John Miner could always tell when an opponent was going to drop the reference. It was always a player imported from North America to his pro hockey league in Austria or Switzerland. They’d give him a glance, then smile, and then say some variation of the following:
“Oh, there ya are! Miner and Gretzky! The legend, right here!”
Miner would laugh, acknowledging the attempt to honor his unique place in hockey history while subtly giving him the gears, as opposing players are wont to do. Because his name was written in that legend, albeit as a sidebar or a footnote. Seven men can claim to have been part of The Wayne Gretzky Trade, that tectonic shift of the hockey landscape that saw the Great One moved from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988.
John Miner is one of them.
“It was always my joke to everybody. That this was my claim to fame,” he told ESPN this week.
Miner was sent with Gretzky to the Kings along with forward Mike Krushelnyski and defenseman Marty McSorley for center Jimmy Carson, winger Martin Gelinas, defenseman Craig Redmond, and Los Angeles’s first-round choices in the 1989 (later traded to New Jersey, who selected Jason Miller), 1991 (Martin Rucinsky) and 1993 (Nick Stajduhar) drafts.
Thirty years later, The Trade remains both cherished and controversial. It shook one nation to its core while opening up fertile new hockey markets in another nation.
In the process, it gave John Miner cult hockey status.
“It would be a little weird when import guys would come over, and I don’t know them from a hole in the wall, and they’re mentioning me,” said Miner, now 52.
So how does one discover they’ve been included in perhaps the biggest trade in the history of professional sports?
Miner was drafted in the 11th round at No. 220 overall by the Oilers in 1983. (Notably, Uwe Krupp was taken by Buffalo at No. 214 that year.) He had an accomplished WHL career with the Regina Pats as an offensive defenseman, and started with the AHL Nova Scotia Oilers in 1984. In the 1987-88 season, Miner made the show, playing 14 regular-season games with the Edmonton Oilers.
“I had been taxied up and down from the minors to Edmonton. Whenever their power play was in a slump, which was kind of funny,” said Miner of one of the most talented special-team units in NHL history.
The Oilers would win the Stanley Cup that season, and Miner was along for the ride as a reserve. When defenseman Charlie Huddy was injured with a charley horse, he thought he might see some playoff action in the semifinals against Winnipeg, but it wasn’t meant to be. But being around “the boys,” as he calls the Gretzky Oilers, was a life-altering experience.
“I was this young guy, fitting into this dynasty team, I was really humbled. Worked hard, played hard. When I’d go out with them, I’d just try to take it all in. One time, we all went out. Gretz came up to me and gave me s— for not loosening up,” Miner said. “Playing with Gretzky, being around those guys, how tight they were, the experience of it all helped me transition to my career in Europe.”
Frustrated after spending the majority of his first four seasons in the AHL, Miner informed the Oilers that he was going to play in Europe the following season, as he was without an NHL contract while Edmonton retained his rights.
He was in East Germany, preparing for a season in Vienna, when he learned his rights had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings, along with some fellow named Gretzky.
Miner ended up playing parts of two seasons with the New Haven Nighthawks of the AHL, the Kings’ affiliate. He returned to the minors after suffering an injury in Europe, and had 15 points in 17 playoff games for them during a 1989 run to the Calder Cup final. Twice he was offered long-term deals, but opted to return to Europe.
“I didn’t know if L.A. was going to wait for me if I needed more time. They were building a team around Gretz to make a Cup run. With the amount of experience I had … my game was a very offensive-minded defenseman. I didn’t know where I would fit in the mix,” he said.
He played in European leagues — Austria, Switzerland, Germany and France — from 1991 through 2008, raising a family overseas. After his retirement, his Swiss agent Gerald Metroz helped put him in touch with the Okanagan Hockey academy just outside of Vienna. He works there as a coach for 10-month stints, before returning home to Regina, Saskatchewan.
“I don’t really have any regrets. I went over there and I stayed over there. Raised my kids over there,” he said.
Redmond, the other young unsigned defenseman in the Trade, was drafted sixth overall in 1984 by the Kings and had played 147 games with L.A., notching 71 points.
“To have an opportunity to play with [the Oilers] that had just won the Stanley Cup was very exciting, but at the same token it was disappointing to see something not come to fruition the way I had expected to with Los Angeles,” Redmond told Make Way For The Kings in 2017. “I think in some ways, it was exciting because it happened at the same time that [Wayne] Gretzky came to Los Angeles, so obviously that was a very exciting time.”
There have been some inconsistencies over the years about whether Miner and Redmond were actually in the Gretzky Trade proper, or were part of an ancillary side deal. The wire services and several publications included Miner and Redmond in the deal, which was good enough for Miner.
“The way my agent put it to me was that it was the tail end of the deal,” said Miner. “When Gretz had his tribute in Sports Illustrated, everyone was showing me that my name was mentioned. I bought a couple of copies when I got back. I thought it was kinda cool.”
It’s said that hockey is a huge sport that feels like a small family, and that’s never more evident than in the odd relationship between the Gretzky Trade’s least known quantities.
Miner once attended an under-16 camp for Canadian players, and it was a who’s who of future stars: Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Pierre Turgeon, to name a few. There was also a young defenseman, fresh from the Canadian Olympic team, that skated like he was Bobby Orr out there.
That young Olympian was Redmond, the player for whom Miner would be swapped for years later as part of the Gretzky Trade.
Miner held his own, but remembers a coach sharing one specific piece of advice with him. “A coach came up to me and said, ‘You know, Johnny, for a guy your size, you should really start playing like Craig Redmond.'”
Years later, Miner would return to Cape Breton after playing in Vienna and met Redmond for “a couple of soda pops” before sharing a cab back to the hotel.
As for Gretzky, Miner said he’s never spoken to him again after the trade. “Hockey’s a small world for sure. [But] if I ran into him, I’d probably have to introduce myself. It’ll be like ‘Johnny who?'” he said.
Being a small part of the biggest trade in NHL history doesn’t define John Miner. But he doesn’t mind being a footnote.
“I can talk about it and stuff. I don’t hang my hat on it, but you really appreciate it because of the dynamic of it,” he said. “It’s an epic trade, and you’re a part of it. It’s always going to be talked about, and it keeps my name out there, I guess.”