So how are things with the new King of L.A., Wayne Gretzky? In a word, terrific. The Kings are winning games at a rate unprecedented in the franchisees 22-year history, and owner Bruce McNall, who in August shelled out $15 million for Gretzky, is getting a handsome return on his investment far sooner than expected.
If the Kings seem surprised by their 19-10-1 record, it is probably because two decades of lopsided losses have accustomed them to life in or near the Smythe Division cellar. And let's face it, even with the Great One and the six other players the Kings acquired in the off-season, nobody figured L.A. would be contending for first place in the division in mid-December. "It's not going to happen overnight." Gretzky had said in the preseason—and he was right. It took close to a week.
The Kings jumped out to a 4-0 start before tailing off in mid-October with losses to the division's elite teams, Calgary and Edmonton, by a combined score of 19-10. Since then, though, L.A. has been one of hockey's hottest outfits, winning 12 of its last 17 games, scoring goals by the bushel and drawing larger crowds than ever before.
Gretzky—and most everybody else—had underestimated the magnitude of the effect he would have. Says left wing Luc Robitaille, "You see him working so hard every second. This is the best player in the world, so how can you not try to work that hard?"
December 19, 1988
Robitaille is also grateful that opponents' top checking units are usually preoccupied with trying to stop Gretzky. That frees Luc and his linemates, center Bernie Nicholls and wing Dave Taylor, to wreak some havoc. L.A. had scored 157 goals before its 4-3 win over the plummeting New York Islanders last Saturday, by far the most in the league (the Oilers, still smarting from the absence of a certain someone, were a distant second in goals, with 146, and were third in the division standings, behind Calgary and L.A.). Ripples of the Gretzky Effect were touching everyone on the team. Glenn Healy's goals-against average, a pedestrian 3.97, put him in the middle of the pack among NHL goalies, but because the guys in front of him were averaging more than five goals a game, he led the league in wins, with 14.
Steve Duchesne, the Kings' slick offensive defenseman, had a plus-38 rating, the best plus-minus mark in the league—and in the history of the Kings. Nicholls is the most dramatic example of a King whose play has been elevated by Gretzky. "Wayne has been Wayne and Bernie has been, well, incredible," says team captain Taylor. Nicholls, 27, was the NHL's third-leading point scorer, with 33 goals and 37 assists at week's end, behind Gretzky and Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux.
"Playing with Wayne is one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me," says Nicholls. In 1980, as a 19-year-old junior hockey star, Nicholls scored 152 points for the Kingston Canadians, and his future looked golden. But that year the Kings selected him in the entry draft.
From 1982 to '88 Nicholls scored 36 goals a year and earned a reputation for durability. He broke his jaw in January 1984 and played the rest of the season with his mouth wired shut. Last season, when Nicholls missed 10 games because of a broken finger, he ended a three-and-a-half-year playing streak of 267 consecutive games.
"I paid my dues." he says. "We were a lousy team for a long time. We would be out of the playoff picture by January or February."
Nicholls's eight points in a 9-3 win over Toronto on Dec. 1 broke a club record. But it's important to note that his first goal in the Leaf game, a splendid, shorthanded effort, could have been set up by only one man. Ragging the puck, keeping it away from two Toronto players in his own end, Gretzky appeared to be gazing into the Forum's cheap seats when he suddenly wristed a 70-foot pass to Nicholls, who gathered it at center ice and converted the breakaway.
At Gretzky's request, his roommate on the road this season is the enigmatic Bob Carpenter. L.A. is Carpenter's third stop in his eight years in the NHL; both of his previous clubs, the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers, called him a disappointment before unloading him. In the 1984-85 season he scored 53 goals for the Caps, but in the next three seasons he had 27, nine and 19. If he is ever to regain his old form, it will be as Gretzky's left wing.
"Maybe he did get lucky a few times the year he got 53," says Gretzky. "But Bobby is a legitimate 40-goal scorer."
Carpenter, 25, is clearly buoyed by Gretzky's faith in him. "Wayne has helped me in a lot of ways," says Carpenter. "Just by his being here, we have 20 new players; it's like we're a different team in the same city."
Still, things in L.A. are not entirely rosy. Gretzky and coach Robbie Ftorek have struck sparks off one another. An incident during L.A.'s 8-3 romp over Detroit in Joe Louis Arena on Nov. 23 fueled a firestorm of speculation. Frustrated after being fleeced of the puck by the Red Wings' Steve Yzerman, who then scored, Gretzky smashed his stick against the crossbar. Ftorek benched him for eight minutes, even though Gretzky already had five assists and a goal—the 600th of his NHL career—in the game. To add to Gretzky's embarrassment, a contingent of his family and friends had made the 150-mile drive from Brantford, Ont., for the game.
"I'm sorry about that, Wayne," Ftorek reportedly told Gretzky after benching him, "but I'm trying to teach these guys some composure."
"If you want to teach...teach in New Haven," Gretzky reportedly replied. "We're trying to win a Stanley Cup."
Ftorek refused to elaborate on what later happened. "What's said in the dressing room stays in the dressing room," he says. "Its family stuff." Gretzky would only say that the incident has been "totally exaggerated."
Another possible pitfall for the Kings is the level of competition in the Smythe. The Kings are a sterling 16-3 outside the division and 3-7-1 within (1-4 against Calgary and Edmonton). But Gretzky is thoroughly upbeat. "What we lack right now is patience," he says. "We've got to have the confidence to know that if we're down 2-1 or 3-2 in a game, we don't have to take chances. We're going to score goals."
Nicholls, for one, is ready to do just that. The day after his eight-point dissection of the Leafs, he admitted he had been too excited to sleep. "You have to understand," he said, with the giddiness of a child on Christmas morning, "I haven't had many highlights in my career."