The first owner of the Los Angeles Kings hockey club, Canadian Jack Kent Cooke, once compared the arena he built for his team to the
Roman Colosseum. But through their 21-season history, the Kings have borne more resemblance to martyrs than lions. The National Hockey League team has
never made it into the Stanley Cup finals. And last season was no different, with a promising offence let down by a floundering defence. By the season’s end, with attendance flagging, the consistently destitute franchise had lost an estimated $6 million.
But on Aug. 9, the club’s new owner, Bruce McNall, bought a gladiator called Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers for $18 million. And on Oct. 6, the opening night of the Kings’ regular season, the Forum finally began living up to Cooke’s wishful billing.
Gretzky led his new team in an 8-2 mauling of the Detroit Red Wings. But before the game started, even before singer Roy Orbison had a chance to sing the national anthem, a packed house—with comedian John Candy, television and movie star Michael J. Fox and actress Goldie Hawn in attendance—stood and cheered for a full minute after Gretzky appeared for his first game with his familiar number 99 sewn on a new black, white and silver Kings jersey. After the
game, a beaming McNall, who also owns a film production company, said, “It was like a movie script.”
With the Kings winning all of their first four games, the Gretzky magic seemed well worth his eight-year, $24-million contract. Season-ticket sales, which last year stood at a dismal 3,500, have jumped above 9,000. Newspaper coverage of the opening of the season in Los Angeles—in past years hockey stories wound up buried in the back pages— was right next to news of the National League’s Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team on the first page of the sports section, and even made page 1 of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner the day after Game 1. But then never before had the Kings, who have usually ranked among the last-place NHL teams, attracted a sellout crowd for opening night. “When I first started following
the team here,” said expatriate Canadian Candy, “the Kings were in 18th place. Last year, they started to make some nice moves, but they were still short. Tonight, we all breathed a sigh of relief.”
Gretzky, at first looking odd not sporting the Oilers’ orange, white and blue colors,
soon made the black and silver his own, displaying all of the prowess that led him and his Edmonton teammates to four Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1988. He scored the Kings’ first goal of the opening game on his first shot on goal at 12:54 in the first period and followed up with three assists. Throughout the game, Gretzky demonstrated all of the balletic grace and skill that have made him the most valuable player in the history of hockey. “We got beaten in every department in the last 30 minutes of the game,” said Red Wings coach Jacques Demers. “Gretzky, what he does to that team, without exaggerating, is make everyone 20-per-cent better. The Red Wing team is a good team but they came at us like I haven’t seen for a long time. They made things happen. That is the influence of Wayne—making everyone play to their ability.”
Gretzky’s teammates spoke like the converted. “You are playing with the greatest player in the world,” said centre Bemie Nicholls, a Haliburton, Ont., native who scored one goal and three assists in the first game. “He is out there playing his best, and you don’t want to disappoint him.” Left-winger Luc Robitaille, a Montrealer, who scored three goals, said: “The spirit on this team is unbelievable. You know Wayne’s going to work hard on every shift. You always get a chance when you play with him so you just go in and get those rebounds.”
One of the most dramatically improved performances came from Bob Carpenter, a 25-year-old left winger from Massachusetts. Kings coach Robbie Ftorek wanted to trade Carpenter after his dismal play last season.
But when Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles, he took personal charge of training Carpenter. Gretzky’s efforts paid off when Carpenter, playing on 99’s left wing, deftly dodged opposing players to score a picture-perfect goal against the Red Wings, as well as getting two assists. “It feels like you’ve just won the lottery all by yourself,” said a glowing Carpenter afterward. Noted teacher Gretzky: “All he wants to do is play hockey and be left alone. If he’s playing well, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Winning is seen as the most important thing in Los Angeles, many of whose eight million residents hail from elsewhere and find it difficult to root for a losing team just because it is local. As a result, the Kings last year ranked ninth in popularity among athletic teams in the city, after eight professional and college baseball, basketball and football
teams. But owner McNall, a wealthy businessman who began operating a coin importing business at the age of 15, gained control of the Kings last March and vowed to reverse their fortunes. To help achieve that goal, McNall parted with $18 million, Kings centre Jimmy Carson and left-winger Martin Gelinas in return for Oilers defenceman Marty McSorley, centre Mike Krushelnyski and Gretzky. “I’ve got to do something radical to sell hockey in L.A.,” McNall said at the time. “And there’s no name in hockey like Wayne Gretzky.” Agreed Kings promotions director David Hershenson: “Los Angeles is a city that loves winners. Gretzky was the cherry on top of the sundae.”
Since arriving in Los Angeles, Gretzky—
whose West Coast friends already include Fox and Growing Pains star Alan Thicke— appears to have recovered from the tearful melancholia of his farewell Edmonton news conference in August. He and his pregnant wife, actress Janet Jones—she is due to give birth around Christmas—have bought a house in the hilly suburb of Encino, a slapshot away from singer Michael Jackson’s opulent residence. At a Meet-the-Kings gala two weeks ago at Los Angeles’s Chasen’s restaurant, a tanned Gretzky mingled amiably with the glitterati. Milton Berle, Leif Garrett and Neil Diamond ate Chasen’s famous chili from the same pot as the Wunderkind from Brantford, Ont. “Get a good immigration lawyer,” Michael J. Fox told him. “Get paid in American dollars,” added Thicke. Gretzky laughed easily.
But if Gretzky has put Edmonton behind
him, Edmonton has not shaken off the memory of its best-known export. On the night of the Kings’ opener, patrons of the Sidetrack café, five blocks from number 99’s abandoned condominium, insisted that the television channel be switched from a crucial National League pennant game. As Gretzky scored his first goal, the crowd cheered as loudly as it had for sprinter Ben Johnson’s short-lived gold-medal victory at the Olympics two weeks earlier. “It’s great to see Wayne do well there,” said one regular. “The Oilers are still going to take the cup, but the trade’s been great for hockey.”
The Oilers are beginning to recover from the initial animosity displayed by fans after the trade. Of the 134 people who initially cancelled their season’s tickets after the
trade, about half changed their minds after talks with the Oilers’ promotions department. Last week, at the Northlands Coliseum, before a crowd 180 people short of a sellout, the team easily won its opening game against the New York Islanders, 5-1, with former King Jimmy Carson scoring twice. “We certainly have enough guys left who know the feeling of winning the Stanley Cup,” said captain Mark Messier. “We know what it took and we can do it again.”
While Gretzky won new hearts and the Oilers recaptured old ones, another great name in hockey, Guy Lafleur, was starting over again with the New York Rangers at the grand old age of 37. Lafleur, who quit a heavy smoking habit to return to the ice, threw himself wholeheartedly into his resurrected career. After four regular season games, Lafleur had failed to score a goal as
the Rangers—who finished fourth in the sixteam Patrick Division last year—began with one win, one tie and two losses. But Lafleur was delighted to be back in the game. “I felt like an 18-year-old trying to make the team,” he said, “When I first started, I didn’t know what to expect. But my legs and skating are still good. I’m working on my timing. I’m not getting my shot off as quickly but I’m working on it.” General manager Phil Esposito, 46, who played one of his best seasons with the Rangers when he was 37, expressed cautious enthusiasm. Lafleur, he said, “worked his butt off in training camp. Maybe his talent isn’t as good as it was when he was 21. But I wouldn’t write him off.”
Gretzky-like in his ability to rally a team and excite fans, Lafleur led the Montreal
Canadiens to four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1976 and 1979. Before his scoring ability faded, “The Flower’’ won the Most Valuable Player award twice and led the league in scoring between 1975 and 1978. After quitting hockey in 1984, Lafleur took an $80,000-a-year public relations job with the Canadiens but quit that too, saying, “I don’t want to be a secretary.” Last month, after being rejected by the Kings and the Red Wings, Lafleur signed a oneyear contract for an estimated $275,000 with the New York Rangers. In seven preseason exhibition games, the balding Lafleui scored once and got four assists. Crowds around the circuit welcomed his return with the old chant of “Guy! Guy! Guy!” In Edmonton during the first exhibition game, fans were calling for Lafleur’s return each time he left the ice.
Aging superstar Lafleur will meet reigning superstar Gretzky when the Rangers play the Kings on Nov. 17. In the meantime, Gretzky’s first game against his former Oilers teammates is
scheduled for this week in Edmonton. Oilers co-coach John Muckier says that the Kings are “a more explosive hockey club” now that they have Gretzky. As for the Oilers, Muckier said that the team has “gone from being a great team to a very good team. But now that Wayne is gone, other players have a chance to come to the forefront.” He said that he expects great things from former Kings Carson and Gelinas. “From our standpoint,” said Muckier, “the trade was made with the future in mind. Wayne is hockey’s greatest ambassador and he’s where he should be: in Tinseltown.” Judging from Tinseltown’s reaction so far, the arrangement is mutually desirable.
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