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Mike Downey

Somehow, It Doesn't Look Right

March 11, 1987|MIKE DOWNEY

Dig up a photograph of Bobby Hull in a Winnipeg hockey blouse, or a picture of Bobby Orr with a sad-eyed Chicago Blackhawk on the front of his shirt. It is wrong, all wrong. As wrong as envisioning Fred Astaire in a bowling shirt, or Katharine Hepburn in something from Frederick's of Hollywood.

Fashions change, though, at least for athletes whose new addresses come complete with new costumes, and this is why we have to endure the sights that repulse us, as the first look at Marcel Dionne in a New York Ranger uniform surely will.

Dionne was not born with a crown on his jersey, of course, and there are those in Detroit who still are appalled by the thought of him playing hockey in Los Angeles--or, for that matter, anybody playing hockey in Los Angeles.

Tuesday's trade was still a stunner, though, because Marcel Dionne was not just one of the Kings. He was the King. He was not some commoner. He was royalty.

There are thousands of people in greater Los Angeles who cannot even name another King.

They might not know any details of Marcel Dionne--how old he is, how tall he isn't, how high he ranks up there in the point-scoring annals of the National Hockey League, above Hull and Orr and, for a few more years anyway, Wayne Gretzky.

They might not ever have seen him play. But they knew him. Knew his name. Knew what he was, if not who he was.

Those who did have the pleasure of seeing him play or knowing the man off the ice know how terrific he could be on either score. Marcel Dionne, the little king, was a great player to have around, even if he was no longer the player he used to be.

The terrible thing about losing Dionne to another town is that the Kings have no way to fill his most recent position: Father image.

In Jimmy Carson and Luc Robitaille, the team finally, finally, after all these seasons--came up with a couple of players who genuinely are going to become great ones. Not good ones. Great ones.

But they are younger than springtime, these kids, barely old enough to remember who Hull or Orr or even Gordie Howe were, and everything has been brand new to them in the last season or so--the league, Los Angeles, the works. Talent, they have. Guidance, they need.

Dionne gave it to them. That, and more. He took them under his wing--literally, in one player's case. Robitaille lived in Dionne's house, with his family, and Carson lived with friends next door. Together, the three of them went to work together and played together like schoolboys, to the point that it was not difficult to imagine one of them knocking on the door and asking: "Can Marcel come out to play?"

How happy he was to be with them. "It's exciting to watch them develop," Dionne said one night at the Forum, after a particularly terrific performance by Robitaille. "One night it's one of them, another night it's the other one, and some nights it's both of them."

At a young age, Robitaille already has been hearing "Luc! Luc!" from the fans in the stands, who have long waited for either a successful team or a red-hot prospect to make attending a King hockey game something more than just another way to kill an evening.

Dionne, too, has been waiting. In an interview late last season, he did not seem frustrated, exactly, so much as forlorn.

"The problem is finding enough players who play hungry, who want to win so bad they can taste it," he said. "Too many guys just go through the motions. That's the thing I miss most about the old days. Everybody seemed to play as if their lives depended on it."

With the new kids in town, it was looking more and more as though Dionne might realize his fantasy for Los Angeles hockey before it was time to retire. He knew that until the team either contended for a Stanley Cup or honestly looked capable of winning one, the game--not just the team, but the game--would not be taken seriously. Not by enough people, anyway.

It stood to reason that although Dionne had not spent his entire glorious NHL career here, he would at least conclude it here. Dionne was the guy whose jersey would hang from the rafters some day, finally giving Rogie Vachon's lonesome shirt company.

Alas, Vachon found himself Tuesday having to explain why the next time Marcel Dionne played hockey at the Forum, it would be for some other team.

What a sad day. Somehow, the Forum no longer seems so fabulous.

There are reasons for great athletes leaving the teams to which they seem to belong. Money, obviously. Unwillingness to retire. Clash of personalities with management. Many things are possible. Some things are inevitable.

One day you look up and Henry Aaron is wearing a blue-sleeved baseball uniform in Atlanta, or Nate Thurmond is playing basketball for the Chicago Bulls, or Johnny Unitas is quarterbacking a bunch of guys who are not the Baltimore Colts.

You rub your eyes and hope it will go away.

You don't care if it was the smart move to make, or if your team is going to be a whole lot better with the player or the draft pick or the cash that you got in exchange.

You just want your man back where he belongs.

But in Los Angeles, it is too late.

The King is dealt.

It is a terrible day, and your assignment tomorrow is to picture Fernando Valenzuela pitching for the Seattle Mariners.

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