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ANALYSIS : Kings’ Slump Not McNall’s Fault

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bruce McNall shocked the sports world last week by boldly going where owners seldom go. He considered resigning.

It is often the first thing suggested and the last thing seriously contemplated.

Usually when a team with a long history of failure struggles, everybody, from the media to the fans to some players, complains that the problem is at the top. Owners from Donald Sterling to Georgia Frontiere, from Victor Kiam to George Steinbrenner, have heard that they were the source of the problem, not the cure.

Look in the mirror and you’ll see the person you really ought to fire, they have been told.

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But nobody ever holds his breath, waiting for it to happen.

Then, last week, an owner finally came forward with his own pink slip in hand.

McNall announced that he might resign as club president, while still retaining ownership, if the Kings didn’t pull out of a slump that threatens to ravage their season.

There was genuine shock because he has not been perceived as one of those owners whose style has done their clubs more harm than good.

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McNall took over a team with a history of failure and infused it with the elements of success. He got the world’s best hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. When McNall was told a player was a problem, that player was traded.

When he saw that the travel schedule was a terrible burden, he shelled out $5 million for a private jet.

He paid top dollar and expected top performance.

So what happened?

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It has been learned that McNall’s announcement was spurred by remarks made at the league’s recent board of governors’ meeting in Florida.

Officials from several other clubs, in casual conversation, said McNall was the main reason for his club’s problems.

It was said he couldn’t distinguish between kindness and weakness.

Said one member of the Kings’ organization of McNall’s reaction: “He was hurt, deeply hurt.”

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But, added that source: “A lot of (that criticism) is jealousy because of all the success we’ve had, especially in merchandising and marketing.”

Some of the pain McNall felt bubbled over when he addressed the team last week.

“He feels like he has become the laughingstock of the league,” said defenseman Larry Robinson said.

But is it justified? Has McNall really killed the Kings with his kindness? What could his successor do differently?

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Yes, McNall pays the league’s top salaries, but he doesn’t have much choice. Salaries simply have skyrocketed as the NHL catches up with the NFL, NBA and major league baseball. Jerry Buss did much the same with the Lakers and hardly suffered.

Yes, in paying defenseman Charlie Huddy an average of $600,000 a year in his new contract, the Kings are giving him twice what they thought he was worth. But the Kings had no choice. They were forced to match an offer by the Philadelphia Flyers.

And once Huddy got his money, that forced the Kings to adjust their entire pay scale.

And yes, McNall has bought his team a plane. But that does as much for the won-lost record as it does for player comfort. Sure, they get to eat fancy meals, play cards and watch videos in comfort. But what athletes don’t in this age of charter flights?

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The big advantage is that the Kings get home the night of a road game as far away as Quebec City, allowing them an additional day of rest. And, when faced with back-to-back road games, the Kings get to the second city the night before, allowing them a leisurely morning skate.

If McNall has a fault, it is that he becomes too much of a pal to his players. But even that hasn’t impeded the operation of the club. McNall and Bernie Nicholls were good friends away from hockey, but when McNall was told that the trading of Nicholls was necessary, he didn’t stand in the way.

This idea of the pampered Los Angeles athlete isn’t new. The bright lights of Tinseltown supposedly have blinded sports stars to the work ethic since the first teams came here. Hollywood was going to corrupt the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Minneapolis Lakers, the Cleveland Rams and the Oakland Raiders. But all have prospered.

In the Kings’ case, beyond the money and the plane and the pampering, it just may be that they are not good enough.

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It wasn’t kindness but poor judgment that prompted the team to trade Steve Kasper and Steve Duchesne, key figures on the special teams and team defense, for Jari Kurri and Jeff Chychrun.

It wasn’t kindness but bad luck that has caused Gretzky, hampered by a bad back and preoccupied with the serious illness of his father, to get off to the worst start of his career until his recent spurt.

Add to that an injury-plagued season by defenseman Rob Blake, a season-long slump by Kurri, an offensive decline by Tomas Sandstrom, the inability of Bob Kudelski to take over the job of second-line center, breakdowns all over the ice by a suspect defense and the confusion created by Coach Tom Webster’s suspension, and it’s not hard to understand why the Kings are struggling.

Yes, Bruce, you can resign and find your own successor.

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But if you can find a point man for your team’s power play, another reliable defenseman and a hard-checking forward, you’ll be a lot better off.

It may be depressing to you, Bruce, to think that your players aren’t working hard enough and doing their best.

But what may be even more depressing is the thought that they are working as hard as theycan.

And that this is the best they can do.

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