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Time to Thaw? : Gretzky Returns to Edmonton as a King and Hopes to Be Treated Like One

Times Staff Writer

When Wayne Gretzky arrived at the Northlands Coliseum, home of the Edmonton Oilers and home of the Great Gretzky until last August, he was mobbed by photographers. He walked into the building with TV camera crews sprinting ahead of him and alongside him, recording his every word, every expression.

That was Tuesday morning, a couple of hours before the scheduled start of the Kings’ off-day practice. He got there early to talk with the reporters who had been promised an hour of his time.

When the Kings play the Oilers tonight--when Gretzky takes the ice against the team that he led to 4 Stanley Cup championships over the last 5 years--there will be 280 reporters on hand to record the reaction of the Edmonton fans who have worshiped him, grieved over his trade and puzzled over whom to blame for their loss.

Losing Gretzky was likened to losing a national treasure. And now he’s back for a day or two. Just visiting.

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Will it be a warm welcome? Or will it be chilly? Do they still love him here? Or do they feel scorned? Do they believe that the tears he shed when he said goodby were from the heart? Or do they believe Oiler owner Peter Pocklington’s claim that he was just acting?

Do they believe him when he says that he is dreading tonight’s game, dreading having to play against guys who are his dearest friends? Or do they believe that he is a greedy opportunist who turned his back on them for the 8-year, $20-million contract he signed last week?

He left these people in a state of shock, not too sure what to think. What do they think now? What does he think now?

The questions could wait. The press conference could wait. Gretzky made his way straight to the visitors’ locker room for a cup of coffee. For him, that first stop was most important.

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Waiting for him there was Joey Moss. And Moss, for one, was glad to see him. Moss got him a cup of coffee, and they talked. Gretzky asked Moss, who works for the Oilers as a clubhouse attendant, if he would like to move to Los Angeles and work for the Kings. Moss said, no, thanks, he’ll stay in Edmonton.

Gretzky has a job to do in Los Angeles. Moss has a job to do here. That’s hockey. Moss understands. They’re still friends.

“Joey says he’ll be rooting for Wayne tomorrow night,” Oiler trainer Peter Miller said. “Not for the Kings, but for Wayne.”

Miller was standing with an arm around Moss’ shoulders, serving as translator. Moss, 25, is the younger brother of Vicki Moss, Gretzky’s former girlfriend. Joey Moss has Down’s syndrome, so he is mentally retarded and he has some difficulty with his speech. But he definitely knew what he wanted to say.

Moss added a couple of names to the list. “Oh, yeah,” Miller said. “And for Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski.”

Moss nodded, glad to have that straight. He didn’t want to forget anyone. With all the hoopla surrounding Gretzky, a lot of folks are forgetting that two other Oilers were sent to Los Angeles, too, and that Jimmy Carson went from Los Angeles to Edmonton. It was a trade that affected a lot of lives.

So Moss has no hard feelings about the hockey trade that took his friend away from him?

“Joey took it very hard,” Miller said. “It was tough for a while. It was hard to understand. But he’s OK now. He was just very happy to see Wayne today.”

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Surely if Moss can understand and accept the trade of Aug. 9, if he can get on with his business and simply welcome Gretzky as an old friend should be welcomed, the other good people of Edmonton can do the same.

As Oiler winger Craig Simpson was saying: “Mostly, everyone misses him. . . . There is a bit of a void around here without him.”

Simpson, who scored 56 goals for the Oilers last year, has taken over Gretzky’s locker and even Gretzky’s penthouse apartment, but he has no illusions of taking over his role on the team.

“No one person is going to step in and replace him on the hockey team,” Simpson said. “There is nobody in the game who can do that. But it’s more than that. It’s like I’ve always said about him: He is a better person than he is a hockey player.”

That’s going some, considering the kind of hockey player he is.

Who could boo a guy who gets an endorsement like that from a former teammate?

When Gretzky skated onto the ice at Calgary Monday night, he received a rousing ovation from fans there who have known him always as a No. 1 rival.

Another indication that the fans may make him welcome was the report that there has been a run on King jerseys in this town. “Jersey City” in the West Edmonton Mall reportedly sold 65 jerseys with No. 99 on the back in just 2 days.

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The game that Gretzky has been dreading is a happening of major proportions. It is the first midweek regular-season game that the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. will have televised coast to coast since it began doing hockey telecasts in 1952.

“Everybody in Canada will be watching this game,” Gretzky’s father, Walter, said Tuesday afternoon. “Believe me. Everybody.”

Which is good, Walter said, because his son thrives on pressure. He always has his best games when the most is on the line.

Gretzky keeps saying that it’s going to be an emotional game.

King center Bernie Nicholls says it’s also an important game. “We want to win it for the three guys on our team now who used to play here,” Nicholls said. “We want to win it because we don’t want to lose three in a row. And we want to win it because everybody is going to be watching.

“The day of the deal, the first thing we all did was look at the schedule and see when we’d play here.”

McSorley, who played with Gretzky for three seasons in Edmonton, has had his eye on this date, too. And, like Gretzky, he’s wondering how he is going to play against guys with whom he won the Stanley Cup.

“These guys went to the wall for me time and time again,” McSorley said. “They gave me the opportunity to wear a Stanley Cup ring.”

And, yet, he wants to play well and he wants to win the game. “Any time you get traded, you wonder if maybe it was because they thought you didn’t do enough. . . . I’d like to think they’re going to miss us all.”

Anytime there is a trade, there are hurt feelings. There are misunderstandings. There are conflicts between the philosophies of good business and good friends.

Gretzky was caught right in the middle on this one. His feelings were hurt when he learned from King owner Bruce McNall that Pocklington was shopping him around without talking with him about it first. And, too, Gretzky knew that he was at his prime for making a good contract deal and that his prime might pass him by if he just sat back.

Still, he really did feel a strong loyalty to the city of Edmonton, the team, his teammates--and when he was given the opportunity to call the deal off, it was a tough call.

It became more complicated when people in Edmonton started blaming his bride, actress Janet Jones, for luring him to Los Angeles. Not so, they both say.

And it became even more complicated when Pocklington suggested that the whole deal was Gretzky’s idea and that the tears that flowed at his press conference, tears that prompted the now-famous front-page headline, “99 Tears,” were faked.

Asked again Tuesday by Canadian reporters to clarify some of the events of those tumultuous days last August, Gretzky said: “I don’t know if everyone will ever understand what really happened. . . . It would take too long, and I really don’t want to get into that now.”

Asked if he understood it himself, Gretzky said: “Yes, I do.”

The sticky points obviously involve Gretzky’s relationship with Pocklington, but Gretzky is wisely choosing not to get into any mudslinging with his former boss.

He did, though, offer these general observations: “Too often fans look at players as being greedy and selfish and overpaid when a player fights for his contract, but when an owner makes a trade, that’s business.”

McNall, sitting at Gretzky’s side for the press conference Tuesday, said that he certainly hoped the people of Edmonton understood that it was just good business for him to go for the Gretzky deal.

“I hope they don’t see me as a villain,” McNall said. “I hope they realize that when I had the opportunity to do this, I had to do it. I would have been an idiot not to jump at that kind of an opportunity.”

But he joked about getting a box from which to watch tonight’s game, saying, “As long as it’s bulletproof, I’ll be fine.”

Gretzky said that one of the reasons he went through with the trade was the good relationship he had with McNall.

“He is so sincere,” Gretzky said. “It is very rare in professional sports to have an owner who really cares.”

And Gretzky assured everyone that if he had to do it over again, he would still choose to play for Los Angeles.

But what about those tears? He was asked why anyone who was making a move that he wanted to make would be so emotional and seem so distraught as he was at that press conference last August.

Gretzky considered for a moment how to answer that, and then took the easy way out with a quip: “I was acting.”

No one really doubted that Gretzky had found it as hard to leave Canada as it was for Canada to give him up. One reporter even brought up the name Ben Johnson, noting that when Johnson tested positive for steroids at the Olympics and lost his gold medal, Canada had lost its only other hero.

“I still consider myself a Canadian,” Gretzky said. “I just happen to work in L.A. I’ll always be a Canadian, and I’ll always be proud of that. People shouldn’t feel that they’ve lost me. I’ve just moved away to work my job.”

King Notes

Tonight’s game will begin at 6:30 p.m. PDT and will be televised on Prime Ticket. . . . Defenseman Doug Crossman, recently acquired from Philadelphia in a trade for Jay Wells, joined the Kings in Edmonton Tuesday night after a few days in New Haven for conditioning. Crossman will be available to play tonight.

Although the newspapers in Calgary reported that King defenseman Marty McSorley had “gouged” Tim Hunter’s eye Monday night in the game at Calgary, and quoted Calgary Coach Terry Crisp as saying that he was surprised to see that McSorley had not been ejected from the game, McSorley said that there was nothing unusual about the quick wrestle to the ice in which Hunter was injured. “It was just the kind of thing that happens in the course of a hockey game,” McSorley said. “Those guys over there have been talking about me like that for years. In Calgary, they think I have long fangs, pointed ears and I don’t sleep at night.” For that fight, in which Hunter fell to the ice and covered up, McSorley received 4 penalty minutes for roughing. That was at 5:50 of the period. His 10-minute misconduct penalty occurred much later.

Tonight’s game against Edmonton will not be Wayne Gretzky’s first against Edmonton. He scored 2 goals against the Oilers 10 years ago, in October, 1978, when he was with Indianapolis of the old World Hockey Assn. Edmonton won, 4-3.


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