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He Turns Game Into Event : Gretzky: His return to ice is witnessed by 150 members of media as well as by family members, longtime fans and celebrities.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michele and Brian Burch of Huntington Beach said they went because someone gave them the tickets for Christmas. Bill Moebs of Culver City said he went because his son-in-law and 3 1/2-year-old grandson from Michigan are still in town after the Rose Bowl and wanted to see an ice hockey game. Mark Diamond and Robert Inouye of Redondo Beach said they went because they wanted to see the Tampa Bay Lightning. Seriously.

That is not to say that no one among the announced crowd of 16,005 at the Forum Wednesday night went to see the return of Wayne Gretzky. A number of celebrities probably were there for that very reason.

“One guy comes back and--boom!--they all come back,” said King owner Bruce McNall, who played host to a few of them in the team’s offices between the second and third periods.

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But, as for the average fans, a small, unscientific poll in the lobby before the game indicated that most of them would have been there even if Gretzky had not been. They are King fans come hail or high water or the Lightning.

“We just like hockey,” said William Guardado of Santa Fe Springs.

“Even the rain can’t stop us,” said his wife, Anna.

But she had to confess that perhaps the night was a little special.

“Maybe we did make a little bit of extra effort because of Gretzky,” she said. “We could have given the tickets away.”

It undoubtedly was a special night for Gretzky, who was playing the 1,000th game of his NHL career and his first this season. He missed the first 38 games because of a herniated disk and feared that he might never play again, a concern that McNall said he shared.

“I thought he would not play again,” McNall said. “I thought the severity of his injury was such that he would not come back. It’s a miracle.”

Asked when he began to believe otherwise, McNall laughed and said, “About two days ago.”

That was the day Gretzky announced he would play against Tampa Bay. The next day, he said one regret he had about his return was that his father would not be at the Forum to see it. Walter Gretzky, who has a particularly close relationship with his son, was stricken with a brain aneurysm in the fall of 1991 and has not been able to travel far from his Brantford, Ontario, home since.

But on Wednesday night, Walter and Phyllis Gretzky, Wayne’s parents, were at the game.

There was a story circulating Tuesday that they might be able to see another hockey-playing son, Brent, in action at the Forum. The Tampa Bay coach, Terry Crisp, and his assistant, Wayne Cashman, told reporters that they were going to bring up the younger Gretzky from the Lightning’s minor league team in Atlanta to play against the Kings. The coaches later admitted it was a joke.

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Brent Gretzky was not at the game, but Barbra Streisand, Chuck Norris, Michael Eisner and Kenny G were.

According to the Kings’ media relations assistant, Adam Fell, the team approached Kenny G earlier this season about playing the national anthem before a game. He said that he would be glad to oblige, but added that he preferred to do it on the night that Wayne G returned. So he did, holding the high note on “home of the brave” almost as long as the 17 minutes and 40 seconds that Gretzky would play in the game.

During that time, Gretzky had two assists. But the Kings lost, 6-3.

That did not make King Coach Barry Melrose’s night.

“I don’t care if Queen Elizabeth’s in the crowd if you don’t win,” he said.

At the end of the season, however, the Kings probably will look back on Wednesday night not so much as a game but as an event.

It certainly was treated as such by the media.

Fell said that the media relations staff issued credentials to 150 people, perhaps the most since Gretzky’s first night as a King.

There were so many photographers that the Kings could not accommodate all of them for the entire game. They gave spaces to some for one period and others for another.

One newspaper that was not content to observe was the Daily News, which led cheers by distributing cardboard signs to fans that said, “Welcome Back, Wayne!!”

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A late-arriving fan looked at the sign for a moment, then returned it to the distributors. But she took it back when the distributor reminded her that she might need the sign to hold over her head as protection against the rain when she left.

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