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Scott Ostler

The Season Hockey Became a Big Deal

April 26, 1989|Scott Ostler

Trade Gretzky.

That's what the Kings must do if they ever expect to become a respectable hockey club, or any other kind of club. Trade him now, before lunch, before it dawns on the rest of the league what a fraud he is.

Wayne Gretzky calls himself a hockey player? How many times during the playoffs did he sucker-punch an opponent? Did he even once slash, trip, high-stick or cross-check--i.e: execute the fundamentals? He probably doesn't even jaywalk.

Wasn't it Gretzky who was supposed to bring this city not only the Stanley Cup, but also the Stanley Saucer?

Fifteen-million bucks for a guy and all he can do is skate and tap a puck around? What a monstrous gyp. Believe me, I know my hockey, and as I was saying to a friend of mine at halftime Monday night, Gretzky's got to go.

Wait, wait, what am I doing? Let me calm down here, I'm hyperventilating. I guess I got caught up in the excitement of the Kings' playoff run, and I'm still trying to deal with the crushing disappointment of the sweep at the hands of the Calgary Flames.

Actually I have to admit that, as a true hockey fan of many, many days, I'm proud of the Kings. And Gretzky, even though he is suspect as a player--his face doesn't even look like a map of the America's railroads--has shown potential. He could become a good one. Who knows, maybe even a great one.

It seems crazy now, but when King owner Bruce McNall made the trade for Gretzky, there were a lot of knowledgeable hockey people who said McNall was making a huge mistake, giving away too much, bankrupting the franchise.

All Gretzky did was jack the Kings up from the 18th-best team in the league to fourth best, instantly revitalize the franchise and convert about 100,000 L.A. fans to hockey.

"Bruce showed a lot of courage making that trade," Jerry Buss said Monday night in the Kings' dressing room. "You don't just step up to the line with $15 million of your own money like that, plus (Gretzky's) additional salary."

Buss, the former King owner, tried hard to make a trade for Gretzky two years earlier, at roughly the same price, and Buss and Rogie Vachon almost pulled it off. At the last minute, Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington backed off.

When McNall came calling, though, the timing was better, Pocklington was ready and was blinded by the cash.

In the dressing room after the Kings knocked Edmonton out of the playoffs, a reporter asked McNall, "Does this represent a triumph of money over tradition?"

McNall wasn't offended, because he does not offend easily.

"That's a good question," McNall said. "It (money) didn't hurt any, did it?"

McNall could have taken offense. After all, he initiated and consummated the trade of the century, put his $15-mil-plus on the line, and brought Los Angeles a new winner, and now somebody is wondering if he is guilty of crass checkbook sportsmanship.

Seems to me that Los Angeles had had just about enough of Kings' tradition.

And what's wrong with using cash, along with cunning and courage, to build a better team? Did anybody criticize the Yankees for buying Babe Ruth? Or the Dodgers for buying Kirk Gibson?

Which brings us back to Gretzky, whose performance this season reminds me of the time someone asked Yogi Berra if a brilliant rookie had exceeded his expectations.

"He's done more than that," said Yogi.

Monday night Gretzky sat at his locker, his eyes red, and said, "It's been a very tough year, emotionally. A lot has happened in my life the last nine months."

I asked Gretzky if he feels like an L.A. guy now.

"I've enjoyed it here," he said, "I really like this building (The Great One Forum), the atmosphere. People talk about Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton being great hockey towns, and they are, but the atmosphere here is as good as anywhere. Everybody involved with this team is excited about it."

As for his adjustment to a new city and its culture, that seems to have gone well. Gretzky, a longtime Boston Celtics fan, has even come to appreciate the Lakers and Magic Johnson.

"Magic's been great to me," Gretzky said. "This city, more than any city other than New York, can eat you up pretty quick if you forget why you're here. So many athletes forget why they're doing all the endorsements or making all the appearances, they lose sight of what they're supposed to be doing. Magic is the best example I've ever seen of an athlete who knows exactly why he's here. You just come and do your job. I admire his ability to focus. We've talked and I've learned a lot from him."

I should have known who was behind the Kings' success. Not only should Magic be voted MVP of the National Basketball Assn., he should be the National Hockey League's MVP, too.

The Kings, meanwhile, need some tuning, they need to make some moves. The Kings will probably want to send Lucky Butt, the man named Robert who lowers his pants and sits on the ice to bring the team good luck, to New Haven for seasoning.

There are rumors that Coach Robbie Ftorek will be bounced. Another rumor is it will be only a reassignment, that Ftorek will be asked to step out from behind the bench and become the new Lucky Butt.

Speaking of cooling off, now that I've cooled off a bit, I'm starting to think that maybe the Kings should hang onto Gretzky, give him one more chance.

Wayne could use a little help, though, and McNall is a fool if he doesn't go out and get this Mario Lemieux fellow.

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