For dramatic effect, as if more were needed, the houselights were dimmed, and the Kings skated onto the ice at the Forum one at a time, gliding with the spotlight into their places in the lineup for the season opener Thursday night.
Player after player after player . . . and then, at last, Gretzky.
Wayne Gretzky, The Great One. The unassuming little hockey player all the folks jammed to the top of the Forum had come to see. The star of stars whose job it is to jolt this franchise to life.
When Gretzky hustled onto the ice wearing the new black and white and silver sweater of the Kings, the ovation was chilling.
He took his place at the center of the line and made no more fuss. He just let the enthusiasm of the sellout crowd of 16,005--the first sellout for a home opener in the team’s 22-year history--spill out of the stands. Gretzky and his new teammates soaked it up.
It was the moment everyone had been waiting for since first hearing word of the blockbuster trade last Aug. 9 that delivered the 8-time National Hockey League all-star from the Stanley Cup champions to the Kings.
There he was. Wayne Gretzky in a King sweater. Owner Bruce McNall’s dream come true.
If he did nothing more, at least he had packed the house. He had drawn reporters from across the United States and Canada. He had brought the team together for an early-season touch of excitement.
But, of course, he did more. Fittingly, Gretzky scored the Kings’ first goal, on his first shot, sending the Kings on their way to an 8-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, defending champions of the Norris Division.
There are those who say that the Kings gave up too much for Gretzky. But they didn’t give up young Luc Robitaille, and it was Robitaille who scored 3 goals for a hat trick that left him gushing: “It was a lot of fun. The spirit on this team is unbelievable. You know (Gretzky) is going to work hard on every shift. It was fun to bounce off him. You always get chances when you play with him, so you just go and get those rebounds.”
It was the Kings’ first victory in an opener in 8 years, and the fans went wild. They seemed to give a damn.
On the day of the trade last August, Cam Cole of the Edmonton Journal wrote that it was a shame to waste The Great One on Southern Californians, who, he said, “Don’t give a damn . . . to a town that doesn’t love hockey or even hate it, but just doesn’t pay any attention.”
Yet, there were people in all the seats, paying close enough attention to cringe at the brutal checks and cheer when the puck went into the net.
The puck was going into the Red Wings’ net all night.
Detroit goalie Greg Stefan, who saw 40 shots come flying at him, was asked if any team had ever come at him so relentlessly. “Yes,” Stefan said. “Edmonton with Wayne Gretzky. That’s why he’s the greatest player in the world. I think he’s getting better.”
Detroit Coach Jacques Demers said: “Wayne Gretzky is going to make every player on that team a better player. There’s no question. It’s not just a one-man team. There’s a lot of good talent on the team. But they’re all going to play better. When was the last time you saw (Bob) Carpenter play with that enthusiasm? (Bernie) Nicholls had, what, 10 hits? They’re better all-around.
“We were embarrassed.
“The Kings have been waiting for a King for 22 years, and they’ve found him. He’s definitely the King here. The crowd and the other players responded to every play he made. He’s going to make this a much better franchise.”
Gretzky said that he, too, felt the excitement in the air. “I was so excited, so pumped up. The only time I was this nervous before a game was my first All-Star game. The playing was easy. I was just afraid I was going to fall down when I first went out there.”
Which would have spoiled the dramatic effect.
In his first night with the Kings, Gretzky passed 83 Kings on the all-time scoring list, moving up from No. 252 (the end of the list) to No. 169 with 1 goal and 3 assists.
Gretzky scored the first goal for the Kings 12 minutes 54 seconds into the first period, taking a sharp pass from Dave Taylor that crossed in front of the goal, pushing it into the right side of the goal past Stefan. The Kings had a 2-man advantage at the time and were circling in front of the Red Wing goal in a menacing, threatening pattern, passing the puck and looking for the opening that had to show itself.
Gretzky’s goal tied the game at 1-1, offsetting the goal that Red Wing center Steve Yzerman had scored when he flipped in the rebound of a wrist shot by Jeff Sharples on a power play at 5:22. Rollie Melanson, who started in goal for the Kings, made the first stop but couldn’t get to the rebound shot, with King teammate Tom Laidlaw on his knees in front of the goal after trying to pitch in to stop Sharples’ shot.
Before the first period was out, Robitaille had given the Kings the lead, hooking up with Carpenter and Gretzky to score with 1:54 remaining, on a second power play. Robitaille swooped in to take advantage of one of those juicy rebounds.
The Kings streaked to a 6-1 lead in the second period before Melanson gave up another goal to make it 6-2 going into the final period.
With 12:40 left to play in the second period, defenseman Wayne McBean fired a long shot toward the Red Wings’ goal that Taylor deflected past the outstretched left arm and leg of Stefan. Just 13 seconds later, Mike Krushelnyski, who came from Edmonton with Gretzky in the trade, sent the puck left to right in front of the goal, and Nicholls pounced on it, smacking it into the net.
Robitaille scored his second goal with 3:34 to play in the period, skating straight at Stefan on a breakaway, and beating him one-on-one. Carpenter added another score a little more than 2 minutes later on a pass from Gretzky.
Gerard Gallant gave the Red Wings their second goal with 23 seconds left in the second period, before the Kings took over again in the third period.
Robitaille poked in a pass from Gretzky at 10:36 to complete his hat trick, the fifth of his young career. And Tim Tookey gave the Kings a 6-point margin, slapping a hard shot past Stefan.
Demers said: “I haven’t seen a Kings team play like that in a long team. You don’t like to get embarrassed on national and Canadian TV. I don’t think they would have dominated us without Gretzky. They came at us with a purpose and conviction, and they made things happen.”
Thursday morning, right wing and team captain Dave Taylor signed the contract that he and the Kings had agreed to last month, according to his attorney, Ron Salcer. The 4-year contract was reported to be worth $2.8 million. . . . Going into Thursday night’s game, the Kings had not won a season opener since they defeated Detroit, 8-1, at the start of the 1980-81 season. Since then, they were 0-4-3 in openers. . . . Coach Robbie Ftorek is entering his first full season with the Kings. He joined the team last season with 52 games to play and had a record of 23-25-4. . . . The Kings finished fourth in the Smythe division last season with a total of 30-42-8. . . . The Red Wings finished 41-28-11.
The Kings kept alive a club-record consecutive game scoring streak that began last season, stretching it to 172. . . . The last time the Kings were shut out, it was by Detroit’s Greg Stefan, on March 12, 1986. . . . On the eve of the opener, the Kings assigned wings Paul Gual and Bob Kudelski to their American Hockey League affiliate, the New Haven, Conn., Nighthawks. Wing Phil Sykes also was cut but has not yet been assigned to a club. General Manager Rogie Vachon is giving him time to consult with his agent and his family before a decision is made.
Right wing Jim Fox missed the opener because of arthroscopic surgery on his knee performed during the off-season. He has been practicing. . . . The Kings had only 5 sellouts last season, and that was the most they’d had since having 8 in the 1984-85 season.