Life with Gretzky began in earnest Thursday night for the Kings, whose season opener against the Detroit Red Wings was unlike any other in their history.
They had new players.
They had new uniforms.
They had new confidence.
They also had new fans, having sold almost twice as many season tickets as they did last season.
Along with The Great One, though, came something else that was new: Great Expectations.
In its most recent newsletter, The Booster Shot, the Kings’ booster club proclaimed this, “The Most Exciting Season Ever.”
And it hadn’t even started.
“The pressure’s good--it’s about time,” said Owner Bruce McNall of the Kings, architect of the blockbuster trade that brought Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers last August and, thus, creator of the inflated expectations. “I think to win, you have to have the pressure to win.
“If our players don’t feel the pressure to win, maybe they can accept losing easier. Now, everytime we play, our players are going to be in the spotlight.
“They’re going to have to do the job.”
McNall, of course, knows that, as the man who pirated a national treasure out of Canada, he, too, will remain in the spotlight.
“If it turns out to be another failure,” he said of the trade, “the fans are certainly going to turn to me as the guy who screwed up.
“But at the end of the day, I have to face that. If it happens, it happens. But I feel pretty confident about the deal.
“I’m sure the (headline) writers have already got printed, ‘Even With Gretzky, Kings Lose,’ but I can’t worry about that.”
McNall said he has never doubted that he made the right move when he sent Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft choices and $15 million to the Oilers for Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley.
He is still surprised, though, by the continued response to the deal.
Strangers, he said, have stopped him on the street to congratulate him. They’ve rolled down their car windows to give him the thumbs-up sign.
Recording stars have inquired about singing the national anthem.
Other celebrities have inquired about season tickets.
And the media have deluged the Kings, who received more than 120 requests for credentials for Thursday night’s game, about half as many as the National Hockey League received last May for the Stanley Cup finals.
“In terms of a pure cash standpoint, and as far as generating interest, the trade has already paid off,” McNall said.
Still, McNall was uncharacteristically nervous and jittery before the game, although the chants of “Brooooce, Brooooce,” that accompanied his introduction made it clear that the fans supported him.
Either that, or they mistook him for Springsteen.
“I’m usually not nervous about deals I’ve made because I’m in control of them,” said McNall, a multimillionaire who made his fortune by selling ancient coins and owns a thoroughbred breeding stable and a motion picture production company. “Here, I’ve done all I can possibly do.
“But unfortunately--or fortunately, really,” the portly McNall added, laughing at the thought, “I can’t go out and do anything on the ice.”
It’s up to the players to do that, of course.
And Gretzky’s first goal, scored on a power play less than 13 minutes into an 8-2 victory, showed that he’s intent on doing his part.
Gretzky added 3 assists as the Kings won an opener for the first time since 1980, ending a 7-game winless streak.
“I don’t think we’re going to challenge for the Cup immediately,” said goaltender Glenn Healy, who had an up-close view last season as the Kings finished 12 games below .500 and allowed more goals than any other team in the NHL. “It’s going to take everyone a while to get used to playing with Wayne and get used to all the new faces.
“It’s going to take a while before everyone can jell, but I think the potential of this team is unlimited.
“With Wayne, the possibilities are endless.”
McNall thinks so, too.
“I had doubts before I made the trade,” McNall said, “but once I do something, I try to convince myself it was the right thing to do. So, I’ve convinced myself. I just hope everyone else is convinced.”