Bruce McNall was tired. The sun had set in Los Angeles last Friday night but McNall was still at the office returning calls before heading out to another obligatory engagement. He has recently added the full-time job of National Hockey League chairman to his other business duties. “I don’t have the freedom to have as much fun as I would like,” he acknowledged in a voice raspy from overuse. Certainly some of the fun has gone out of owning the stumbling Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. “I don’t enjoy firing coaches—although I didn’t do it myself,” he said. “And I don’t enjoy losing and being three and eight.” But McNall insists that he is not discouraged. “One of the reasons I have been reasonably successful,” said the millionaire coin dealer and sports entrepreneur, “is that I look at the glass as half full, not half empty.”
But it was tough to find a bright side in the reports last week that Wayne Gretzky, the star of McNall’s Los Angeles Kings and hockey’s mother lode, had suffered a back injury that could end his career. Along with the McNall with Ismail at Argonaut signing: trying to prepare for life after Gretzky apparent attitude problem that has —
afflicted Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, the young kick returner the Argonauts paid a small fortune to acquire last year, the foundations of McNall’s sports empire suddenly appeared as vulnerable as an athlete’s gimpy knee. “You can look at the Gretzky situation, and the fact that the Argos haven’t performed well, and it is pretty depressing, no question about it,” McNall said. “But Canada is going through a terrible recession yet we are still getting 30,000 fans in Toronto.” Still, employees at McNall Sports & Entertainment in Los Angeles did not conceal their concern. “We’ve been holding life-afterGretzky meetings for two years,” said Kings president Roy Mlarkar. “But the fact is we’re not prepared for it now, and we’re never going to be prepared for it.”
Some of the gloss began coming off McNall a year ago, when Forbes magazine alleged that there were inconsistencies between McNall’s statements about himself and the facts. The magazine said that, contrary to the biography McNall’s company has distributed, McNall did not attend Oxford, and he did not trade coins for such millionaires as J. Paul Getty and Howard Hughes, as he has suggested, “lama salesman,” he told Maclean’s by way of expla-
nation. “So from time to time, maybe I do get carried away.”
Despite winning the Grey Cup last year, the Argonauts—and Ismail—have also disappointed. The speedy Ismail has been used sparingly on the field, and has done little to cultivate interest in the CFL off it. Gate revenue increased by just $2.8 million—not enough to cover the Rocket’s annual salary, which is about $4 million. And, with the Argonauts languishing in the basement of the CFL’s eastern division, Ismail has become testy. In a Sept. 13 game against Calgary, the 22-year-old lost his temper and kicked Stampeder Andy McVey in the head.
Disgrace: McNall says that he is disappointed that “the fans are not coming in the droves that we would like them to,” and this month publicly called the Argos play “a disgrace.” But he says that he is not disappointed with Ismail, even defending him over the kicking incident. “I think the Rocket is trying so hard to be one of the guys that when he saw one of his teammates being hurt, he just rushed to defend him,” McNall explained. But Suzan Waks, vicechairman of McNall Sports & Entertainment, has already said that McNall would not stand in
his way if Ismail wanted to move back to the United States to play football for the Los Angeles Raiders, who hold his rights there. So far, Ismail has shown no sign of taking the offer. “You think [the Raiders] are going to pay me this kind of money? No way,” Ismail told The Sporting News a year ago.
Gretzky will continue to pull a $3.5-milliona-year salary until 1998, whether he plays or not, and McNall says that insurance will pay the bill. The owner also denied speculation that the Kings’ cable-television revenues are tied to Gretzky playing. But McNall has always been candid about Gretzky’s importance to the Kings. “I need Wayne as long as possible,” McNall said in an interview last spring. “Wayne does so many things to bring in money. I have him say two words and sign a stick to some guy and it comes back as a half-million worth of advertising. And when he says enough—when he quits—the only question for me will be: Have we built up enough of a tradition in this city to continue to sell a wonderful sport?” The chance to find out may come sooner than McNall ever expected.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.