Maybe he’ll stick around for another year and pay a visit to the Staples Center and maybe he won’t.
There’s one thing we can say with certainty, especially because the Kings and the New York Rangers have done nothing to indicate they’ll meet in the Stanley Cup finals: After tonight, Wayne Gretzky will never play in the Great Western Forum again.
The only thing the run-down building has going for it these days is its history, and most of the Kings’ share of the memories have to do with Gretzky. He’s the one who put so many new fans in the seats. He’s the one who put the 1993 Campbell Conference championship banner on the wall.
Even the Miracle on Manchester in 1982 would not have meant as much if it hadn’t come against the Edmonton Oilers and Gretzky, who scored a record 92 goals that season.
Gretzky spent more than 7 1/2 seasons in a King uniform, playing in 539 regular-season games that changed the sports landscape in Los Angeles.
“The city was great to me,” Gretzky said. “I had a tremendous time living in this area, everyone worked really hard selling hockey. The city itself was great, not only to myself, but to my whole family. The memories are great memories. I had nothing but good thoughts and good memories about playing here. I haven’t even really thought about Thursday being the last game in the Forum.”
No doubt everyone who bought a ticket has thought about it. Some probably intend to voice their displeasure with Gretzky because he left, by demanding a trade in 1996.
No one should get caught up in how it ended, with a frustrated superstar leaving town and a misguided team to pursue one last shot at a championship. He wanted to win, and if he didn’t have that trait he wouldn’t have been worth that landmark 1988 trade in the first place. And it’s not Gretzky’s fault that only one player the Kings acquired when they traded him to St. Louis in 1996 is currently on the team. Besides, what’s to say Gretzky wouldn’t have signed his free-agent contract with the Rangers that year even if he had not been traded? The fans should focus on the same thing Gretzky does when he talks about his time with the Kings.
“One of my greatest thrills in hockey was the year we went to the finals in L.A.,” Gretzky said. “And it was one of my biggest disappointments, because we lost three games in overtime that year. We had just as good a chance as anyone to win the Cup. It was a tough loss for us.
“Not only did the team rally behind each other, but the city rallied around us. It was one of those memories I’ll never forget. I’ve said this many times: I won four championships [in Edmonton] and I wouldn’t trade that in for anything, but that year, going to the finals, was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had in hockey.”
He probably has said it a thousand times and you’ve probably heard it a thousand times. But he says it with sincerity, and that smile on his face and the glow in his eyes when he talks about it make it obvious that it truly mattered to him.
When Gretzky’s name appeared on the Forum’s video screen at a recent game, the reaction was a mixture of cheers and boos. That better not be the case tonight when he’s here in person.
It’s a simple question: Were the Kings and the L.A. sports scene better off for having Gretzky? Of course they were. His mere presence will bring an electricity that is noticeably absent at the Forum without him. It’s a reminder of that time when L.A. ruled the sports world and local fans could watch Gretzky, Magic Johnson and Bo Jackson in home uniforms in a single weekend.
The Kings are hoping the Staples Center will put some excitement back into game nights. Perhaps it will, but it’s going to take a $350-million building to achieve what Gretzky accomplished by himself.
Besides, “I’m not sure we’d even be here talking about a Staples Center without what he’s done,” said Tim Leiweke, president of the Kings and the Staples Center.
I had the misfortune of leaving L.A. just a couple of weeks before Gretzky’s first game with the Kings in 1988. By the time I returned last year he was already gone.
But I could tell how special he was by the phone calls back to my friends, and how frequently the first thing they wanted to talk about was hockey, when we had never even discussed it before. They talked about opening night, when Gretzky scored his first King goal on his first King shot. They talked about the excitement generated by that Stanley Cup finals run in 1993, or the moment he scored his record-breaking 802nd goal.
I can still measure the impact of Gretzky’s stay here when I see a guy skating around an empty parking lot at the beach, shooting slap shots into a trash can. Or a roller hockey rink at the YMCA. Or a Mighty Duck game at the Arrowhead Pond.
The proper way to honor Gretzky in his final Forum appearance would be to hang his No. 99 up on the wall. But Leiweke says Gretzky’s representatives have asked that his jersey should not be retired before he retires.
Leiweke indicated Gretzky’s jersey--the black-and-white one he wore, not the new style--will be retired by the Kings.
‘This is not a matter of if,” Leiweke said. “It’s just a matter of when.”
The Staples Center wouldn’t look right without it, the same way it wouldn’t be right for King fans to say farewell to the Forum without one more chance to see Wayne Gretzky play there.