Sunday, January 21, 2018

Found Object: Trade Secret

Editor's note: Found Object is a new recurring feature that's part writing exercise, part old guy reflections. Each entry is about a different piece of detritus that I've collected at some point in my life.

Back in August 1988, the world was a much different place. I was 20, doing an internship with the Peabody Times after my junior year at UNH. Back in the late '80s, a career as a newspaper reporter was still something that made sense. You weren't going to make a lot of money, but it was a respectable profession and one that didn't seem to have an expiration date. 

Back then, newspaper internships were pivotal things. Not only did they give a prospective employer a glimpse at your skillset, they also give you an idea of whether you want to get into the business. It was one thing to write for the college newspaper, but another thing entirely to prove your worth for a daily paper. There were plenty of folks who had moved on to careers in journalism, but there were also those who couldn't handle the pressure of daily deadlines.

When I showed up in Peabody in June of '88, I found out that it wasn't going to be much of a challenge. My predecessor couldn't hack it and nearly quit after a month; he stuck around, but it was clear that he wasn't carrying a lot of weight. By the time I showed up, the editor of the Peabody paper was so desperate to not have the intern quit that she basically told me I could do whatever I wanted. I could've spent the entire three months doodling on a piece of paper and it wouldn't have mattered. But I wanted to make this my profession, so I wasn't about to waste it. I wanted to dive in. At first, there was a lot of puff pieces, mainly because there were three other reporters in the office to take the weightier stories. However, one of the reporters left in early August, which meant I was able to take on some more of the burden. More than anything, it proved that I was able to do the job.

So there I was on August 9, working on a story in the Beverly office of Essex County Newspapers, when I read on the AP sports wire that a big trade had gone through late in the day. This was a time before sports talk radio and Twitter and constant sports coverage, so I had no idea that the greatest hockey player of all time would be dealt at the peak of his powers. Indeed, Wayne Gretzky, who was coming off his fourth Stanley Cup win in five years with the Edmonton Oilers, was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. It was one of the biggest trades in sports history, especially given the fact that Gretzky was literally the best player in the sport and coming off a dominant stretch with Edmonton. Reading that he was getting traded was shocking, to say the least. There had been big trades before: Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and many other stars had been traded, but none had been as key at the time of their trade as Gretzky was.

The trade of Gretzky to the Kings was a big deal for the NHL in terms of establishing itself in warm weather areas. The Kings had been in LA since 1967, and had had stars like Marcel Dionne, Luc Robitaille, Rogie Vachon and Dave Taylor, but Gretzky brought a whole new level of star power to the team. He attracted a whole new level of attention to the Kings, bringing in Hollywood celebrities and showcasing the game to a new audience. Even though the Great One was unable to bring a Cup to LA (although he did take them to the 1993 Cup final vs. Montreal), he generated so much interest in the game south of the border that it inspired a whole generation of American players.

The Kings eventually won Cups in 2012 and 2014, and while Gretzky was long gone at that point (he was traded to St. Louis in 1996 and retired in 1999), there's no denying the impact he had on hockey in California and the U.S. It would have been interesting to see what he could have done with Edmonton had he stayed (they won another Cup in 1990), but he clearly paved the way for U.S. hockey to reach many more kids.

I can still remember driving home from Beverly to Kingston, N.H., on August 9, 1988, shocked to the core that one of the greatest hockey players in history had been traded. A few weeks later, I headed back to Durham, N.H., for my senior year at UNH. A year later, I was back in Peabody, having been hired at the Times as a reporter. I was on to my career in journalism. How was I to know that things would change so radically for the entire newspaper industry? But in 1988, I was on the right track.

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