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L.A. Hockey Makes It to the Top of Page 1

Slash me, trip me, rough me. Ice me, slice me, dice me. Slide me through a crease. Face me off. Put me inside a box for 2 minutes and leave me there. I am Hockey, and I am here. I am a puck; I am an Islander. I am an Oiler, a Red Wing, a North Star, a Whale. I am, proud to say at last, a King. The Kings are dead; long live the Kings.

Good day, L.A., eh? Welcome to the first hockey game ever played in Los Angeles. Anybody who’s anybody is here. Roy Orbison is here, to sing the anthem. Mercy. Neil Diamond also is here, somewhere. He’ll sing for the King family some other time. And John Candy is right there behind the bench, and so’s Michael J. Fox, and Kurt Russell with Goldie Hawn, and the Pointer Sisters, and, uh, Mary Hart, I think. There definitely will be entertainment tonight. Everybody has come to see. . . . The New Guy. It’s hockey night in California.

Forget that stuff about the National Hockey League already having been in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. Hockey has never been here. Hockey has no more been here than the Ice Capades have been here. All hockey ever did was visit the Forum every year, same as the rodeo. Hockey was a ticket you bought to kill an evening, once every couple of years. Hockey was something your daughter played in school, with a stick.

Not now, though. Now that The New Guy is here, ice hockey is hot. Ice hockey is cool. Ice hockey is hip. Hockey is right up there with October baseball. Hockey is right out there on Page 1, with the other big guys. It’s no longer stuck in the back with the mud-wrestling ads. We don’t even care who the Kings are playing. We will pay attention to them even if they are playing. . . . oh, heck, Winnipeg, even.

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All because of The New Guy. The Gretz. King of Kings. Lord of posts.

He blew into town like Gilbert blew into Jamaica. Bang. Zoom. The hockey gods had sent down their thunderbolt. People ran to their telephones to order tickets as if the Shubert Theater had just announced that “Les Miserables” would star Eddie Murphy. “Hello? King season tickets? Gimme four at rinkside.” Knowing Jack Nicholson, he probably bought out the penalty box. Sit there all season and yell mean things at the Canucks.

It was only August when Bruce McNall, like a Mountie, went into Canada and got his man. “Six weeks ago, or something like that,” the man who owns the Kings said Thursday night at the Forum, an hour or so before the grand opener. “Seems more like six months. Like six years, sometimes. People stop me on the street and say, ‘Thank you.’ Look over from their cars and yell out, ‘Hey, thanks for getting Wayne.’ Incredible.”

McNall left Canadians sadder than Ben Johnson did. It was like he went up and shot their national bird. Or worse. It was like McNall got elected prime minister, and immediately declared prohibition. Declared Molson’s and Labatt’s illegal. Took away their reasons for living. Bruce McNall is the man who left Canada dry.

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Not that Los Angeles took the big trade too seriously. Naw. Los Angeles only went nuts, is what it did. It discovered hockey, as if it had never even been there. Which, as a matter of fact, it hadn’t. The Forum had two tenants now. Two teams, the Lakers and the Kings. All over the Coast, husbands and wives began discussing hockey, asking their neighbors if they knew how long it took the Forum crew to flood the basketball court and freeze it so there’d be ice all over it.

This wasn’t just any old trade. This was the Trade, with a capital T. This was buying Manhattan from the Indians. This was the Louisiana Purchase. This was Fritz Peterson making a straight-up swap with Mike Kekich. Play-by-play announcer Bob Miller, the voice of hockey in Los Angeles--bet you didn’t know there was a voice of hockey in Los Angeles--stood at center ice Thursday with a spotlight trained on him, introduced the rest of the Kings, then shouted out to a full house:

“They called it the Trade of the Century!”

Yeah?

“The man who holds 49 NHL records!”

Yeah?

“No. 99: Wayne Gretzky!”

Yeah!!!

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The new guy. Man of the hour. Man of the season. Bring him on. Let’s have a look at him. Oooh, nice, new white and black uniforms. Formal wear. A pucksedo. Yeah, the Gretz looks good, don’t he? Yeah, sure does. Looks as though he belongs here. Tell me again--who’d he used to play for?

OK, on with the show. Let’s see if the guy still knows how to play this game. Let’s see if he can play L.A.'s kind of hockey. No. Check that. Let’s see if L.A. can play his kind of hockey. Yeah. Let’s see how great the Kings can be with Gretzky. Let’s see if you can play winning hockey with a tan.

Ninety-two seconds gone--Hey, the night’s first fight! Hockey is back!

Five minutes 22 seconds gone--Hey, shot and a goal! For the Red Wings! The Kings are back!

Eleven minutes 14 seconds gone--Hey, somebody tripped the Gretz! Go into the box, Tim Higgins, you Detroit criminal, you! Thug! Goon!

Twelve minutes 54 seconds gone--Hey, shot and a goal! Who got it? Anybody see who got it!

Public-address announcer: “Kings’ goal scored by No. 99, Wayne Gretzky!”

Don’t slash me, push me or high-stick me. Pinch me. I must be dreaming. Wayne Gretzky is already scoring goals for the Kings. All this, and the Lakers, too. The Forum has never been so fabulous.

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