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THE NHL introduced two teams from the Golden State in 1967. One, the California Seals, remains best known for its white skates. The Seals moved to Cleveland in '76 and merged with the Minnesota North Stars in '78, having never enjoyed a winning season. The other, the L.A. Kings, had some early success, making the playoffs semi-regularly—but this was hardly a top-tier franchise in the '80s. The SoCal fan base, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED wrote at the time, put the sport on par with "intramural beanbag tossing."

Then, on Aug. 9, 1988, the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to L.A. for players, picks and 15 million sorely-needed dollars. The deal (which New Democratic Party leader Nelson Riis equated to trading a beaver from its dam, or off-loading Vanna White for two lose-a-turns and a vowel-to-be-named-later) shocked Canada. But it also made West Coast hockey suddenly relevant. Magic Johnson bought Kings season tickets. California had 4,800 registered amateur hockey players in '90; within five years, that had reached 15,500. Gretzky's success in L.A.—he brought the Kings to the '93 Cup Finals—undeniably fueled the league's move into the Sun Belt. Since '88, the NHL has added seven teams west of the Mississippi, plus five in Southern (sunny) states.

Oilers owner Peter Pocklington has offered conflicting explanations for the move, but what's clear is that Gretzky's high-scoring ways would have guaranteed a steady fan base—not an alienated one—for years to come. What if, instead of selling the future Great One, Pocklington, who at least once said he needed the cash injection, sold the team? (He did so almost a decade later, mired in debt.) Or, really, what if he'd showed a little patience and hung onto his star?

Without Gretzky out West, without the success of an ice-cold game in a warm clime, the NHL would not have expanded so confidently toward the South. The league surely would not have created two more California franchises. The Stanley Cup would be etched differently: no 2012 and '14 Kings, no '07 Anaheim Ducks.... And pro hockey would remain, for better or worse, as SI wrote in 1954, a "great Northern sport."