Listening to Duck fans boo Wayne Gretzky at the Pond Sunday evening was like listening to someone boo his dad on Father's Day.
"I'm embarrassed for the game of hockey," said St. Louis Blues Coach Mike Keenan after withstanding two full periods of raucous hooting and howling every time Gretzky, the man who made the Mighty Ducks possible, touched the puck.
"He's the greatest player of all-time," said an appalled and astonished Glenn Anderson, a teammate of Gretzky's in Edmonton and now in St. Louis. "I'm ashamed for the game of hockey."
It was a sorry night at the Pond, despite Teemu Selanne's second hat trick as a Duck and the home team's fourth consecutive victory, a 5-1 pasting of the Blues. Evidently, many fans of the Ducks listen to Kings Talk on the radio--refuge of those severely deluded Branch Kingvidians who never quite got over Miracle On Manchester, sleep in drool-stained purple-and-gold jerseys from the Cowboy Flett era and have been polluting the airwaves for three weeks with "Yes, Wayne Was The Root Of All Evil And We're Better Off Without Him" brain drainage.
Duck fans, this is no healthy way to fill your leisure hours.
Turn off the radio and pull out an NHL encyclopedia instead. On those pages, you will be reminded of how Gretzky began his missionary work here in 1988, spread the gospel according to Peter Puck up and down the West Coast, pulled off the miracle of hockey sellouts in Inglewood and showed a cagey prospector named Michael Eisner that there's gold in them thar Anaheim Hills--to the tune of 17,174 paying customers every NHL home game.
"I've said it before and I mean it: We would not be here if not for Wayne Gretzky," Duck president Tony Tavares said after Sunday's game.
Like Keenan, like Anderson, Tavares was disturbed by the reaction Gretzky received during his first few shifts as a Blue in Southern California. So much so that Tavares instructed the Pond scoreboard operator to keep all images of Gretzky off the video screen so that the aural ugliness would be kept to a minimum.
The rationale for the local anti-Wayne sentiment, as looped as it is, goes something like this:
Wayne "forced" the Kings to trade him because he didn't want to spend the winter years of his career inviting Sean O'Donnell, John Druce and Dan Bylsma over to the house to watch the '96, '97 and '98 Stanley Cup playoffs, so that makes him selfish, satanic and a serious threat to the American way of life.
Somewhere between leading the Kings to the brink of the the 1993 league championship and suggesting it might be wise for the 1996 Kings to improve their roster, Gretzky must have traded his No. 99 for 666.
Why, then, didn't the Kings put out a press release?
Sunday, Gretzky said he finds the Evil Wayne campaign "kind of humorous, because I never once demanded to be traded and I never once demanded a new contract. The only thing confusing is what created this snowball.
"All I said was, 'Let's make a decision--let's build a team to try to win now, like Toronto did by adding [Kirk] Muller and Wendel Clark, or go with youth. Make a decision. Either way, it's fine with me.'
"And the Kings went with youth. Great. They made a decision. I can live with that."
And the boos at the Pond?
Gretzky laughed at those, too, because he said, "I've lived with that almost all my life. It's nothing new to me. I've been booed, pretty much, in every rink in the league. I've been booed since I was 10. So I'm used to it.
"I remember going to Maple Leaf Gardens [as a boy] and hearing Bobby Orr get booed every time he touched the puck. It happens. I don't worry too much about that."
Keenan, though, said he was "disappointed for hockey. In terms of the fans here looking at this thing in the proper perspective, of what Wayne has meant to hockey here, they're missing the point."
As an Oiler, Gretzky was regularly booed in Calgary, Edmonton's archrival, but Keenan attributed that to "Canadian fans being a little different. They have a different perspective. That's not to criticize American fans, but you can't tell me people in Calgary and Edmonton look at hockey the same way. Those people in Canada were weaned on hockey."
Selanne, former Winnipeg Jet, concurred. "I don't like the booing," Selanne said, before offering Duck fans a useful tip on NHL etiquette.
"[Gretzky] has class. Every fan should be happy he's still playing and at a high level."
And that he played long enough to have elevated the Pond, home of Clipper blowouts and roller-blading Bullfrogs, by his presence.
"Maybe that's why those people were booing," Keenan mused. "He's out of California now. And they're jealous."