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Kings Slickered Again by Oilers

Mike Downey

August 10, 1988|Mike Downey

Hockey is a game of checkers, not chess pieces, but here is one way to look at Tuesday's trade.

The Kings got rooked.

To get the Franchise, they gave up the franchise.

Edmonton saw the Kings coming--as usual. Stripped them clean. Took everything but their jocks and their pucks.

Leave it to L.A.'s hopeless hockey team to make a trade for the greatest player who ever lived and still get taken.

You don't think so? OK, be a sucker. Lead with your heart instead of your head. Become a hockey junkie, just because at last you have \o7 heard \f7 of a King player.

Go right ahead. Go order your season tickets. Go see Wayne Gretzky. He is worth it. He is worth what you will pay. He is just not worth what the Kings paid. The deal to get The Great One was not a great one.

Just as you can usually say about their defense, the Kings gave up too damn much.

Edmonton gets L.A.'s best player of today, gets four of its most promising players of tomorrow, and gets 10 million bucks, which is half of what Bruce McNall gave Jerry Buss to buy the business. Nobody's worth all that, not even if he brings a couple of friends.

Dave Taylor disagrees. "I think this is a great day for hockey in L.A.," the King right wing said Tuesday. "Wayne Gretzky's going to put some people in the seats. We just got the best player in the world."

For years, didn't the players all rail about the trading of draft choices?

"Yes," Taylor said. "When you look at the successful teams, they built themselves through the draft, because trading for one player usually isn't enough. But Wayne Gretzky may be the one exception."

Frankly, we doubt that, but certainly we wish no ill will to Prince Wayne of Alberta. We hope he is made happy in his new home.

We hope he adjusts from all those championship champagne shampoos and first-class facilities of Edmonton to all the banner-free walls of Inglewood and the too-cold, too-old practice rink at Culver City.

We hope the injury he suffered last season has no lingering after-effects, because we do not want to feel the way the Chicago Blackhawks felt after they finally got their hands on Bobby Orr.

We hope the fact that somebody else, Mario Lemieux, took home the National Hockey League's most valuable player hardware was no indication that the surest thing on ice is slipping.

No way, though, no matter how much the California Gretzky resembles the Canada Gretzky, was Tuesday's trade to the Kings' advantage.

Rogie Vachon, their general manager, has said: "If you want something bad enough, you gotta pay the price."

True, if you can afford the price. If you are rich, you can overpay. Paupers, on the other hand, must be careful. You do not sell all your clothes just so you can buy a mink stole.

Jimmy Carson was everything you ever wanted in a hockey player. He was young. He was gifted. He was the nicest kid since Theodore Cleaver. He was the coming thing in the NHL--not yet Gretzky, but pretty close and getting closer.

That kid is going to score about 70 goals for Edmonton next season, with all those classy players around him.

The Kings finally, \o7 finally, \f7 were onto something. After all those precious draft choices that George McGuire squandered during his seven years as general manager, the club finally recovered.

Carson was theirs, partly because Detroit took the wrong man, partly because the Kings still had their pick. Luc Robitaille was theirs. Steve Duchesne was theirs. At last, the Kings had princes.

Better yet, these kids were so young, so raw, that the Kings' record had not yet improved enough to kill their draft-order standing for seasons to come. The Kings got another high pick this season, Martin Gelinas, and would have other high ones until everything clicked and these guys hit their stride.

Look at them now.

Gone is 1986's first pick, Carson. Gone is 1988's first pick, Gelinas. Gone are three more top picks to come. Gone to Edmonton, which needs great draft picks the way Donald Trump needs nickels.

In return, the Kings get the name of the game, Gretzky, who is 27 and hardly washed up.

Nevertheless, Gretzky is not the player he once was. He is not as hardy. He is closer to the end than the beginning. Already he has hinted at retirement, perhaps before he turns 30, although all such talk will be delayed now that there are tickets to be sold here in hockey's Siberia.

He is just one man, and soon we will see just what input the other Oilers had in Gretzky's success. No longer will there be Jari Kurri or Mark Messier or Grant Fuhr there for him. The Kings need an enforcer, desperately, and no, not Tiger Williams. The Kings need wings. The Kings need defensemen and a better starting goalie. They need more than just Wayne Gretzky and new uniforms.

Gretzky is in for some long nights. Opponents do not treat him with kid gloves anymore. Sometimes, they even drop those gloves. Imagine how opponents will be able to concentrate on Gretzky with this bunch around him.

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