What if the Flyers had successfully traded for Wayne Gretzky in 1988?
That question arose this week given Gretzky’s stunning remark Tuesday on the NHL Network's NHL Tonight, when he divulged that the Flyers were among the final three clubs from which he had to choose.
Aug. 9 marked the 28th anniversary of the most historic trade in NHL history when the Great One was sent to the Los Angeles Kings.
It raises an interesting question if you’re a Flyers fan.
Given what it would have taken to land Gretzky, the Flyers never would have had the roster depth in 1992 to complete the trade with the Quebec Nordiques for the rights to Eric Lindros. Landing Gretzky would have meant then-general manager Russ Farwell would never have had the eight players (including draft picks) he would use to secure Lindros.
What’s even more interesting is that Bob Clarke, who was the Flyers’ GM in 1988, told Paul Holmgren this year he had no knowledge whatsoever that the club was trying to obtain Gretzky.
Clarke could not be reached for comment.
Obviously, this was something club chairman Ed Snider kept very close to his vest.
Holmgren’s first season as head coach of the Flyers was 1988-89. That would have been Gretzky’s first season here in Philadelphia.
“I saw Wayne in a special with I think, Bob Costas, not too long ago that he talked about the trade and potential destinations,” Holmgren said in an interview with CSNPhilly.com on Wednesday. “That was the first I had heard of it. I asked Clarkie if he knew anything about it and he said no."
This week on NHL Tonight, Gretzky was asked to recall the final days when the decision was made and where he wanted to go.
Peter Pocklington was the Oilers' owner and friend of Snider, so you have to think the discussions were solely between them. Glen Sather was the Oilers’ GM.
“In the end, we got down to three teams," Gretzky said on the show. "Mr. Snider was a good friend of mine and Philadelphia was involved, and Detroit Red Wings — and of course I grew up a Gordie Howe fan and loved Gordie Howe and the Red Wings — and the Los Angeles Kings were involved. I really felt 24 hours beforehand that I was going to end up a Detroit Red Wing.
"Both Janet (his wife) and I thought that was the perfect place to go because A, it was a great hockey city, B, because of Gordie and everything that goes with that. And it was really my dad that stepped in and said, ‘You know, there’s only one Gordie Howe. Detroit’s Detroit, they’ve done everything. You should go to L.A. and put a new mark on life down there, and do something so unique and so different.’
"And he was the one that stepped in and said, ‘You should go play in Los Angeles.’ I remember sitting with Janet and I was like, ‘OK. That’s where we’re gonna go.’”
Flash forward: On June 30, 1992, arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi awarded Lindros to the Flyers.
In exchange, the Nordiques got Mike Ricci, Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Ron Hextall and future considerations (Chris Simon), plus the Flyers' first-round choice in the 1993 draft (Jocelyn Thibault) and 1994 entry draft (later traded to Toronto and then Washington), and $15 million. Eight players in all completed the deal.
Think about it.
The Oilers sent Gretzky to the Kings along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski. In return, Edmonton received Jimmy Carson, that year’s first-round draft pick, Martin Gelinas, who went seventh overall, plus three more first-round picks (1989, 1991 and 1993) and the big bonus: $15 million cash.
Had the Flyers gotten Gretzky, Farwell never would have had the players or picks to pull off the Lindros deal four years later. As for the money, remember, Comcast ownership wasn't around, either.
A large portion of Flyers history would have been completely rewritten had Gretzky played here.
Lindros was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame this past June and will be formally inducted on Nov. 14, along with the late Pat Quinn, who coached the Flyers through their historic 35-game unbeaten streak.
Would the Flyers have won a Stanley Cup with Gretzky? What kind of final years would Gretzky have had as a Flyer?
Given Snider died last April, we’ll never know how real this was, what the Flyers were willing to part with or why Snider kept Clarke in the dark.
Yet it’s equally intriguing that Snider kept this secret to himself for nearly three decades.