By Los Angeles standards, Wayne Gretzky is not your typical hockey fan. He shows up early at the Forum, stays past the midpoint of the third period, pays attention to what's happening on the ice, rarely schmoozes with second-rate celebrities at rinkside and is never seen chattering into one of those obnoxious portable cellular phones.
Hardly the type to lead cheers, he instead favors quiet observation from his seat in Los Angeles King owner Bruce McNall's private box. Gretzky had been even more reserved than usual as, through last Saturday's 6-4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Kings skated to a 14-6-2 record and into first place in the Smythe Division. It has been difficult, Gretzky admitted, for him to watch L.A. play great without the Great One. "I wish I could be part of it," he said. "It's disappointing to me that I haven't been part of it, because this team is really exciting."
To say the least. With a new, aggressive style and a rejuvenated Jari Kurri centering one of the best lines in the NHL, the Kings have looked less like the fourth-or fifth-place club they were supposed to be this season and more like the Stanley Cup contenders they were supposed to be in seasons past.
When Gretzky announced in September that a herniated disk in his upper back would keep him out of action indefinitely, maybe even forever, Los Angeles was written off by just about everyone except its new coach, 36-year-old Barry Melrose. "We read all that stuff," Melrose says. "What people failed to realize was that although Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player who ever played, he's not the only great player we have here."
After trying and discarding a couple of other candidates, Melrose asked the 32-year-old Kurri, a former All-Star winger who slumped to 60 points last year, to replace Gretzky as the center on the Kings' No. 1 line. Playing between perennial All-Star Luc Robitaille and veteran Tomas Sandstrom, Kurri has been sensational. With 16 goals and 30 assists for 46 points through last weekend, he was second in the league scoring race, behind Pittsburgh's ethereal Mario Lemieux. Robitaille (38 points) and Sandstrom (30) weren't far off Kurri's pace. "Every once in a while you see a line that's magic together," Melrose said last week. "Right now, these guys are magic."
For Sandstrom, the spell was broken along with his left forearm when he took a wicked hack from Toronto's Doug Gilmour in the second period on Saturday. He'll be out four to six weeks, testing Melrose's contention that the Kings aren't as thin as they appear to be.
Last year there was no magic at all, only misery. Expectations had been heightened at the outset of the season when Kurri, a superior defensive forward and four-time 50-goal scorer who had flourished as a Gretzky linemate during the Edmonton Oiler glory days of the mid-'80s, abandoned a self-imposed exile in Italy to rejoin the Great One in Los Angeles. On opening night Kurri had a hat trick; then he vanished for the rest of the season, playing like a has-been as the Kings stumbled to a second-place finish in the Smythe and an embarrassing first-round exit in the playoffs.
During the past off-season, though, Kurri trained harder than he ever had, and he arrived in camp leaner and meaner—and with a King-sized chip on his shoulder. "I still felt I could play in this league," Kurri says. "Everyone said the Kings were too old. That hurt me. Then Wayne was gone, and people said we won't even make the playoffs. I thought, We'll show them."
Marty McSorley, the Kings' tough-guy defenseman, credits Melrose with performing a heart transplant on a team whose pulse was faint at best. "We've always thought we had good players here," he says. "This is the first year that we've had a good coach. It's that simple."
Tom Webster coached Los Angeles to its lone division title, in 1990-91, and despite last season's debacle, his three-year winning percentage of .554 is the best in the franchise's history. But from the way the Kings now talk about Webster, who was fired in an organization-wide shake-up last spring, you would think his tenure had been the worst. The players use words like unprepared, hypocritical, detached; they scoff openly about the way Webster would leave the bench for the runway or the dressing room in the third period of close games—to flee the pressure, the players say.
The players have no such complaints this year. Melrose, an insatiable reader of self-help and pop-psychology books, is a disciple of Anthony Robbins, author of Awaken the Giant. "He changed my life," says Melrose, an NHL journeyman in the 1980s who became an instant success as a major junior and minor league coach. Last spring, after his Adirondack Red Wings won the American Hockey League playoffs, Melrose found that he was a hot commodity. The parent Detroit Red Wings wanted him to join them as an assistant, poised to succeed Bryan Murray as coach at the end of this season. But when McNall came calling with an immediate job offer, a four-year, $1.2 million contract and a $100,000 signing bonus, Melrose decided California was the place he ought to be, so he loaded up the truck and moved to...El Segundo. But having settled near the ocean, Melrose soon found his new job would be no day at the beach when Gretzky revealed his injury.
Rather than despair, Melrose set about persuading these Kings that they could be significantly better than last year's team, even without Gretzky. Says defenseman Paul Coffey, who also played with Gretzky in Edmonton, "Sometimes, if you lose your top player, it pulls you together, the way it pulled the Penguins together the last two years when Lemieux was hurt. But by no means are you going to be able to replace a Wayne Gretzky, a potential 200-point man, in your lineup. With Wayne, we'd be that much better."
Of course, they would also be that much older, even as they're trying to phase in youngsters. And the strain of physical therapy seems to be taking its toll on the once-boyish Gretzky, who has finally started looking like a man who turns 32 in January. (By the way, oh, Great One, that mangy goatee has got to go.)
The Kings swear they miss him, but they don't play as if they do. Still, it's easy to imagine the old Gretzky reveling in Melrose's push-'em-up attack. Kurri wouldn't mind a bit moving back to the wing to make room. It could happen. Gretzky says he hopes to be skating in February and playing in March.
By then, Wayne's World may have been irrevocably transformed into Melrose Place.