All Is Forgiven: Wayne Gretzky returns to L.A. as Kings retire his jersey


Wayne Gretzky never really left Los Angeles. Not during the hiccup in time when he wore a St. Louis blue note on his sweater, and not during the three seasons he cheerfully jostled for taxis in New York.

His home was always here. His heart was too.

So when the Kings honor him at a charity dinner today at Staples Center and retire his jersey to the arena rafters Wednesday, it will be easy to imagine he has been here all the time.

Easy to pretend the Kings never traded him to the Blues. That Gretzky and owner Philip Anschutz, strong-willed men who hadn’t gotten full measure of each other, were never at odds after Gretzky urged club executives to add talent and revive the sagging team. Anschutz, accustomed to deference and not debate, figured Gretzky merely wanted more money and backed then-general manager Sam McMaster’s decision to trade Gretzky for an assortment of young players on Feb. 27, 1996.


Gretzky, who last year became a 20% owner and managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, said he harbors no bitterness. But he resented being portrayed as greedy, leaving unsaid that if not for him, the Kings and Staples Center might not exist today.

“I would have loved to finish my career in L.A., but since then, he and I became friends,” Gretzky said. “We talk about it. He made a business decision, and I understand that. Not everything in life works out. There are no hard feelings.”

But think what could have happened if he had stayed and won the Stanley Cup championship that still eludes the Kings, who haven’t gotten past the second round of the playoffs since their exhilarating run to the 1993 finals.

“I wish that could have happened, because in a lot of ways, I worked harder in L.A. than I did in Edmonton,” he said. “In Edmonton, the team was so good, so powerful and so talented, and being in a Canadian city, it was a hockey city. When I came to L.A., the team had finished second to last in the NHL that year and was drawing 6,000 people a game. We as an organization worked hard in the community selling hockey and getting kids to participate in hockey.”

Imagine, finally, that the last jersey he wore before ending his unparalleled career in 1999 was the black-and-silver model the Kings will wear Wednesday in homage to the NHL’s all-time scoring leader. Tim Leiweke, president of the Kings and Staples Center, has pictured that often.

“From my standpoint and the organization’s standpoint, I have a great deal of respect for him and have an extremely good relationship with him now,” said Leiweke, who was hired by Anschutz a few months after Gretzky was traded. “But it took some time.”


While Gretzky mended fences with Anschutz, he also was waiting for former King owner Bruce McNall to emerge from behind the barbed-wire fences of federal prison, where McNall served nearly four years on two counts of bank fraud and one each of wire fraud and conspiracy.

By McNall’s count, his misdeeds cost Gretzky about $1 million, plus about $400,000 in legal fees for McNall and some associates. Yet, Gretzky stuck with him, visiting him wherever he was moved and offering support--but never explaining why he put off the Kings’ requests to retire his jersey alongside those of Dave Taylor, Rogie Vachon and Marcel Dionne.

It was Rick Minch, Gretzky’s personal assistant, who told McNall that although the NHL retired Gretzky’s No. 99 and the Edmonton Oilers retired his jersey, Gretzky wouldn’t participate in a ceremony in Los Angeles without McNall.

“I thought it was one of the most incredible things anybody had ever done,” said McNall, who is executive-producing three films and writing a book to pay his legal fees and repay his victims. “I almost couldn’t imagine it. I told him to do what’s best for him, but he said he wouldn’t do it until I was able to participate. I was flabbergasted by it all.”

Gretzky is famously loyal to friends. He helped World Hockey Assn. teammate Bill Flett through alcohol rehabilitation and performed similar mercies for “countless” others, said his agent, Mike Barnett. “Whether it be a car here or some other form of assistance, you couldn’t count them all on two hands,” Barnett said.

His bond with McNall, though, was unique.

“I felt really strongly that Bruce had gone through a tremendous amount and had been punished and served his time,” Gretzky said, “and had it not been for the Kings organization and Bruce, I would never have played in Los Angeles.”


How he became a King and how he and McNall helped the NHL extend its short reach to unexpectedly far places is worth retelling.

“When Wayne went to L.A., he really changed the lay of the land for a lot of people,” said Glen Sather, who was the general manager of the Oilers in 1988 and reluctantly obeyed owner Peter Pocklington’s order to trade Gretzky. “He popularized hockey in L.A. and created a big-time atmosphere. The exposure was immense, not only there, but in a lot of places.

“The game in the southern part of the States changed dramatically. He opened the frontier for all of those cities.”

McNall added that when people look at the sheer size of another L.A. star, 7-foot-1, 340-pound Shaquille O’Neal of the Lakers, “they can’t relate.” “Wayne looks normal, and that’s part of his charm and mystique,” McNall said. “Also, I think he was so young, and you take records that have been around so long and double them--you don’t just beat it a little bit, you crush ‘em--that added to it. He in some ways was a freak, but he was totally human in terms of his appearance and his down-to-earthiness.

“I doubt that in any sport, certainly in hockey, there will be that combination of time and place and circumstances that would allow it to happen again.”

Gretzky and the Oilers ruled the NHL in the 1980s, playing a high-tempo style and obliterating scoring records. Grant Fuhr was a money goaltender; and Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri were world-class players, but none had Gretzky’s gift for the subtle marvels of the game.


“We knew he was going to be somebody special, but the magnitude of what he ultimately became probably surprised everybody but Wayne and Walter [Gretzky’s father],” said Barnett, who first heard of Gretzky when he was a 12-year-old phenom.

Gretzky became a 10-time scoring champion and nine-time most valuable player, leading the young Oilers to the Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988. But with success came high salaries, too high for Pocklington in a small Canadian market. By the late 1980s, he was asking around to gauge Gretzky’s value, and he found an ideal trading partner in McNall.

McNall, who built a fortune dealing in coins and artifacts, had purchased 25% of the Kings from Jerry Buss in 1986. He recalls Buss musing about bringing Gretzky to Los Angeles, and when McNall upped his stake to 49% in 1987, he asked if Buss thought it remotely possible. Buss told him Pocklington hinted Gretzky could be had.

That was all McNall had to hear. He was a hockey fan, but he knew he needed a compelling reason to draw casual fans to the Forum.

“This is Los Angeles. It’s not Detroit. It’s not Toronto. It’s a star-driven town,” McNall said. “I got obsessed with this concept of getting Wayne.”

McNall had been elected chairman of the NHL’s board of governors and at league meetings invariably asked Pocklington if Gretzky was available. The answer was no until the summer of 1988, when Pocklington approached him.


“Right away he outlined the cash he needed, $15 million, and that never changed,” McNall said.

Gretzky knew something was up but wasn’t sure what. The morning after the Oilers’ fourth Stanley Cup championship he was awakened at 7:30 by a phone call from a Vancouver businessman who wanted to buy the Canucks if Gretzky would play for them.

“That’s when it started to unravel,” Gretzky said. “That’s when I said to Peter I wanted to go either to Detroit or L.A.”

The choice of Southern California wasn’t to boost the acting career of his wife, Janet Jones, as was speculated. They planned on having a family--their four children range from 2 to 12--and Janet wanted to be a full-time mom.

“I just felt there was a reason pulling me to L.A.,” Gretzky said. “I don’t know if part of it was Bruce, and part of it was the challenge of going there. It was a challenge to me. People said, ‘Hockey can’t be popular in L.A.,’ but all I could remember were the years I was in Edmonton and we’d play L.A. in the playoffs. We hated them, and the atmosphere was unbelievable. I kept thinking, ‘This could be an unbelievable place.’ ”

McNall broached the subject over dinner with him and Jones at a Westwood Boulevard restaurant shortly before their wedding. “I don’t think he believed in a million years this was real,” McNall said.


But McNall was scrambling to make it real, persevering when the reluctant Sather quibbled over players.

“We were talking in my office and I called Peter and I put it on the speaker phone and put it all in the open,” McNall said. “When Wayne heard Peter basically say, ‘We’re happy with whatever numbers and players,’ I hung up and Wayne turned and said, ‘I am now a Los Angeles King. I’ll never be an Edmonton Oiler again.’

“At that moment, Wayne became as proactive in helping the process as I was. He said, ‘We need to get Marty [McSorley] and this player and this player.’ Peter wanted three first-round picks and I couldn’t get him off that. Wayne said we should stagger it so we don’t give up a pick every year. In a way, it was the beginning of our partnership. It wasn’t an employer-employee relationship but a partnership to bring hockey to the U.S.”

When the Canadian government pressured Pocklington to keep its native son and Canadian fans vented their fury, Pocklington wavered. McNall feared the worst when he flew to Edmonton and Pocklington asked to speak to Gretzky privately.

“I thought, ‘He’s going to talk him out of it and that’s going to be that,’ ” McNall said. “But Wayne sensed I was worried and said, ‘Bruce, relax.’ I told him not to worry about me and that if he wanted to undo it, we can, that he should do what’s in his heart. He went in and five minutes later said, ‘Yeah, Peter talked a little about undoing it, but there was no way I was going to back out.’ ”

The Oilers dealt Gretzky, McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Kings for Jimmy Carson--just off a 55-goal, 107-point season--Martin Gelinas, first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993 and $15 million on Aug. 9, 1988. Hockey would never be the same.


“I distinctly remember how proud Wayne was when the Kings became the first Los Angeles-based team to sell out in season tickets,” Barnett said of the 1991-92 season. “We grew up in Canada, and when you think of Los Angeles, you think of the Dodgers and Lakers and Rams and the enormous following and success they had. And to think that despite that, Wayne Gretzky and his teammates were the first professional sports team to sell out in advance of a season was very, very gratifying, particularly when they put into perspective where they were when Wayne arrived.”

But at first, Gretzky had serious doubts. He shared them with friends on the first day of his first King training camp. “I remember my exact quote: ‘I can’t believe how bad this team is,’ ” he said. “You have to understand, this was the second-worst team in hockey and I had just come from one of the best teams ever. But we got on a huge roll and finished second or third overall that year, which was staggering in itself.”

The Kings became a hot ticket, drawing celebrities and fans who recognized and appreciated his genius. He passed Gordie Howe’s goal and point records and won three scoring titles while a King; he appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and was among the few NHL players advertisers sought for national commercials.

The Kings’ box-office success made hot-weather hockey trendy. McNall persuaded Michael Eisner, head of the Walt Disney Co., to buy an expansion franchise in Anaheim. The Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas, and the NHL established outposts in Miami, Tampa Bay and Nashville.

“I’ve been involved in just about every sport out there and I think Gretz maybe was the most significant athlete in the history of any game because of the impact he made on the sport,” Leiweke said. “I don’t know of any other athlete in any other sport that ultimately changed the dynamic of a league as much as he did hockey.”

The Kings peaked in the spring of 1993, when they reached the Cup finals. It wasn’t their best team--Gretzky missed much of the season because of a back injury--but it was the most successful. “That year, in my mind, cemented hockey as far as the Los Angeles Kings organization goes,” he said.


The game’s future was solidified, but McNall’s finances were crumbling and he was juggling too many balls to enjoy the team’s success. Desperate for cash, he sold 72% of the club to Joe Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff in 1994; the Kings missed the playoffs that spring and the next. Coach Barry Melrose got into a power struggle with management and was fired in 1995. The club fell into Chapter 11 bankruptcy that summer before Anschutz and Ed Roski bought it for $113.25 million in October.

“Nobody knew how quickly it could unravel, and it seemed to just spiral into disarray,” Gretzky said. “We went through a lot, and before you knew it, even I was out of there. That’s what was most disappointing about it.”

McMaster, recommended for the general manager job by Gretzky, traded Gretzky to St. Louis for Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat and two draft picks. McMaster, who declined to discuss the trade, was fired a year later.

Said Pat Conacher, a King teammate and now a Coyote assistant coach: “I don’t care if they were getting younger or whatever. You still want the best player in the league on your team. Why wouldn’t you keep him? I was dumbfounded, knowing everything he did for that franchise.”

Gretzky’s stay in St. Louis was brief. He had wanted to play with winger Brett Hull, but he chafed under taskmaster coach Mike Keenan and rejected a long-term offer and signed with the New York Rangers for less money. He enjoyed his first year there, even resolving old differences with former King teammate Luc Robitaille, who blamed Gretzky for the trade that sent him away from the Kings. The Rangers reached the semifinals before losing to Philadelphia but couldn’t build on that. They missed the playoffs the next two years, and Gretzky was soured when coach Colin Campbell, a longtime friend, was fired.

“One of the selling points when I went to New York was they never decide to go young,” Gretzky said. “That’s the one year they decided to go young and couldn’t come to terms with Mark [Messier] and Mark left town. It was a draggy two years.”


He began considering retirement early in 1999 but said nothing until midseason, when he told his wife and best friend he was about to play in his All-Star finale. “My wife said, ‘If it’s going to be your last All-Star game, win the truck,’ ” Gretzky said of the prize awarded to the MVP.

So he did.

Nonetheless, he retired in April. When he did, there was no doubt where the family would go. “We’d talk to the kids and say, ‘Where do you want to live and grow up,’ ” he said, “and it would always come back to, ‘We want to live in L.A.’ ”

Although he’s building a home in Phoenix, the family’s permanent residence is at the exclusive Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. He also pays for a suite at Staples Center.

Before he invested in the Coyotes, Gretzky spoke to the Kings about a front-office job, “but I didn’t want to be a figurehead.... Their show was up and running smoothly and that was great, and when this opportunity came along I said, ‘It’s close to L.A., as close as I can be to L.A., it’s too good a situation to pass up.’ ”

However, Leiweke hasn’t given up on bringing him back someday. “Is there a day in the foreseeable future when he could conceivably play a role here? He’s with Phoenix, and I’m not going to tamper,” Leiweke said. “But at the end of the day, Gretz should retire a King and we missed that opportunity once. If it ever presents itself again, I hope we’ll make it work the next time.”

Said Gretzky: “I always put my heart and soul in everything I did there, when I played, on and off the ice. I thoroughly enjoyed playing there. It was a really special place to play. I’m proud of the fact people now say, ‘L.A. is a good hockey city.’ ”




Through the Great Years


* On Aug. 9, 1988, Traded by Edmonton to Kings with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, a 1989 first-round pick (Martin Rucinsky), a 1993 first-round pick (Nick Stajduhar) and $15 million in cash.

* Became first King to win Hart MVP trophy--his ninth.

* MVP of All-Star game in Edmonton.


* Sat out two games with knee injury and five with back injury; missed three playoff games because of back.

* Became NHL’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing Gordie Howe’s total of 1,850.

* Took eighth Art Ross Trophy (scoring) and led the league with 102 assists.


* Won scoring title with 163 points.

* Broke own NHL record with 23-game assists streak.

* Surpassed Jari Kurri and became first in all-time playoff goal scoring with 93.


* Notched 13th 100-point season in row.

* Led NHL with 90 assists.


* Sat out first 39 games of season because of herniated disk.

* Led league in postseason scoring for sixth time, tallying 40 points while Kings reached Stanley Cup final for first time.


* Became NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer, surpassing Howe on March 23.

* Won 10th and last scoring title with 130 points (38-92).

* First time his team missed the playoffs.


* Got 2,500th career point April 17.


* Feb. 27, 1996--Citing an unwillingness to be a part of the Kings’ rebuilding effort, Gretzky was traded to St. Louis Blues in exchange for Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, a 1997 first-round pick and a 1996 fifth-round pick (Peter Hogan).