YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 3 of 3)

Lord of the Rink : Kings Owner Bruce McNall Made the Deal of the Decade for Wayne Gretzky--and Turned L.A. Into a Hockey Town

October 01, 1989|JERRY CROWE | Jerry Crowe is a sportswriter for The Times .

Against the advice of his accountants, who calculated that the Kings lost as much as $4 million a year under Buss, McNall bought a 49% interest in the franchise in 1986 and then bought the remaining 51% near the end of the 1987-88 season. Price tag: $20 million.

Why take such a gamble? McNall, who had been one of the original owners of the Dallas Mavericks of the National Basketball Assn., explains that he thought he could make the Kings profitable. He hired additional personnel. He changed the team colors to silver and black in an effort to unburden the Kings of their poor-cousins-to-the-Lakers image. In short, he gave the Kings a new identity. "I don't give things up," he says. "I make them work."

McNall allows that his love of hockey played a role in the purchase, that he heard his accountants but didn't listen.

"Try to surround yourself with the best people available, and when a time comes when an important decision has to be made, seek their advice," he told a different group of CPAs last summer. Long pause. "Then ignore them and do what you want to do."

GRETZKY MADE McNall famous from Saugus to Saskatoon.

"Let's face the facts," McNall says. "He's as much a partner in the Kings as I am." He's not officially, of course. League rules prohibit active players from owning financial interests in their teams. McNall, though, acknowledges Gretzky's worth and pays him well--reportedly about $2.5 million a year, the richest contract in the NHL.

McNall anticipated that Gretzky would bring the Kings unprecedented success when he first approached Oiler owner Peter Pocklington about making a deal. Pocklington had viewed Gretzky as a depreciating asset in Edmonton, but McNall saw him as "the true king of the sport," the only man who could sell hockey in Los Angeles.

"To me, Wayne Gretzky isn't only the best player in hockey, but he's also the ambassador of hockey," McNall says. "It was never a question of whether to do it. I had to do it." But even McNall couldn't predict the consequences.

Average attendance in the 16,005-seat Forum increased by more than 3,000 a game from the previous season. Season-ticket sales tripled, and ticket revenues increased $4 million. The Kings, who had never sold out more than eight home games in a season, sold out 24 of their 40 regular-season games at the Forum, including 14 of their last 15, and all six of their home playoff games. On the road, they drew even better, playing before mostly capacity crowds. The season before, they drew sellout crowds only five times in 40 games.

Advertising sales increased $1 million. Prime Ticket, which had planned to broadcast 39 games, increased that number to 62 and plans to air all but eight of the Kings' 80 regular-season games this year. The Kings sold more jerseys in one season than they had in the previous 21.

This season, in which Gretzky will surely replace Gordie Howe as the NHL's all-time leading scorer, the Kings have added about 2,000 season-ticket holders, leaving only about 5,000 tickets unsold for each game. And, anticipating interest from celebrities, the Kings have increased from $45 to $100 the price of the 122 seats that ring the ice. They received only four cancellations. Sylvester Stallone, first on a waiting list, snapped them up.

And with The Great One, the Kings are no longer long shots to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, the addition of highly regarded goaltender Kelly Hrudey, formerly of the New York Islanders, and veteran defenseman Larry Robinson, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, have made the Kings one of the favorites. McNall claims he has received offers for the franchise to the tune of $100 million-plus, "but I'm not interested in selling at the moment."

Despite his far-flung responsibilities, McNall manages to attend almost every game, and he has ingratiated himself with the players, according to Gretzky. Without being pushy, he has made himself one of the boys. He wants what they want. He wants to win. "I don't view myself as anything other than part of the team," McNall says. "I might kick around ideas, but I don't get involved in the coaching. We hire people to do that. I just try to let everyone do their job."

"He's made it loud and clear to the players that he got into this business because he loves the game," Gretzky says. Before McNall, "L.A., quite honestly, was looked on as a last resort. I don't think anybody in the league ever wanted to play in L.A. or thought about being traded to L.A. And now you hear the same thing wherever you go; players are saying they'd love to play for Mr. McNall. It's a hot situation."

McNall lit the torch. He didn't listen when others told him that Gretzky, however valuable, wasn't worth what the Oilers wanted for him. Why not? "By luck, the greatest hockey player probably of all time happened to be playing in our age," he says. "If I bought a baseball team tomorrow, I'd say, 'Where's Babe Ruth?' And the answer would be, 'He's not around.' I was lucky enough with the Kings that his hockey equal was playing in our age."

Los Angeles Times Articles