Sports

KING OF THE KINGS

Roy MacGregor March 24 1980
Sports

KING OF THE KINGS

Roy MacGregor March 24 1980

KING OF THE KINGS

Sports

Roy MacGregor

Before it is over, the death toll will reach 27. But on this, the first of 10 days of California downpour, the rain is but a small annoyance, lightly chording on the clover-shaped pool. A dark, stubby man with the build of a Chubb vault stands beneath the eaves of his $400,000 home and scowls toward the mist lingering over his neighbor's corral. He stops talking, grabs his head and bends over double, the strain turning the 18-stitch cut over his left eye into a black caterpillar. Yet it is neither injury nor weather that bothers Marcel Dionne; it is the future. "I have got to think positive," he says in a rising voice. "Pos-i-tive!"

For four hours he has sat working over a few cans of Coors beer and the past. He has touched on the sacrifice— the marriage breakup his parents once faked, the baby his Aunt Denise lostall tied to the young Marcel’s hockey. He has traced himself from Quebec’s Drummondville through Ontario’s St. Catharines, from Detroit to Los Angeles, once running from his own demanding family, once from his own damning mouth. In awe, he has spoken of Guy Lafleur, first the boy and now the man, and whom, boy and man, Dionne has “been chasing since he was 10 years old,” in the words of his own best friend, Mickey Redmond. Only this past weekend, with Dionne a distant 16 points ahead of Montreal’s Lafleur in the National Hockey League scoring race, has that 18-year chase seemed won. And with that accomplishment may come another: with agent Alan Eagleson demanding a $500,000-per-yearplus contract from the Los Angeles Kings, Marcel Dionne is about to become the best-paid performer in the sport’s history. Either that or Marcel Dionne, ever caught on the far edge of his promise, will move on yet again. Perhaps to Switzerland, where the offers are already being made.

It is all too much to consider at once. Dionne changes the subject by pointing across the private road toward a neighbor’s yard where another expatriate, an Australian eucalyptus, leans wearily over the drive lane. “I hate those trees, you know,” he says. “They’ve got no roots, nothing to hold them up.”

North on Crenshaw Boulevard, up and just off the San Diego Freeway, Jerry Buss walks his fingers around the rim of a second rum and Coke. Buss’s jeans, Texas boots and open-necked cranberry shirt say nothing of the more than $500 million that has grown from the $83.33 a month he and a friend each

began setting aside in the summer of 1958. A year ago, perhaps sensing that the sexiest thing about real estate was his rising profit curve, Buss masterminded a $67.5-million deal to buy the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, the Lakers basketball team, the Los Angeles Forum and a 13,000-acre ranch from Californian-Canadian Jack Kent Cooke. And so, on May 29, 1979, at the age of 46, Buss capped an American dream, which began in Wyoming as the son of a divorced waitress, by driving to pick up the keys to the Forum in a RollsRoyce Camargue.

This particular Jerry Buss night, like

most others, has its visible assurances—new friend Gordon Lightfoot in to share a drink, a satin-eyed, ravenhaired comfort waiting to go home with him—but Buss is a man whose confidence needs few external trappings. “If you can learn medicine in four years,” he says in a soft, sure voice, “you should be able to learn hockey in four years.” Having known the joys of indulgence, Jerry Buss does not believe in denial. For his sweet tooth he has stocked his office with jelly beans and lollipops. For his ego he has filled a large, black picture album with scores of the women he has known. For his ambition he has locked into a vision of the Stanley Cup. And though he may tower over his star by six inches, he has come to recognize that this particular dream lies more within the reach of Marcel Dionne than himself.

“Look,” he says, tapping a cigarette tight, “you either subscribe to the crazy world we live in or you don’t. I do. I have seen people get up on a stage, shuffle their feet, and get $100,000 a week. If you can get people to pay to see you, then I don’t think we should interfere

with that process____So Marcel Dionne

is worth whatever he can get from me.”

“In what sport,” the KLAC Los Angeles sportscaster asks as a leadoff to his noon report, “is the Stanley Cup symbolic of over-all supremacy?” Cut to commercial while laid-back listeners throughout the state mull over the possibilities . . . African exploration? . . . tool manufacturing? ... making love to Mrs. Roper? . . . “The answer,” the sportscaster shouts incredulously on return, “is HOCKEY!”

In this city ice comes crushed for margaritas. It is a sports city that nailbites over the Rams and Dodgers and Lakers coming second, not the Kings standing 11th, a city where a Marcel Dionne—who came for money and escape more than hockey potential—is lost among the Garveys and Jabbars, who in turn lose out to Paul Newman’s cars and Johnny Carson’s tennis. “You couldn’t get recognized here if you were Bobby Orr,” says actor Larry D. Mann, a Canadian who attends all the Kings’ home games.

“Have something good tonight,” the Forum’s All-American Salted Peanutseller shouts as he mounts the stairs during a listless Kings’ game against the Washington Capitals. “At least peanuts ain’t so hard to swallow as this!” Down on the ice Marcel Dionne is doing what comes naturally—“dancing with the puck,” his line mate Charlie Simmer calls it—but to no avail. His delicate, perfect setup is to a de-

fenceman who simply cannot complete the obvious. A Trudeau shrug and Dionne skates off the ice, thinking to himself what he later puts into words. “What do we have?” he asks in his living room. “You see what we have. It’s terriblel”

But that is the team, not Marcel Dionne. His is a career poorly served by mere statistics. When he was awarded the Lester B. Pearson trophy last year as hockey’s most valuable player, the significance was that this award is voted on by peers, not sportswriters. And it may reflect his outspokenness and daring as much as his ability. Still, for most of this season the talk has been about Los Angeles’ Triple Crown Line

of Dionne, Simmer and Dave Taylor. But for mid-season knee injuries to Simmer and Taylor the Dionne-led line probably would have become the highest scoring line in hockey’s history. Even so, Dionne’s 126 points with nine games remaining may have established him as the premier player of the game. Dionne even brags he could score 200 points if only he played for a decent team, but he also claims, unconvincingly, that this is not what matters most to him. “He’s always saying how phoney those awards are, the trophies, the allstar teams,” says Dave Taylor. “But I’d bet on him wanting to win it badly.”

Victory, should it come, would finally stop its nearly two decades of teasing. In 1971, their first year as professionals, Lafleur was drafted first, Dionne second; and Dionne’s phenomenal first year (a record 77 points compared to Lafleur’s meagre 64) was soured when Montreal goaltender Ken Dryden won rookie of the year honors. Until this year, Marcel Dionne was known for but a single first—the five-year $1.5-million contract he signed with Los Angeles in June of 1975.

“Marcel Dionne can be our Moses,” Jack Kent Cooke announced on that occasion. “Marcel Dionne is no Moses,” retorted Ned Harkness, the Detroit Red Wing manager who had just lost Dionne. “The only tablets he should

bring down are Aspirin tablets because with him around Cooke and the Kings are going to need plenty of them.”

But now it is 1980 and the game of hockey is beginning to emerge from a prolonged mid-life crisis. In the year since the North American game discovered it could no longer get it up for the Soviets, merger between the NHL and the World Hockey Association has come about and the gutted house is showing signs of falling back in order. Though 10 of the new league’s 21 teams are projected to lose money this year,

attendance is up five per cent thanks to sellout crowds in such new NHL cities as Edmonton. Because of the Soviet example, the guerrilla hockey of the 1970s1 may be forced to switch to a creative hockey for the ’80s. And as for the sport’s main bugaboo, violence, an outcry against it is just now beginning to come from a few of the truly talented players, led by Marcel Dionne and echoed by the likes of Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito and Mike Bossy.

“If I had my

way,” says Dionne, who now serves as vice-president of the NHL Players’ Association , “we would have a full debate on violence.”

But Jerry Buss is naturally less concerned with the violence than he is with financial loss. “Other people think in words,” he likes to say. “I think in numbers.” That being so, he might well consider the following points: his Kings will lose him $900,000 this year; attendance at the Forum hockey games has declined steadily since Dionne’s arrival five years ago; and Dionne is currently looking for a new five-year contract in the area of $3 million.

But J.B., as he likes to be called, is hardly a fool. He does, after all, have a

PhD in physical chemistry and his idea of fun is to play Monopoly from memory. If he heard Team Canada’s Dr. Derek Mackesey say that, over the past few years, “Marcel Dionne has been the heart and soul of the teams we have sent to Europe,” Buss would acknowledge that this is also true of Dionne in Los Angeles, where his popularity and respect have finally risen to match his ability. The headaches have not come from Dionne, as Harkness predicted, but from those who are supposed to help him. Buss would also acknowledge the truth of what Marcel Dionne has to say about his* own team, though he would be well advised to grit his teeth while listening.

“I can’t do everything,” Dionne said one afternoon. “My hockey’s suffering. When you have a lot of people who are inferior and they don’t think like you do, then a lot of people suffer. They look for leadership but it isn’t going to come, because there’s not enough people to back it up.” Buss believes he can remedy that in a mere four years. ‘Tm a quick study,” he says. His remarkable real estate success was not by accident, but the result of careful computer programming applied to property and land. Having at one time mathematically determined how many footsteps would wear out a carpet, he may be on the verge of discovering how many head fakes will bring him the Stanley Cup.

Should Buss have any thoughts about reducing Marcel Dionne to an equation, however, he may as well forget them. Marcel Dionne is not merely a hockey player, but also an idea, one that was originally created by a huge family back in Drummondville, and is protected and prodded by that family even today. What computer could measure the grey stucco, 17-room house at 89 13th Avenue, l’Epicerie Dionne in the front, the large kitchen behind packed with many of his 13 uncles, each with a personal touch of advice for Lep’tit MarceP. And what of those late Saturday evenings, the big men sitting seriously, their territories traced in empty “quart” Molson’s bottles, the sound of sliding coins rising up toward the boy’s bedroom where he lay awake knowing that in the morning he would have the price of a new hockey stick? How could a computer be fed the letter from Les Canadiens that arrived there when Marcel was barely in peewee hockey, telling his parents to take special care of him because Senator Molson and the organization were watching? Or how Marcel would skate about the rink after a victory, the fans reaching down to touch him, and how, when he undressed, he would find dollar bills stuffed in his gloves?

And who but Marcel Dionne himself will ever understand why he not once dared to dream of playing in the NHL,

knowing that dream would be ridiculed each time he had trouble reaching over the boards to sign autographs, or when his uncles whispered in the kitchen, thinking him asleep? He was too small. It made the pressure even worse. “Hockey ... hockey ... hockey ... hockey,” he says, his voice dropping to a tense whisper. “I was going nuts."

When faraway St. Catharines Black Hawks wooed him at 17, he jumped from the Quebec to the Ontario junior league. And when outraged home-town fans threatened court action—to keep him where he belongs—his parents, on a lawyer’s advice, fabricated a ploy to make it seem as if they were separating. His mother, Laurette, brother and three sisters ended up in totally foreign St. Catharines, expenses to be met by the delighted new team.

He calls that his moment of truth. He began putting on weight, his playing blossomed and after four months his mother and sisters returned to the icy stares of Drummondville. The darling of Drummondville became the darling of St. Catharines, spoiled and worshipped. Two successive junior scoring titles followed, climaxing in 1971 when St. Catharines met Quebec Remparts to decide the best junior team in Canada. More accurately, the best junior player in Canada, for Quebec’s star was none other than his old nemesis, Guy Lafleur. Sadly, the series turned to such violence—Dionne was savaged as a “traitor” in the Quebec press, his family had garbage thrown at them and his Aunt Denise miscarried shortly after a near

riot in Quebec—that St. Catharines refused to complete the series and Quebec won by default.

Incredibly, this was not to be Marcel Dionne’s low point. He was billed as “the next Gordie Howe” from the moment he arrived in Detroit, but his four years there are remembered more for the tears and anger and open fights with management than they are for his hockey. Small talk to a Detroit Free Press reporter about his two Dobermans and the baseball bat he carried in his car ended up as the next day’s headlines: DIONNE CAN’T WAIT TO QUIT. With his dislike of the city and the team in print, Dionne was advised not to dress that night for a game against Minnesota, but he refused, sitting sobbing as he dressed and then, finally, standing up and, in a cracking voice, telling his team-mates: “I’m sorry. I get confused. I make mistakes.” Then he went out and scored two goals, leading the team to victory.

Leaving Detroit was less a problem than where to go. Montreal wanted him. And Toronto. “You bring that young man out here,” Edmonton’s Wild Bill Hunter told Eagleson associate Bill Watters, “and we’ll put his name on the licence plates: Alberta—home of Marcel Dionne.” Los Angeles, however, offered both the best money and the farthest escape. “It was the easiest way to go,” Dionne says. With the accusations trailing him—“He can rip a team apart,” Johnny Wilson, one former coach offered—he came to a team that had just had its best season, standing fourth over-all, and was offering defensive, disciplined hockey under coach Bobby Pulford. He was suspect from the

beginning. Pulford hadn’t even been told about Cooke’s deal and was so distraught at first sight of his stocky little star that he assigned him immediately to the team’s “Fàt Squad,” forced him to skate extra laps at practice with plastic sheets wrapped around his swollen stomach. But this time Dionne did not walk out on practice, as he had done in Detroit. And instead of sulking, as he might once have done, he worked and listened. “Pully thought I was a zipperhead,” Dionne now says. “If he could’ve made me crawl, he would have. I wouldn’t crawl. I respect him for what he did because after a while he knew I was not what he had heard.”

Pulford discovered, as so many others have, that the tallest part of Dionne is his pride. “I don’t want to kiss anyone’s ass,” he had decided just before turning professional and, though he has certainly suffered for his refreshing frankness, hockey’s own belated maturing over recent years has meant that Detroit’s “big baby” is now seen as Los

Angeles’ leader and highly articulate spokesman—without Dionne himself having changed much. He once said, “There seems to be a tiny part of me I can’t control.” But his railing against archaic management and gang-warfare hockey has in truth been extremely calculated. “If I had to do it again,” he says, “I’d do it. And I’d tell you why— because I know I can play for any team in this league.” Before Dionne, the outspoken hockey player was a rarity—Ted Lindsay in the ’50s, Bobby Hull to a lesser extent later—but today, with Darryl Sittler fighting management in Toronto and Guy Lafleur attacking lazy, wealthy hockey players in Montreal, the cures for the ill health of

hockey are coming, as it should, from the game’s healthier cells. “I had to say to hell with it,” says Dionne. “If that’s what hockey’s all about, I’ll say it. It depends on how much guts you have and how much you believe in yourself.”

This game is over, thankfully. Washington has come from behind to win 4-2, the contest as interesting as seeing which brand of paper towel will give

away first under the faucet. Dionne, the singular example of grace and caring among so many of those he contemptuously refers to as “slackers,” dresses quickly and alone in a far corner of the dressing room. His team-mates know better than to speak to him following a loss, as do the local reporters. Hair still dripping from the shower, he buttons up his jacket and walks away from the disgrace, momentarily pausing in the

clutch of Jerry Buss and Gordon Lightfoot. A quick handshake and Dionne leaves, silently.

Outside, in the accelerating rain, he climbs into his Mercedes and pulls away, the weight of his anger falling on the gas pedal. It is a time for avoiding thought. There is little concern for making more than $500,000 a year or even for one day being as well-known in Los Angeles as Lightfoot, as Buss has promised he one day will be. Playing for the Kings, there is little to be gained by contemplating the game of hockey, where failure is beyond a single man’s prevention. Better instead to think of baseball, a sport he loves better, and how he treasures those suspended moments in the batter’s box because “when you’re up there you’re only one man, alone — nobody can help you.”

He knows that it is nearing midnight. With the time difference it will shortly be morning in Drummondville, and the radio in the big house on 13th Avenue will report that the home-town wonder managed but a single assist in the loss, and he knows that it will not be enough. “They want me to win the scoring title so badly,” he will say next afternoon. “More than I want it.”

But he will also know that words are not necessarily truth. “If I was not Marcel Dionne and he was not Guy Lafleur,” he will say slowly, “maybe then it wouldn’t matter so much.” Then he will say, “But . . .” And after that, nothing.