Lord of the Rink : Kings Owner Bruce McNall Made the Deal of the Decade for Wayne Gretzky--and Turned L.A. Into a Hockey Town

Jerry Crowe is a sportswriter for The Times .

BIDDING STARTED at $75,000 and reached $150,000 within minutes. Up for auction at the Bank Leu in Zurich, Switzerland, was the Athens Decadrachm, described by one of the bidders as the "Mona Lisa of Greek coins." It was thought to be the only privately held coin of its kind. And Bruce McNall wanted it.

The year was 1974, and among those bidding against the 24-year-old Californian were Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who later would serve as president of France, and Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate. Until then, the world record for a coin sold at auction was $100,000. So, when McNall offered $420,000, d'Estaing, Onassis and others dropped out of the bidding and everyone in the room stood and applauded.

Within a week, McNall sold the coin at a substantial profit, about $50,000. He never doubted that he would. "I thought that was the greatest single coin that had ever come up for sale," he said. "I couldn't go wrong."

McNall, who owns the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League, was just as sure of himself on Aug. 9, 1988, when he orchestrated one of the greatest trades in sports history, acquiring the legendary Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers. McNall paid $15 million and gave up two players and three first-round draft choices for Gretzky, eight times the league's most valuable player and the most prolific scorer in NHL history. The deal transformed the Kings into winners on the ice and dramatically increased Southern California's interest in hockey as a spectator sport.

McNall at first was criticized by some for giving up too much for Gretzky, but as a longtime L.A. hockey fan, he had suffered in the stands through more than two decades of the Kings' ineptitude. And as the team's new owner and a collector of precious commodities, he saw similarities between The Great One and the Athens Decadrachm: Each had no equal. He thought he couldn't go wrong.

Within 72 hours of the trade, the Kings took orders for thousands of season tickets. Advertisers lined up. Prime Ticket, which owns the cable rights to the Kings' games, announced that it would increase the number of games it would broadcast. Merchandisers reported, for the first time, a demand for Kings' jerseys, jackets, T-shirts and caps.

The Kings' competitive fortunes changed, too. A perennial loser under their original owner, Jack Kent Cooke, who bought the expansion franchise in 1967, and Jerry Buss, who bought the team in 1979, the Kings shot from 18th in the overall standings in the 1987-88 season to fourth last season. Then, last April, they upset the defending champion Oilers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, overcoming a three-games-to-one deficit in a spectacular best-of-seven series.

The upstart Kings were later defeated, but McNall had succeeded where Cooke and Buss had failed.

In Los Angeles, where the most visible skaters until 1 1/2 years ago had been those at Venice Beach, hockey was the talk of the town. And Bruce McNall, 39, was the man who made it so.

A GREGARIOUS MAN who had been largely unknown until his acquisition of Gretzky, McNall giggles nervously as he sits in his office in a tower on Santa Monica Boulevard. He is pon dering the next obligation on a calendar that has filled considerably in the last year. In less than an hour, he will take the two-minute limo ride to the Century Plaza Hotel, where he will be honored as sports and entertainment executive of the year by the California Society of Certified Public Accountants. Two nights earlier, he and Gretzky had attended a party celebrating the opening of the Carnegie Deli in Beverly Hills, where Gretzky was the center of attention.

Now he is about to spend the afternoon with a group of CPAs. He can't imagine anything more boring. Then it dawns on him. "I've got to keep the name out there," he says. "Maybe one of these accountants will buy season tickets."

More than that, guesses his wife, Jane Cody, a classics professor at UCLA, the luncheon will provide still another chance for McNall to retell his life story. And, admittedly, it has been a colorful life.

"I'm the worst nightmare for a CPA," jokes McNall, accepting his award. "I'm the guy CPAs try to avoid all their lives." By that, he means that all of his business ventures have been high-risk. But to hear him tell it, all have paid off.

McNall, who estimates his net worth between $150 million and $200 million, made his fortune buying and selling ancient coins, but he has since branched out. In addition to the Kings and Numismatic Fine Arts Inc., which sells rare coins and art for millions of dollars, McNall owns a thoroughbred racing operation and part of a film company.

He lives in a $10-million Holmby Hills mansion with Jane, his second wife, and their children, Katie, 6, and Bruce Patrick John, 4. He also has homes in Malibu, Palm Springs, Hawaii, New York City and Deer Valley, Utah. He flies to the Kings' road games in his private jet and to appointments throughout Southern California in his private helicopter.

Outgoing and quick to laugh, even at himself (he fairly roared when told by a reporter that he has been said to resemble a "plump Eagle Scout"), the 5-foot-8, 205-pound McNall mingles with the rich and famous, yet seems unaffected. He finds it amusing that a hobby that turned into an obsession--coin collecting--has brought him such riches.

The oldest of two children born in Mar Vista to Earl and Shirley McNall--a college biochemistry professor and a medical technologist, respectively--McNall likes to say that his business career started at age 8, when he was given a coin collection for Christmas. His interest was piqued soon after when he visited a coin shop and spotted a pair of 2,000-year-old Roman coins.

"They were a dollar apiece," he recalls. "I couldn't believe that something 2,000 years old was a dollar." According to McNall, they're worth only about $2 apiece today, so they weren't exactly great buys. Still, it was a start.

Intrigued, McNall read all the books he could find on ancient history. "I became an expert, I guess, in this narrow field of ancient numismatics," he says.

He also showed strong business acumen, which bewildered his parents. When he was 12, he was grossing about $1,000 a week. Coin shop owners sought the advice of the boy who seemed to know more than anybody else. McNall's parents once refused to lend him $3,000 to buy a collection of vintage coins. Undaunted, he borrowed the money from his grandmother and sold the lot for more than $10,000.

When he was 14, McNall, whose family had moved to Arcadia, operated his own corner of a coin shop near Santa Anita, arranging a deal with the owners in which he worked without pay for the right. Soon, he was making more money than the owners and he bought them out. At Arcadia High School, he drove a Jaguar XK-E.

At 16, McNall sold the shop for $60,000 and enrolled at UCLA, where his professors invited him to dinner and attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to stump him on important historical dates and events. He was a curiosity. Still a student, he opened a coin shop on Rodeo Drive that has since been moved to Century City. He drove a Rolls-Royce and lived in Beverly Hills, but kept a smaller car and apartment near campus. He wanted to see how his riches affected his relationships, plus "it was the end of the '60s and having those kinds of things was not too cool."

After graduating with a degree in ancient history--he wanted to be a college professor--McNall studied at Oxford University. While in England, he appraised a coin collection held by J. Paul Getty. McNall told Getty that it was "junk," but the two became fast friends. "He became, in a way, my mentor," McNall says of Getty, who also became a client. Getty introduced McNall to other clients and soon the professor-to-be was grossing more than $1 million a year.

In 1971, he formed Numismatic Fine Arts, whose clients include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre. Though McNall is most visible these days as owner of the Kings, his first love is still coins. It's the field he knows best, and all of his other ventures have developed from relationships gained through his coin business.

With Nelson Bunker Hunt, a Texas oilman who bought some ancient coins, McNall formed a horse-racing syndicate in 1982 that earned Hunt about $48 million. Currently, McNall's 10-year-old Summa Stables owns or has interests in about 200 horses, including Frankly Perfect, which has won about $750,000. In 1987, just five days before the $1.1-million Arc de Triomphe, Europe's richest race, McNall bought a 50% interest in Trempolino, a horse that had won only twice in eight starts, and watched the 20-to-1 long shot come home a winner in record time.

McNall has also had the Midas touch in the movie business. In 1982, he established Sherwood Productions, which produced the hits "Mr. Mom" and "WarGames." The next year, he formed Gladden Entertainment Corp. with David Begelman, the former Columbia Pictures executive who was forced out after a check-forging scandal and whose wife was a client of Numismatic Fine Arts. Gladden's films have included "Mannequin" and "Weekend at Bernie's."

With Buss, who at the time owned the Lakers, the Kings and the Forum, McNall shared an interest in not only coins and stamps but also in hockey. McNall became a fan of the sport after a high school friend from Canada took him to a few games, and McNall had followed the Kings from the start. So after he and Buss met, McNall says, he badgered Buss about the team's availability.

Against the advice of his accountants, who calculated that the Kings lost as much as $4 million a year under Buss, McNall bought a 49% interest in the franchise in 1986 and then bought the remaining 51% near the end of the 1987-88 season. Price tag: $20 million.

Why take such a gamble? McNall, who had been one of the original owners of the Dallas Mavericks of the National Basketball Assn., explains that he thought he could make the Kings profitable. He hired additional personnel. He changed the team colors to silver and black in an effort to unburden the Kings of their poor-cousins-to-the-Lakers image. In short, he gave the Kings a new identity. "I don't give things up," he says. "I make them work."

McNall allows that his love of hockey played a role in the purchase, that he heard his accountants but didn't listen.

"Try to surround yourself with the best people available, and when a time comes when an important decision has to be made, seek their advice," he told a different group of CPAs last summer. Long pause. "Then ignore them and do what you want to do."

GRETZKY MADE McNall famous from Saugus to Saskatoon.

"Let's face the facts," McNall says. "He's as much a partner in the Kings as I am." He's not officially, of course. League rules prohibit active players from owning financial interests in their teams. McNall, though, acknowledges Gretzky's worth and pays him well--reportedly about $2.5 million a year, the richest contract in the NHL.

McNall anticipated that Gretzky would bring the Kings unprecedented success when he first approached Oiler owner Peter Pocklington about making a deal. Pocklington had viewed Gretzky as a depreciating asset in Edmonton, but McNall saw him as "the true king of the sport," the only man who could sell hockey in Los Angeles.

"To me, Wayne Gretzky isn't only the best player in hockey, but he's also the ambassador of hockey," McNall says. "It was never a question of whether to do it. I had to do it." But even McNall couldn't predict the consequences.

Average attendance in the 16,005-seat Forum increased by more than 3,000 a game from the previous season. Season-ticket sales tripled, and ticket revenues increased $4 million. The Kings, who had never sold out more than eight home games in a season, sold out 24 of their 40 regular-season games at the Forum, including 14 of their last 15, and all six of their home playoff games. On the road, they drew even better, playing before mostly capacity crowds. The season before, they drew sellout crowds only five times in 40 games.

Advertising sales increased $1 million. Prime Ticket, which had planned to broadcast 39 games, increased that number to 62 and plans to air all but eight of the Kings' 80 regular-season games this year. The Kings sold more jerseys in one season than they had in the previous 21.

This season, in which Gretzky will surely replace Gordie Howe as the NHL's all-time leading scorer, the Kings have added about 2,000 season-ticket holders, leaving only about 5,000 tickets unsold for each game. And, anticipating interest from celebrities, the Kings have increased from $45 to $100 the price of the 122 seats that ring the ice. They received only four cancellations. Sylvester Stallone, first on a waiting list, snapped them up.

And with The Great One, the Kings are no longer long shots to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, the addition of highly regarded goaltender Kelly Hrudey, formerly of the New York Islanders, and veteran defenseman Larry Robinson, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, have made the Kings one of the favorites. McNall claims he has received offers for the franchise to the tune of $100 million-plus, "but I'm not interested in selling at the moment."

Despite his far-flung responsibilities, McNall manages to attend almost every game, and he has ingratiated himself with the players, according to Gretzky. Without being pushy, he has made himself one of the boys. He wants what they want. He wants to win. "I don't view myself as anything other than part of the team," McNall says. "I might kick around ideas, but I don't get involved in the coaching. We hire people to do that. I just try to let everyone do their job."

"He's made it loud and clear to the players that he got into this business because he loves the game," Gretzky says. Before McNall, "L.A., quite honestly, was looked on as a last resort. I don't think anybody in the league ever wanted to play in L.A. or thought about being traded to L.A. And now you hear the same thing wherever you go; players are saying they'd love to play for Mr. McNall. It's a hot situation."

McNall lit the torch. He didn't listen when others told him that Gretzky, however valuable, wasn't worth what the Oilers wanted for him. Why not? "By luck, the greatest hockey player probably of all time happened to be playing in our age," he says. "If I bought a baseball team tomorrow, I'd say, 'Where's Babe Ruth?' And the answer would be, 'He's not around.' I was lucky enough with the Kings that his hockey equal was playing in our age."

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