King No More

March 11, 1996
March 11, 1996

Table of Contents
March 11, 1996

Cover Image
  • 2

King No More

By forcing Los Angeles to trade him, Wayne Gretzky escaped a losing team—but he also tarnished his image.

It was an odd little era, as remarkable for the things that didn't happen as for the things that did. The Gretzky years? All the Los Angeles Kings got out of them were increased ticket prices (choicest seats rose from $17.50 to $90), a much needed revenue stream from expansion fees (thanks to Gretzky, a regional sport became national in the 1990s as teams were added in San Jose, Tampa Bay, Miami and Anaheim) and, despite all that, bankruptcy. It was not that much of a success story when you think about it. A good idea going in—star-driven Los Angeles trades for the greatest star in hockey—but not so brilliant coming out. After 7-1/2 seasons together the Kings were again well under .500, attendance was in decline, and Wayne Gretzky, hockey's most important resource, was distracted, miserable and 35 years old. And in all that time the Kings didn't win a Stanley Cup. That's the main thing that didn't happen.

There was some excitement, no question. In California, Gretzky conferred glamour and legitimacy on a sport that had been basically a cult activity. His legacy will outlive his playing days as long as kids clamor for ice time at local rinks. But, really, the whole experiment was a wash professionally, and now that it's over, everybody seems a little worse off for having participated in it. As a fresh, slightly less anticipated era begins in St. Louis, where Gretzky resumes his career with the Blues, the Kings and Gretzky struggle to recover dignity and reputation. If the Gretzky era didn't end in outright disaster, it certainly finished with more disappointment than his legend would seem to have allowed.


Suddenly the Great One, whose 61 NHL records only partly account for his role as the game's ultimate ambassador, finds himself defending his sense of loyalty and honor and even the remains of his ability.


The Kings, of course, will be a long time recovering. Despite their appearance in the Stanley Cup Final three years ago, when they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games, the club is in disrepair. The owner who brought Gretzky to L.A., Bruce McNall, filed for bankruptcy in May 1994, sold the Kings that spring and awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges in connection with the operation of several of his businesses. The team's new owners, Philip Anschutz and Edward Roski Jr., are committed to a rebuilding process, which Los Angeles fans do not usually suffer gladly. The three players who arrived from St. Louis last week (along with two draft picks) in the Gretzky trade—forwards Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson
and Patrice Tardif—do not suggest that the process will be speedy, either; Vopat is the only blue-chip prospect among them. Regardless of the owners' avowed intentions and supposedly deep pockets, their failure to re-sign Gretzky marks yet one more misfire in a history of poor trades and drafts for the franchise.

But looking even worse than the Kings, who at least have the benefit of time and of fans' eventual amnesia, is Gretzky, who has been subjected to a surprising backlash and might not play long enough to outlast it. Suddenly the Great One, whose 61 NHL records only partly account for his role as the game's ultimate ambassador, finds himself defending his sense of loyalty and honor and even the remains of his ability.

Questioning Gretzky's ability was one thing; he already has 18 professional seasons under his belt, and he scored just 15 goals in 62 games for the Kings this season. "How much can he really have left?" asked one anonymous hockey executive in Canada's Financial Post. "It tells you a lot when you see how many teams didn't even make an offer on him."

But worse, much worse, was the revisionist history being written about one of the most popular athletes of all time. So now he was a bad guy? In the days after Gretzky orchestrated his leaving by publicly demanding that the Kings either acquire top-notch talent to make a run at the Cup immediately or trade him, the newspaper columns were lively with quotes from anonymous—always anonymous—general managers who questioned his, uh, team spirit. "Wayne is out for himself and himself only," read one blind quote in Toronto's Globe and Mail. And writers all over North America were remembering instances that cast Gretzky—the NHL's all-time assist leader, for goodness' sake—as a selfish and manipulative player.

Manipulative, yes, as any superstar might be these days. When you take a close look at it, all that happened is that Gretzky, who was in the final year of his three-year, $25.5 million contract with the Kings and was about to become an unrestricted free agent, began examining his options. Depending upon your point of view, he then either held a gun to the Kings' heads or he gave them fair notice of his intent to leave so they might obtain something in a trade.

Barry Melrose, the Kings' coach from 1992 to '95, who is an analyst with ESPN, thinks it's the latter. "You can't blame Wayne for this," Melrose says. "He's working under rules that were going to make him a free agent. I think this is coming out wrong, and I don't like the slant. The idea that he's a spoiled brat is ridiculous."

Still, that is the idea. In recent weeks Gretzky has been perceived in some quarters as a selfish bully for using his superstar clout and impending free agency to try to mold an immediate winner, at whatever cost, so he could get another Stanley Cup for himself. As Gretzky campaigned to become part of a better team, and as the Kings went further south and his own play declined, it became popular to characterize his year as a kind of holdout, the difference being that he was actually collecting a paycheck.

The league became concerned, watching its star attraction appear on the evening news, looking more and more wan each night as the saga played out. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman admits to being alarmed at the nature of the "public spectacle." At least one non-anonymous general manager concedes developing a certain disappointment in Gretzky as the affair dragged on.

"I know all players today approach the game in a businesslike fashion," says Vancouver Canucks general manager Pat Quinn. "After all, they're dealing with an asset that happens to be themselves. But his strategy seems to have backfired. I'm like the rest of the fans out there. I didn't like what I saw."

The Kings didn't exactly discourage anyone from putting that spin on the situation. During a Kings-Rangers broadcast from Madison Square Garden in January, longtime Kings play-by-play announcer Bob Miller quoted a New York Daily News column: "And when the Rangers got swept against the Flyers last spring and looked too old and too slow, [Mark] Messier did not go looking for another contender. He did not look to force a trade or beat a contract." According to the Los Angeles Times, Miller did not get around to reading the part of the column that pointed out that Messier had held out and missed training camp in 1994 in an attempt to negotiate a new deal.

The upshot was that Gretzky, playing just 18 minutes a game for a terrible team and resigned to a change, was looking childish. "Why does it seem that the halo has started to tilt?" wrote an Edmonton Journal columnist. And a relatively unblemished career was being examined for behavioral pockmarks. Remember after the Kings lost to the Canadiens in the '93 finals, and in what should have been a celebration of the Cup's 100th anniversary, he hogged the spotlight with his maybe-I'll-retire comment? Notice how he maintains a generous coterie of writers and broadcasters, how he seems to organize trades for friends and former teammates?

He is shrewd, well aware (too aware, some say) of his accomplishments and his impact on the game. Wouldn't you be if, midway through your career, a former employer—the Edmonton Oilers in this case—erected a statue in your honor? In the hours before his trade was announced to the rest of the world on Feb. 27, Gretzky began dialing up hockey writers on both sides of the border, giving about a dozen of them the pride of a "scoop." A courtesy to old friends (not all of them were
old friends, though) or just politicking?

Gretzky admits he's hurt by all this, but in his newfound excitement of playing alongside Brett Hull on the Blues, he hardly appeared defeated by public sentiment. After his first game with the Blues, in which he scored a breakaway goal in a 2–2 tie against Vancouver, he was babbling like a school kid, talking about the playoff-like buzz of playing for St. Louis. Hockey was fun again.

"I want to win," he said last Friday, standing outside a practice rink in Vancouver. "To criticize me for stepping forward to complain about mediocrity, well, for people to accept losing in life, that's not right."

Still, Gretzky says he came very close to doing just that, "to taking the comfortable way out." Never mind that the Kings had failed again to upgrade the team in the off-season; he would have re-signed if the club had offered a contract extension as recently as November. He and his wife, Janet, had built a new home on a golf course north of Los Angeles. His kids (Paulina, 7, Ty, 5, and Trevor, 3) were happy in school. Gretzky liked everything about living in the glamour capital of this continent. "I could go into a restaurant," he says, "and I'm the Number 6 celebrity. I wouldn't be bothered." He could have remained an institution, a civic monument fortified by loyalty and history.

However, as the season dragged on, Gretzky began to understand his looming leverage. The Kings were hopeful of signing him; on the day of the trade, they offered him a long-term contract that would have retained him in an executive capacity after he retired. Gretzky could have been a King for life. Yet the team was equally determined to forge ahead with a youth movement. "I
might have seen a Stanley Cup as a King," Gretzky says, "but I would have been on the golf course, not the ice."

Meanwhile, the man who ushered in the Gretzky era in Los Angeles wonders if hockey can survive there without the Great One's star power. "This is not Vancouver," McNall says. "The people won't just show up." McNall is sympathetic to the new owners but thinks they might be missing the big picture. After all, Gretzky is the guy who filled the Forum and who assured TV executives
and cereal makers that hockey was a coast-to-coast sport. "He changed the face of hockey," McNall says. "Not only by bringing in expansion but by bringing in TV contracts with ESPN and Fox. He was instrumental in making this a major sport."

Gretzky still has his supporters, people who think that he is much more than a marketing icon. And he still has the kind of on-ice charisma to generate interest wherever he goes. He'll have that for a long time, no matter the sniping.

All the same, though, there is that sniping. Unfortunate reservations about his character will haunt one of sport's last good guys, maybe forever. There could be a dawning awareness that over the last 7-1/2 years Gretzky was good for hockey in general but not for the Kings in particular—that he left them no better than when he found them. The end of the Gretzky era, with its attendant ugliness, ought to remind any superstar who would skate effortlessly into history that he should safeguard, really conserve, his reservoir of goodwill. Because he'll need every
drop on the way out.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ROGERS COVER PHOTO A SUPER BOWL QUARTERBACK AND THE GREATEST HOCKEY PLAYER OF ALL TIME JUMP TEAMS IN CONTROVERSIAL MEGADEALS IS NEIL O'DONNELL OVERPRICED? IS WAYNE GRETZKY OVER THE HILL? [Neil O'Donnell]COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK COVER PHOTO [See caption above--Wayne Gretzky] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Wayne Gretzky]COLOR PHOTO: ADAM STOLTMAN After Buchberger KO'd Gretzky with a cheap shot, Murray Baron went after the offending Oiler. [Kelly Buchberger fighting Murray Baron as man attends to prone Wayne Gretzky] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [Herschel Walker] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Now in St. Louis, Gretzky wants to stick around for a couple of years and win another Stanley Cup. [Wayne Gretzky]