In a steamy passageway beneath the stands at Maple Leaf Gardens, Wayne Gretzky brushed the sweat from his famous forehead, took a swig of beer and allowed himself a moment to gloat. It may not have been the greatest night of his life, but it was close. The Los Angeles Kings would be playing in June, and for the first time in a long time, all was right with Wayne's world.
"I don't think I've ever had as much personal satisfaction," Gretzky said last Saturday night, after his three goals and an assist had lifted the Kings to a 5-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the seventh game of the Campbell Conference finals. "When you're Wayne Gretzky, you take the roses that are thrown at you, but you've also got to take the heat. Well, I took the heat, and I answered the bell."
This is Gretzky's sixth trip to the Stanley Cup finals, but the first for Los Angeles in the franchise's 26-year history. Gretzky played on four Cup-winning teams as an Edmonton Oiler before he was traded to the Kings in 1988, but his California sojourn has been one of promise unfulfilled. It seemed as though it would remain that way forever. A herniated thoracic disk kept him sidelined for L.A.'s first 39 games this season, and his teammates feared that the leading scorer in NHL history was through at 32.
But the back got better, and, baby, Gretzky came back, scoring 16 goals and assisting on 49 others in 45 regular-season games. Most important, he was playing his best hockey as the playoffs neared. So were the Kings, who came together at just the right time for their first-year coach, Barry Melrose. They finished third in the Smythe Division and then knocked off the second-place Calgary Flames and the first-place Vancouver Canucks to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 1969.
"Barry made it clear from the first day of training camp that getting to the playoffs and losing in the first or second round, like the Kings always seem to do, was not what he had in mind," says goaltender Kelly Hrudey, who has redeemed himself with an excellent postseason. "Nobody has ever put this kind of pressure on us."
"Pressure?" says Gretzky, with a smile as wide as Lake Ontario. "This isn't pressure. It's fun."
The playoffs have certainly been fun for Gretzky, who last Thursday night scored a power-play goal 1:41 into overtime to give Los Angeles a 5-4 victory that tied the series at three games apiece. Afterward, Melrose stood a few feet from Goldie Hawn in the Kings' celebrity-filled dressing room at the Great Western Forum and practically guaranteed that his team would advance to face the Montreal Canadiens in the Cup finals.
"We're going to Montreal," Melrose said. Then he repeated it. Twice.
Asked if he was worried that the Leafs might post the quote on their bulletin board, Melrose scoffed. "I may be wrong," he said, "but I don't think a bulletin board has ever won a Stanley Cup."
Neither has a team with a coach who wears his 'do spiky on top and shoulder-length in the back. "He spends more time on his hair than I do," says Melrose's equally flamboyant wife, Cindy, who harangued Canadian television commentator Don Cherry after Game 6 for what she considered unflattering remarks about her husband. She also held up a sign outside the broadcast booth that read, SOUR GRAPES. "She's like Tammy Wynette," an admiring Cherry later told his audience on Hockey Night in Canada. "She stands by her man."
Melrose, a 36-year-old former defense-man who spent two seasons as a player with the Maple Leafs, knows how to take care of himself. During Game 1, after Los Angeles defenseman Marty McSorley had laid out center Doug Gilmour, Toronto's best player, with a punishing check, Maple Leaf coach Pat Burns had to be restrained from rushing the King bench. Melrose egged him on by puffing out his cheeks in an impression of his corpulent counterpart. "Get a——haircut!" was Burns's weak comeback.
Melrose, instead, cut off criticism of his team—which had played miserably in a 4-1 loss in Game 1—by taking most of the heat upon himself. That was a good move, like most of the others that Melrose has made. Says Gretzky, "I think I play for the best coach in hockey."
He may be right. Especially when you consider how Melrose has handled the Kings' scary goaltending situation. Hrudey, who wears a samurai headband on the ice, struggled so terribly in midseason that he was replaced first with a rookie, Robb Stauber, and then, more embarrassing, with a 33-year-old minor league journeyman, Rick Knickle, who had never before played in an NHL game. "This was my most frustrating season," says the 32-year-old Hrudey, who finally worked his way back into the lineup when the other goalies faltered. "I knew I had it in me. The biggest obstacle was trying to get the respect back from my teammates."
Gretzky never lost his teammates' admiration, but they seem to have rediscovered their sense of awe. "That was one of the best games I've ever seen him play," said forward Luc Robitaille after Saturday's hat trick. Added defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, "Unbelievable. There's no one like Gretz."
In abandoning the modesty that has been his trademark for most of his 14-year NHL career, Gretzky has embraced the confidence and nonchalance the Kings have exuded in this postseason. It's the same sort of confidence the Los Angeles Raiders made fashionable in their NFL heyday. It's only bragging if you can't back it up, and at week's end the Kings were backing it up with authority.
"It took five years of hard work for me to win a championship with Edmonton," Gretzky says. "This is my fifth year with the Kings. Maybe it's our time."