The Big Chill

Los Angeles Magazine
December, 2001

Many wish they could swish a hoop for the Lakers or fire a strike from the mound at Dodger Stadium. My dream is to skate swiftly over a smooth sheet of white ice and sneak a frozen rubber biscuit between a goalie's legs. It's pure fantasy, especially for a guy who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My hockey credits total zero goals and 29 penalty minutes for minor crimes of passion in a no-contact roller league in North Hills.

That league and dozens like it were formed in the hockey boom set off when Wayne Gretzky brought his genius to Los Angeles. After Canada's Great One joined the Kings in 1988, the sun-washed masses discovered the world's fastest sport. Pickup games of shirtless Rollerbladers clogged beach parking lots. Parents carpooled ex-soccer kids to tournaments in fancy new ice complexes. The Kings became so cool that Goldie Hawn and Nancy Reagan came to watch the Ontario boy with the dimpled smile who was the best ever at a sport usually played with a churlish snarl.

Gretzky and Los Angeles seemed a perfect melding of time, place, and superstardom. He was married to a Hollywood actress, Janet Jones, and they occupied a gated manse on Mulholland Drive. The struggling Kings began to sell out the Forum most nights. With Gretzky as its salesman, the National Hockey League grew more American, even if most Americans could not appreciate its arcana, like icing. Soon there were more teams in the Sun Belt, from Anaheim to Miami, than in Canada. In Dallas, the Stars' new arena is the nucleus of a downtown renaissance.

A similar story of urban renewal is unfolding in Los Angeles. The Kings' success with Gretzky in the '90s begat a new owner in billionaire Philip Anschutz, who built the Staples Center and now wants to erect a 27-acre entertainment complex next door. "For what's happened in Dallas and L.A., you ultimately need owners who can write the big checks," says Tim Leiweke, Kings president and head of Anschutz's entertainment empire. "But I don't think any of this would have happened without Wayne showing us the potential."

So it's bewildering, and maybe something more, that the Kings have not honored Gretzky by retiring his uniform number. His sweater has been lofted to the rafters in lavish emotional ceremonies in Edmonton and New York, where he also starred. In fact, after his final game on April 18, 1999, the league decreed that No. 99 not be worn again. The Hockey Hall of Fame relaxed its usual waiting period to admit him immediately. Gretzky isn't even in the Kings' hall of fame.

The names of lesser alumni Marcel Dionne (No. 16), Rogie Vachon (No. 30), and Dave Taylor (No. 18) grace the wall at Staples and the team's training rink in El Segundo. Gretzky's absence is an oversight the Kings brass say they recognize -- but you can't throw a gala party if the guest of honor refuses to show up.

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The first thing to know about Wayne Gretzky is that he wasn't the game's quickest skater or hardest shooter. With his slender build, he didn't overpower anyone. His advantage was virtuosity. He saw patterns that no one else could -- his coach once said you could shut off the arena lights and he would still know the location of every player on the ice. He was at his most dangerous not charging the goalie but standing behind the opposing net. From there he could manipulate the defenders like a puppeteer. Eventually they'd commit, and that's when he would flick a laser-crisp pass onto the blade of a teammate who needed only to pull the trigger. Bang. Goal.

No athlete in any professional sport rampaged through the record books as he did. After joining the Edmonton Oilers as an 18-year-old, Gretzky was the league's most valuable player in each of his first eight seasons. Four times during that stretch the Oilers won the championship trophy, the Stanley Cup. He needed just half of his 20-year career to become the all-time point scorer, and he finished holding or sharing 61 NHL records. All of which is old news in Canada, where he has been honored with a doctorate of laws from the University of Alberta.

The Gretzky name has been famous there since he scored 378 goals in one peewee season as a ten-year-old in Brantford, Ontario. He left Canada only because the Oilers' owner needed cash and put his top star on sale. Up stepped Bruce McNall, the Kings' new owner and a clever business operator who knew an investment when he saw one. A handful of meaningless players and $15 million in cash went north, and Canada lost a national treasure. After 21 mediocre seasons, Kings fans got their taste of the big time.

First to go were the garish yellow uniforms, fine for Dionne and Vachon but not for royalty. Next were easy-to-get tickets. The Kings sold out 24 times Gretzky's first season, 31 the next, 34 the next, and every game in the 1991-92 schedule. On the ice, he delivered L.A.'s first division and conference championships. Despite a herniated disc, he carried them to the Stanley Cup finals against the hallowed Montreal Canadiens in 1993. The Kings won the first game. They were leading in the second; the cup appeared to be within reach. However, they lost their momentum after popular tough guy Marty McSorley, also an ex-Oiler, was penalized for using an illegal stick.

The Kings didn't win another playoff game for eight years, until last April. One problem was finding enough talent who could play at Gretzky's level. L.A. could groom fan favorites, like Luc Robitaille and Bernie Nicholls, but failed to amass the depth to become an elite team. They sent Nicholls to the New York Rangers for players with more championship potential. From Edmonton came Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and Charley Huddy, all of whom had etched their names on the cup years before. Soon, however, the Kings ran out of ammunition.

They stopped winning, attendance dipped, and Gretzky's demeanor soured. Hoping for another run at the championship, he forced a February 27, 1996, trade to the St. Louis Blues. It shocked recent hockey converts, but the breakup of the affair had been long in coming. Some fans from the "yellow years" resented the high ticket prices of the Gretzky era -- and losing their prime seats to celebrities -- while others pined for the simpler days. Gretzky also had a past. When he played for Edmonton, the Oilers would regularly beat up on the Kings. Forum crowds were brutal, chanting "Gretzky sucks!" As much as he did for L.A., fans voted him most popular player just twice in seven seasons.

Part of it was that in his later years he sometimes looked less than invincible. He also had the reputation of being so powerful that he ran off coaches and called the shots on trades. Still, he was the Great One, and he had a hand in 918 Kings goals. "He's the best athlete that's ever played a professional sport," current L.A. coach Andy Murray says. A large photo of Gretzky is the last piece of motivation today's Kings players see as they leave their dressing room for the Staples ice.

What they don't get to see anymore is Gretzky himself, even though he lives up the Ventura Freeway in Thousand Oaks. It has come to this. After the Kings' season opener in October, he arrived downstairs at Staples to laugh and shake hands with old friends and players. McSorley was there. So was McNall, who had been freed from prison in March after serving four years for bank fraud and conspiracy. However, the happy reunion didn't take place in the Kings dressing room but down the hall with the visiting Phoenix Coyotes.

The 40-year-old Gretzky runs the Coyotes as managing partner of the team's ownership group. The Phoenix Web site and media guide speak more glowingly of Gretzky's Los Angeles accomplishments than the Kings' media guide does. There's just a brief mention of Gretzky on the team's Web site. None of the star imports from that era -- Kurri, McSorley, Tomas Sandstrom -- appears on the alumni page. The dearth of tributes suggests an organizational amnesia toward the silver and black, the colors worn by Gretzky and friends. For the past couple of years, L.A.'s media guide has even seemed to be taking a slap at No. 99: "No player in the history of the Kings ever wore the uniform with more distinction and class than Dave Taylor."


Dave Taylor was not the player Gretzky was, of course, but he was no slouch. He skated with the Kings for 17 years and 1,111 games -- franchise records -- and scored 431 goals. He also picked up 1,589 minutes in penalties, not a few of them for standing up for the team with his fists. At 38 he retired because of head injuries. Eight times he was honored with the team's Most Inspirational Player or Unsung Hero Awards. On April 3, 1995, when Taylor's number was retired, both the Kings and their opponents -- it happened to be the Oilers -- banged their sticks on the ice in a moving salute as heartfelt cries of "Thank you!" and "We love you, Dave!" rolled down from the Forum's upper-colonnade seats.

Taylor, now the Kings' general manager, insists that the team would like to honor Gretzky with all of that and more. He rejects the suggestion, whispered around the league, of a schism between the Kings and their greatest graduate. Some say Gretzky was disappointed that management could not deliver a winning team and that McNall had sold his majority interest in the franchise in 1994. Others observe that the Kings organization is heavy with holdovers from the pre-Gretzky days -- Vachon works for the team, and former players Jim Fox and Daryl Evans are broadcasters. There are also suggestions of a personal rift between Gretzky and Taylor, who as a player lost his longtime captaincy to the new star in town.

Taylor dismisses such talk. "I have a good relationship with Wayne," he says. "He's been a huge part of the L.A. Kings." Still, it's a touchy subject. Gretzky has never hidden the fact that his first loyalty lies with Edmonton, where his teams formed an NHL dynasty. As a result, the Kings have never quite known how to position him as their star. A little more respect from their side couldn't hurt, but Gretzky hasn't chosen to associate too closely with them, either. When the Kings tried to retire his number at the end of 1999, he declined to appear. He cited McNall's absence and also said that, after retirement fetes in Edmonton and New York, another in Los Angeles would be too much. Ouch.

That was two years ago. Ouch again. Taylor approached Gretzky's representatives during training camp before this season and again on opening night, without success. He has taken to sounding both chagrined and hopeful when he vows it will happen: "We haven't picked out a date yet, but we would like to have a proper ceremony." The omission of No. 99 from the Staples wall has not gone unnoticed. Longtime Kings broadcaster Bob Miller says he was asked about it one night by a visiting star, Brett Hull of the Detroit Red Wings. "The Kings have tried on several occasions to do something," Miller says. "Only Wayne can say why it hasn't worked out."

The Gretzky camp says it's all about timing. "There's no feud," says his former agent, Michael Barnett, now general manager of the Coyotes. "Wayne just has a lot going on right now." Which is true. Between commutes to Phoenix, he is running Canada's Olympic team and is involved with a number of charities. He and his wife have four children. His business interests include endorsements, a restaurant, and roller-hockey rinks. The September 11 terrorist attacks also dampened his enthusiasm for showy tributes, according to Rick Minch, his representative: "The only ones who should be honored right now are firefighters and police officers." (That didn't stop Gretzky from flying to Edmonton in October to help retire Kurri's number.)

Gretzky did have dinner at Staples Center on opening night with Anschutz and other Kings officials. By all accounts, the meeting was cordial. Still, it's obvious that a public making-up isn't likely anytime soon. For one thing, neither side wants to acknowledge that there's anything wrong. If Gretzky allows the Kings to retire his number, they will do it. However, Minch admits it's a low priority.

For now, Kings fans should treasure Gretzky's last appearance at Staples. He had agreed to join a memorial before the season opener for mentor Ace Bailey, a team scout who was on one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center. Gretzky and Taylor walked together to center ice, bathed in a hearty ovation as their names were called. For that moment at least, talk of a feud seemed out of place. Still, when the Great One waved and left the Kings ice, you had to wonder if he'd ever be back.

©Kevin Roderick 2001

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