A national treasure's eventual destination is front-page news and the drama surrounding Wayne Gretzky's future is no exception, taking center stage here this week as the Kings' 5-4 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs was pushed to the background on Wednesday.
In some quarters, Gretzky's departure from the Kings is considered a fait accompli, even before his agent's first scheduled meeting on Tuesday with the team's owners to discuss his contract and the team's direction. Perhaps everyone is remembering that if Gretzky was traded once, he surely can be again.
But, since this is almost Gretzky's hometown, rumors were flying faster than the puck on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens. One local reporter repeatedly pressed the Kings' director of public relations, saying: "He won't leave, isn't he building a home on an exclusive golf course?"
Then phone calls started coming from St. Louis. A report there quoted Blues president Jack Quinn as saying Gretzky and Brett Hull would be a perfect match while repeatedly adding qualifiers to guard against tampering charges.
"He belongs to L.A.," Quinn told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "It's not for the Blues to be interlopers in the Kings' business. He's under contract to them until May.
"I'm sure a lot of teams would have to be interested in him. If the Blues look at Gretzky, you'd have Gretzky and Hull and you'd have Mantle and Maris. Having said that, he's the property of the L.A. Kings. You can't covet other people's property. Hypothetically, you have to look at what the spring will bring. He and the Kings have to work out their situation."
Quinn went on to say that the Blues would take a look, and General Manager and Coach Mike Keenan added that he would do some investigating of his own.
Meanwhile, some of the King players have also been investigating, and one insisted Wednesday that the St. Louis scenario was legitimate.
"I've been checking with my sources--where there's smoke, there's fire," another player said.
Gretzky has not yet met one of the two King owners, Denver billionaire Philip F. Anschutz. But last summer he did meet with the other King owner, local developer Edward P. Roski Jr., and with Bob Sanderman, an Anschutz associate. Then, he was given assurances the owners would make the necessary moves to contend.
So far, that has not happened as the Kings (16-17-10) have failed to secure or closely pursue any of the big-name players who are and have been on the market.
The Kings' shortcomings and general lack of depth were once again exposed in the loss to Toronto, especially on defense. Rob Cowie, who had been ailing, returned to the lineup as rookie defenseman Aki Berg sat out because of a sprained left shoulder. On the road, the Kings have won once in their last 12 games, going 1-9-2.
Toronto won it with three consecutive goals, turning a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead, including two second-period power-play goals. King defenseman Sean O'Donnell briefly made things interesting with his first career NHL goal, at 15:44 of the third, to cut the deficit to 5-4.
The other King goals were scored by left wing Dimitri Khristich (13th of the season), defenseman Steven Finn (second) and Eric Lacroix (10th). Khristich added an assist as did Gretzky.
Yet another defenseman was injured Wednesday as John Slaney took a heavy hit at the hands of Tie Domi at 4:43 of the third period. Slaney, suffering from blurred vision, was taken to a nearby hospital for tests and observation and remained in Toronto when the team left.