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Gretzky a Real Rarity: Hollywood, Yet Still Down to Earth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One celebrity urged that the team “skate faster.” Another suggested that the best way to keep pucks from heading into the net was to put some plywood in the goal mouth.

Wayne Gretzky nodded and smiled and moved through the locker room. This was not a real-life, Los Angeles King moment. . . . It was a skit on “Saturday Night Live” in 1989.

On that show, Gretzky portrayed Elvis. His wife did a skit with Wayne and Garth on “Wayne’s World.” But that locker room sendup had a nugget of reality, as the often crazy days of Gretzky’s years in L.A. featured the bizarre intersection of hockey and Hollywood.

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Goldie Hawn one day, Kevin Costner the next. The team even had its own guru, self-help author and pitchman, Anthony Robbins.

It was more like hanging around at Spago than in a hockey locker room.

This high gloss of celebrity was the glitzy backdrop to the foundation Gretzky established in Southern California after he was traded to Los Angeles from the Edmonton Oilers in 1988.

By the time he came to Los Angeles, Gretzky had already transformed a sport. Here, he transformed a geographic region, turning a remote hockey outpost into a hockey hotbed.

In a few short years, he saved one franchise from oblivion (the Kings) and helped create another (the Mighty Ducks). The Kings had one season in which they sold out every home game. The Mighty Ducks nearly did the same in their debut season.

Hockey rinks started springing up from North Hills to Huntington Beach.

One of Gretzky’s favorite phrases was, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” He said it so often, it became a charming cliche when things weren’t going so well with the Kings.

He said it about the challenge of making hockey more popular in Los Angeles. But this time it seemed as though he did it in a day.

“I can see some impact I’ve had in L.A. already,” Gretzky said in his 1990 autobiography. “I was driving in Beverly Hills one day and came upon some kids playing roller hockey in the street. I was following my wife in her car, and she rolled down her window and hollered, ‘Hey guys! Look who’s in the car behind me!’ So I had to stop and sign something for everybody, but I loved it.

“Can you imagine? Roller hockey in Beverly Hills!”

If anything, Southern California was a microcosm of the overall Gretzky effect in the United States. It was no coincidence that teams were spawned in San Jose, Tampa, Anaheim and Dallas after Gretzky was traded to the Kings. And the pinnacle was when the Kings reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1993.

“For two months, it [the Kings] was the best hockey franchise in the world,” said former Kings coach Barry Melrose, who is now with ESPN. “Because of that you have teams in San Jose, Anaheim, Texas, Florida and now you have Atlanta. He is the reason, without a doubt. Anyone who says he wasn’t the reason is lying.”

On Friday, Gretzky made a reference at his retirement news conference to making some other people a lot of money. In fact, it was bags of money for the hockey industry and the NHL.

Gretzky was always acutely aware of the bottom line. He felt a great pressure to perform and to help the Kings fiscally--and it seemed he had succeeded when the Kings reached the finals in 1993. Now, post-bankruptcy, we know why he felt that sense of urgency.

He also had an uncanny awareness of the newspaper business. On the cool, rainy day he was traded from the Kings to the St. Louis Blues, Gretzky knew his news conference at a hotel near LAX was close to deadline.

So he called The Times and asked to be put through to my home, where I was writing the trade story. The clerk did so after realizing it was not a joke. On Friday, the clerk--now at another newspaper--brought up that anecdote, expressing amazement at Gretzky’s courtesy and class on that difficult day.

One day at practice, Gretzky handed me something that looked like a poster. Only hours later was it discovered that the “poster” was instead a valuable Leroy Neiman print. Obviously, it had to be returned.

It wasn’t easy.

Gretzky looked surprised and a little annoyed. But he was good at improvising on and off the ice.

“I’ll save it for you and you can have it after I retire,” he said. I wouldn’t have minded waiting a lot longer.


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