The Great One becomes a King

NORA UNDERWOOD August 22 1988

The Great One becomes a King

NORA UNDERWOOD August 22 1988

The Great One becomes a King


Tuesday, Aug. 9,1988, is a day that few Canadian hockey fans will ever forget—the day the country lost its national hero, Wayne Gretzky, to the United States. Last week, in one of the biggest deals in sports history, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington traded the 27-year-old centre and two other Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings and, in return, got two Kings players, three first-round draft choices over five years—and $18 million. The announcement touched off a wave of sadness and anger among Oilers fans, thousands of whom called the Oilers head office and radio phone-in shows to protest the move. So did many nonhockey fans, who see Gretzky as a modest and clean-living young man worthy of their respect. But at an emotional news conference in Edmonton that night, Gretzky said that the trade had been his decision. And he added, “For the benefit of Wayne Gretzky, my new wife and our expected child in the new year, it would be beneficial for everyone involved to let me play with the Los Angeles Kings.”

But shortly after, three former Oilers stepped forward and told a different story—that Pocklington had forced Gretzky to leave Edmonton. Pocklington insisted that he had wanted Gretzky to continue playing for the Oilers. But late last week, the colorful entrepreneur lashed out at his former favorite son, saying that Gretzky had faked his tears at the Edmonton news conference. “Wayne has an ego the size of Manhattan,” said Pocklington. “I understand that, though. If people had told me how great I was day in and day out for 10 years, I’m sure my ego would be a pretty generous size, too.” And, although Gretzky maintained that the trade had been his idea, his new wife, U.S. actress Janet Jones, placed the blame on Pocklington. She added, “Wayne wouldn’t let Edmonton, fans, Canada and, most important, his teammates down without good reason. Pocklington is the reason Wayne is gone.” Later, Pocklington issued a statement saying that his remarks about Gretzky’s ego had been “taken totally out of context.”

After the announcement of the trade, there was a momentary backlash against Jones, 27, whose home and work are in Los Angeles. One caller to an Edmonton radio show compared Jones to singer John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, who was widely blamed by Beatles fans for the break!

up of the group after her marriage. Another asked, “Who wears the pants in that family?” Those comments quickly led Gretzky’s best man, former Oiler Ed Mio, to defend Jones publicly. Mio told Maclean’s later: “All of Wayne’s friends know that he did not want to leave Edmonton. Wayne

loves Canada. Wayne loves Edmonton.” Mio said that after the Oilers won the Stanley Cup over the Boston Bruins on May 26, Gretzky suspected that Pocklington was trying to trade him. He added that in early July, shortly before what was widely billed as “the royal wedding,” Gretzky confronted Pocklington, who reassured him that there was no truth to the rumors. According to Mio, a week after the wedding, Gretzky received a call from a team owner (it was the Kings’ Bruce McNall), who told the player that he had received permission from the Oilers to talk to Gretzky about a trade.

At that point, Mio added, Gretzky resigned himself to moving. Said Mio: “He was finally forced into saying, ‘Okay Peter, let’s get the deal done.’ ” Mio also said that, as part of the deal, Gretzky was to say that the move to Los Angeles was his own idea. Declared the goalie: “People who know Wayne know he would not get up and say: ‘This is a better deal. The future’s brighter in L.A.’ ”

Former Oilers defenceman Paul Coffey also said that Gretzky was dismayed about leaving the team. Coffey—who was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins last year following a bitter dispute with the Oilers management-said that he had spoken with Gretzky in mid-July and that Gretzky was deeply upset. Declared Coffey, who played for the Oilers from 1980 to 1987: “There’s no bloody way he wanted to go [to Los Angeles]. He’s a small-town guy.” Coffey added that Gretzky was “just a piece of meat,” sold by Pocklington at the height of his marketability (page 40).

The deal may, in fact, benefit everyone ¿ involved. Pocklington g will receive Kings cenö tre Jimmy Carson, “ left-winger Martin Gelinas, first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and

1993 and the $18 million. In addition, Gretzky is assured of a $1.8-million salary until 1992 and possibly a share in any increase in the team’s gate receipts, subject to negotiation. Along with Gretzky—who has set numerous scoring records over his nine-season National Hockey League career, has eight consecutive most-valuable-player awards and led the Oilers to Stanley Cup victory four times—the Kings get Oilers defenceman Marty McSorley and centre Mike Krushelnyski. After making the biggest deal in NHL history official, McNall said, “I’ve got to do something radical to sell hockey in L.A., and there’s no name in hockey like Wayne Gretzky.”

If Gretzky had played out his contract with the Oilers—which was set to expire after the 1991-1992 season— he would have become a free agent. And the longer Pocklington had waited to sell Gretzky, the less money the Oilers would have received. Pat Quinn, general manager of the Vancouver Canucks and former coach of the Kings, says that Pocklington made a good business deal. “It’s the classic move of moving along a veteran player,” Quinn said. “In this case, of course, Gretzky’s play had not started to decline, but you take advantage of a star player while he is still a star and ensure your future with a lot of new blood.”

Indeed, Pocklington was clearly trying to save the Oilers from the fate that the New York Islanders suffered. Like the Oilers, that team also won four Stanley Cups, between 1980 and 1983, led to victory by Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier. But now—with Potvin retired,

Bossy injured and Trottier past his playing peak—the team has lost its primacy. Pocklington, by trading for talented younger players now and by increasing his pick of the first-round drafts, has a good chance of building a strong team for the 1990s. At the same time, the trade to a relatively weak team has somewhat neutralized Gretzky.

For the Kings, the trade is a good short-term gain, according to Quinn, and the club is taking the risk of cutting off its future to save the franchise now. “It’s a star-oriented city,” said Quinn. “Gretzky will have an effect on their team, and if he can make them winners, then it’s going to be a tremendous move. I think they’ll bring more people into their building—perhaps even sell it out—because of Gretzky.”

And in the city of perpetual summer, that is clearly the effect that McNall is hoping Gretzky will have. Hockey in Los Angeles falls behind basketball, baseball and football in popularity, and the Kings franchise is the only one that routinely fails to fill the 16,005-seat Forum. And in terms of ability, the furthest the team has ever gone was in 1982, when the Kings beat the Oilers in the first round of playoffs, only to lose the next round.

Already, Edmonton’s loss has been Los Angeles’ gain. Both clubs’ phones were almost constantly busy last week—but in Edmonton, the calls were from dismayed Oilers fans wanting to cancel their season’s tickets. In Los Angeles, by contrast, callers’ demands were much different. Last year, the Kings sold out The Forum only five times out of 40. Average attendance was 11,667 per game, reaching 12,620 in their peak year of 1974-1975. But by the end of last week, the team had received more than 4,000 requests for season’s tickets—compared with the

usual summer weekly average of 10. Declared the Kings general manager and former Montreal Canadiens goalie Rogatien Vachon: “It’s beautiful. People are lining up in the lobby, and the

phones in the offices are jammed. It’s been crazy.”

Former Saturday Night magazine publisher Jack Kent Cooke bought the rights to a franchise in 1966 and—with no place to play his Kings—built The Forum, which the Kings opened on Dec. 30, 1967. Twelve years later, Cooke— who now owns the Washington Redskins—sold the franchise to real estate speculator Dr. Jerry Buss, who was sole owner until 1986, when McNall started to buy into the team. Over the next two years, McNall spent $25 million to get 100-per-cent ownership of the franchise, which he obtained in March, 1988. Now board chairman of coin dealer Numismatic Fine Arts Inc., McNall, 38, is also owner of a horse stable and board chairman of a movie company. Still, although he secured a place for himself in NHL history last week, even Gretzky may not be able to turn around the fortunes of his team.

But one man who says that he is certain Gretzky can do just that is his father, Walter—who added that he has now become the Kings’ No. 1 fan. And, g like other Canadian hoekig ey enthusiasts, the elder I Gretzky said that he was ç disappointed to see his I son leave Edmonton. “Af5 ter 10 years, it was his * home,” said Walter I Gretzky, adding: “Dave

Lumley, a former Oiler, summed it up right. He

said, ‘Edmonton with Wayne is a glittering city. Edmonton without Wayne is just another city in the West.’ He added that glamor to it. It’s just not the same.”

On March 31, 1980, Peter Pocklington said of Gretzky: “There is no price on greatness. They’d have my head if I sold him.” And what Pocklington’s exact reasons were for ultimately taking that chance—and setting off one of the most controversial and emotional sports deals of the century—may never be known. Shortly after his verbal attack on his former star last week, Pocklington went on a fishing trip in the Arctic and did not plan to return for a week. But one thing is certain: at the Kings’ first exhibition game in The Forum-scheduled for Sept. 28—it will be standing room only.


KERRY DIOTTE and ERIK FLOREN in Edmonton and ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles