Great Gretzky Deal Made Lots of Cents

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Would new King owners Philip F. Anschutz and Edward P. Roski, Jr., have been making a sound, financial decision if they had decided to pay Wayne Gretzky $21 million through the next three seasons?

And would Gretzky--fully knowing he could likely get $21 million from the St. Louis Blues--have been fiscally smart to take any sort of pay cut through his final playing days on a substandard team?

No and no.

With Gretzky's departure so fresh, not quite three weeks ago, the tumultuous issues surrounding his trade to the St. Louis Blues are certainly worth revisiting, considering he makes his first appearance tonight at the Forum since the deal was struck on Feb. 27.

No one has been immune from the post-trade fallout, from former owner Bruce McNall criticizing the new owners, to Gretzky, who has drawn the kind of ire directed at the likes of former Dodger Darryl Strawberry or former Ram Eric Dickerson.

Blues President Jack Quinn calls the sniping "pure jealousy."

And Gretzky's agent Michael Barnett couldn't hide his irritation, saying: "For Wayne to be labeled as self-serving for electing to pursue [free agency] for the first time in his career is disgusting. Only the totally uninformed could hold such a belief."

Perhaps the concept of total free agency and its attendant rights is so new to hockey that his desire to play for a winner--and to actually play more--is perceived as selfish, forgetting that virtually no one blamed Joe Montana for leaving the 49ers for the Kansas City Chiefs when it became clear he would be on the sideline watching Steve Young.

And how many times has a star baseball player gone on a winter tour and limited his options solely to winning organizations? Athletes exercising their rights has always made a certain segment of society uneasy. Who can forget the sanctimonious treatment by a national magazine of Michael Jordan's attempt to play baseball?

Gretzky, for his part, said he has no regrets.

"No, not one bit," he said. "The only regret I have the whole eight years--if I could do it one thing over again is win the Stanley Cup in 1993. It [criticism] is inevitable. For so long, there's been no reason to have any kind of backlash.

"If I was a bad guy and selfish, I would have probably announced in January, I would not sign with anyone and become a complete free agent in July. A bad guy would have done that. In my heart, I did what was best for them and myself."

Even the gambling, iconoclastic Blues, sources say, would not have traded three players, a first-round draft pick and a fifth-round choice for Gretzky without having the exclusive negotiating period from now until July 1 and a general understanding with Gretzky and his representatives.

The Kings did make an attempt to keep Gretzky. One source told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the team offered a 10-year deal worth $20 million. Another source familiar with the details of the final meeting said that Roski talked in generalities about the deal's length--from seven to 10 years, covering his playing career and a senior management position.

Dollar figures were discussed in regard to his playing career and team chairman Robert Sanderman previously said it would have kept Gretzky among the 10 highest-paid players in the NHL. That, at the very least, is in excess of $3.8 million. But Gretzky wanted to play for a competitive team, even if it took until next season.

"There really was not much more we could do," Sanderman said. "It was Wayne's decision, and it wasn't based on financial concerns but rather a limited playing career, to play as aggressively as he could, that he would be better elsewhere. So in reflecting back I don't think we could have or would have done anything different."

Those who closely followed the new owners through the twisting, turning process of bankruptcy were not surprised at the eventual developments. A member of another group pursuing ownership predicted that Anschutz and Roski would not keep Gretzky, and that it probably would not do so, either.

One source called the franchise "radioactive," after the Kings' financial records showed an operating loss of $8 million last season. And the new owners, who paid nearly $114 million for the Kings, were no pushovers in the negotiations, knowing the team's high payroll and limited revenue sources added up to years of future losses.

Gretzky too helped out by not exercising the provision in his contract to greatly accelerate deferred compensation payments in the event of a sale. Currently, he is owed about $10 million in deferments.

"He's got so much security, economics were never a factor," Barnett said.

Instead, his wish was for the Kings to make moves to become a viable contender. Anschutz and Roski were prevented from making those sort of deals because the sale of the team did not close until October. Then, defenseman Rob Blake's season-ending knee injury on Oct. 20 seemed to shift the focus toward the future.

Now, Gretzky said he realized he would have to leave in January. The final concerns were for his family, as to how they felt about moving. "That first meeting we had in early January, I just had this feeling that the route [of rebuilding] everyone was going to go," he said. "I felt it right then. The other side was that [Blues General Manager and Coach] Mike [Keenan] pursued me hard. His pursuing me had as much to do with anything."

As for tonight's game, Gretzky said facing the Kings without his recently traded friends Marty McSorley, Jari Kurri and Shane Churla will be easier. "I'm nervous about it. For them, it'll be emotional. For me, it's not as personal."

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