and Perry were selected in the first round of the 2003 NHL Draft, Nos. 19 and 28, respectively. With Selanne, Anaheim won its only Stanley Cup championship in 2007.
3. The Shark Head
One of the most recognizable symbols of the San Jose Sharks is the Shark Head that is lowered from the rafters at SAP Center and is an entryway to the ice for the home team.
The Shark Head itself isn’t a legacy of the Gretzky trade, but it represents a team that is.
The NHL’s first attempt at branching into Northern California, the Golden Seals, didn’t work. However, the exposure hockey got in California because of Gretzky gave the NHL confidence to try again.
The Sharks started play as the NHL’s 22nd team in the 1991-92 season. San Jose has become teal country since, and the Sharks have flourished; they have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs 20 of their 26 seasons, reaching the Cup Final in 2016.
4. Matthews, game grow in desert
Matthews, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 20-year-old center and the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, was born in California and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona. He grew up rooting for the Arizona Coyotes (previously the Phoenix Coyotes) and attended games when Gretzky was the coach (2005-09).
The Coyotes fostered Matthews’ interest in hockey and his growth into one of the top players in the NHL. That might never have happened without the Gretzky trade.
The popularity of the game and the NHL in the Southwest spread from Southern California to Arizona enough to convince the NHL that Phoenix was the right market for the relocation of the Winnipeg Jets in 1996.
5. A-listers on board
Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles began a hockey craze among Hollywood types, with many becoming Kings fans because of him.
Gretzky made it popular for celebrities like Michael J. Fox, Alyssa Milano, Tony Danza, John Candy, Sean Penn, Alan Thicke, Kurt Russell, Tom Hanks and Sylvester Stallone, along with professional athletes from other sports, to attend games at the Forum and buy season tickets.
Milano, Will Ferrell, Matthew Perry and Colin Hanks are four of the Kings’ most famous, vocal and visible fans today.
6. It’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ …
For proof of how the trade brought hockey into the mainstream in the United States, look no further than May 13, 1989. That was when Gretzky became the first active NHL player to host an episode of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Gretzky’s hosting gig came less three weeks after he finished his first season with the Kings, who were swept by the Calgary Flames in the Smythe Division Final. He sang and danced, and was a guest on “Wayne’s World.”
In the category of things that never would have happened had it not been for the trade, this might be the most unlikely. Gretzky even hosted the show before Michael Jordan (Sept. 28, 1991).
7. Winning different Cup
One of the most memorable seasons in Toronto Argonauts and Canadian Football League history happened in part because Gretzky played in Los Angeles and had influential friends in Hollywood.
Gretzky purchased the Argonauts with then-Kings owner Bruce McNall and Candy for $5 million Feb. 25, 1991. Gretzky and Candy were minority owners. Less than two months later, they signed former University of Notre Dame wide receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail to a four-year contract worth more than $18 million before bonuses, according to CBC.
The Argonauts went a league-best 13-5 and won the Grey Cup for the first time since 1983, and the second time since 1952. McNall and Gretzky sold the team for $4.7 million on May 5, 1994, about two months after Candy died (March 4).
8. New York reunion
For nine seasons (1979-88), Gretzky and center Mark Messier wowed fans and dominated the NHL with the Oilers, winning the Stanley Cup four times. They broke up and became rivals in the Western Conference because of the trade.
Los Angeles defeated Edmonton in seven games in the Smythe Division Semifinals in 1989 before the Oilers defeated the Kings in the division finals in 1990, when Edmonton won the Stanley Cup, a feat many thought would be impossible without Gretzky.
But Gretzky’s departure on the Oilers greased the wheels for Messier to eventually leave Edmonton via a trade. They became more vulnerable to others leaving and were financially strapped.
Messier was traded at the start of the 1991-92 season while holding out for a new contract. It resulted in then-Oilers general manager Glen Sather trading Messier and future considerations to the New York Rangers on Oct. 4, 1991, for forwards Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk.
Messier helped the Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1994, their first championship since 1940. Two years later, Gretzky and Messier reunited in New York for one season.
New York reached the Eastern Conference Final in 1997 but lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. Gretzky had 97 points, tying Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the NHL lead with 72 assists, in 82 games. Messier had 84 points (36 goals, 48 assists) in 71 games.
Messier signed with the Vancouver Canucks after the season. Gretzky played two more seasons with the Rangers before retiring.
9. Golden Knights and outdoor hockey
Before there were the Vegas Golden Knights or NHL regular-season outdoor games, there was a preseason game between Gretzky’s Kings and the Rangers played under the stars on a makeshift rink built atop a parking deck at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 1991.
That game was created to market Gretzky in another untapped, warm-weather market in the United States. It didn’t signal the NHL’s eventual arrival with the Golden Knights 26 years later, but the roots of hockey in Las Vegas and NHL outdoor games in general go back to Gretzky and the trade.
That was the first NHL game played there and the first outdoor game played between two NHL teams.
“We were exposing the game where it’d never been played before,” Roy Mlakar, Kings executive vice president at the time, said in 2016. “This is what we did. It was expose Gretzky, expose Gretzky, expose Gretzky.”