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Gretzky Era Faces Off Tonight for the Kings

Times Staff Writer

Glenn Healy remembers the first time he faced Wayne Gretzky.

“Rollie Melanson played the first 2 periods, then I came in,” the Kings’ goaltender said. “One of the first shots I faced was (against) Gretzky on a breakaway.

“He gave me about six moves--I think I fell for every one of them--but he got his shot up, and somehow I made the save.

“I said to myself, ‘I stopped Wayne Gretzky. I’m ready to retire.’ ”

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Healy didn’t hang up his mask, though, and Gretzky is now a King. That alone should make life easier for Los Angeles goaltenders, beginning tonight, when the Kings--their future wed to No. 99, as the result of a $15-million dowry from owner Bruce McNall--take the ice against the Detroit Red Wings at the Forum in the opening game of the 1988-89 National Hockey League regular season.

The Kings allowed a league-high 359 goals last season, and haven’t given up fewer than 300 since 1980-81, when--not coincidentally--they won a franchise-record 43 games. Gretzky did more than his share of damage, scoring 58 goals and assisting on 112 others against the Kings in his 9 seasons with the Edmonton Oilers.

But although it will be a relief for Healy and Melanson to have to face Gretzky only in practice, it remains to be seen whether they will be spared the usual onslaught of goals from the rest of the league. The Kings, after all, have had no trouble scoring goals throughout the ‘80s, beginning with the triple-crown line of Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor and continuing through last season’s goal-dust twins, Jimmy Carson and Luc Robitaille.

Will Gretzky, as great as he is, really make a difference to a team that treats its own zone like a mine field?

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“Absolutely,” said Pat Quinn, the former King coach who jumped ship to become president of the Vancouver Canucks in a celebrated tampering case.

“For example, the triple-crown line used to get all the credit for everything. It was the triple-crown line and 16 also-rans.

“From what I know of Gretzky, he’ll diffuse some of that. To me, the stars are carried by the other guys. The other guys have to be made to feel important about their contribution, and Gretzky will do that.”

Quinn had only praise for McNall’s efforts to acquire Gretzky, even though it cost the Kings dearly, both in money and in talent, as Carson, No. 1 pick Martin Gelinas and three future No. 1 draft choices were sent to Edmonton.

“Obviously, I don’t like the fact that the team we have to beat to make the playoffs now has Gretzky in the lineup,” Quinn said. “But it was a great move.”

It is the Kings’ misfortune to be in the same division as two of the league’s powerhouses--Edmonton and Calgary. Can they realistically expect to go higher than third, which would relegate Winnipeg to fourth?

“I don’t see why not,” Quinn said. “I’ve always been one who believed you look at what you can do, not what you can’t.”

A fast start would help, but the Kings are 0-4-3 in their last seven home openers and they face a brutal opening month. They play Detroit, Calgary, the New York Islanders, Boston and Philadelphia, all at home, then travel to Calgary and Edmonton, for Gretzky’s first game against his former teammates. He has said he expects that to be one of the toughest days of his life.

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Last season, the Kings went through 13 defensemen, with only Steve Duchesne playing as many as 60 games.

The renovation on the blue line continues, as General Manager Rogie Vachon signed Tim Watters, a free agent from Winnipeg; traded Jay Wells to Philadelphia for Doug Crossman; promoted 19-year-old rookie Wayne McBean and on Monday claimed two defensemen in the waiver draft, Jim Hofford from Buffalo and Dale Degray from Toronto. Coach Robbie Ftorek also has been skating defenseman Larry Playfair on right wing.

Hofford arrived in time to practice Wednesday, but left immediately for Rochester, N.Y., when his wife went into labor. Degray is expected to arrive today.

Combinations obviously are still to be worked out, although Tom Laidlaw--who hasn’t played for 2 weeks because of a severely bruised thigh--is expected to play tonight, probably with Duchesne, and Crossman has been paired with Dean Kennedy, and Watters with Ken Baumgartner.

The Kings made three cuts Wednesday, sending forwards Bob Kudelski and Paul Guay to New Haven and, in somewhat of a surprise, cutting veteran Phil Sykes, who said he wanted to talk to his agent before deciding whether to report to New Haven.

Gretzky will open on a line with Bobby Carpenter on left wing and Dave Taylor on right. Mike Krushelnyski, who came to the Kings from Edmonton along with Marty McSorley, will play right wing, with Robitaille on left wing and Bernie Nicholls at center. Mike Allison is nursing a bruised wrist, so Ron Duguay will center a checking line of McSorley on right wing and John Tonelli, a free-agent pickup on left.

Paul Fenton and Tim Tookey are the extra forwards.

Krushelnyski and McSorley give the Kings more size than they have had up front in recent years.

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“You need a big strong guy who can score at center,” Gretzky said. “Look at (Bryan) Trottier with the Islanders, (Joel) Otto with Calgary. Krushelnyski is like that.

“And Marty is the kind of guy who practices in the morning, then goes and works out in the afternoon, taking three or four guys with him. We used to have 9 or 10 guys like that in Edmonton.”

Naturally, the Kings would prefer to have a settled situation in the nets. The No. 1 goalie is Melanson, who refused to shake Ftorek’s hand on the team bus after the team’s last playoff game in Calgary, when Ftorek chose to play Healy, even though Healy had dislocated a bone in his thumb and needed surgery the next day.

Melanson, however, thrived with a good defense in front of him with the Islanders, and has been sharp during the exhibition season.

“This is a different club than last year,” Melanson said. “I hope I get the opportunity to prove what I can do, and show more consistency.

“I definitely was not happy in the playoffs last season. That’s a hard thing to take as a player, but I can’t do anything about it. But that’s all behind--you can’t live life looking back into the past.”

Besides, although McNall was able to meet Peter Pocklington’s price for Gretzky, obtaining a top-shelf goaltender may even be out of McNall’s price range.

“To go and buy a top goaltender is probably impossible,” Quinn said. “But they pulled off the impossible once, didn’t they?”


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