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Surprise Trade Cooled McNall-Gretzky Partnership : Relationships: Since the deal that sent his pal and Kings defenseman Paul Coffey to Detroit, the Kings' star and the franchise owner have avoided one-on-one contract negotiations. But they say all is well between them now.

March 01, 1994|LISA DILLMAN and JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Their business partnership once seemed unlimited. Horses, a 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card bought for $451,000 and a football team were among the building blocks of the relationship between Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall and his top star and frequent investment partner, Wayne Gretzky.

But the football team, the Toronto Argonauts, became a financial albatross, costing Gretzky about $2 million. However, Gretzky believed that gains from his horse racing investments with McNall offset his Argonaut losses.

For his current contract signed last week, Gretzky--who once negotiated with McNall one on one in an unusual sign of trust--left the details to his lawyer. The negotiations went on through the summer and there was an agreement in principle in late September. But it would take nearly five more months and many difficult moments before Gretzky signed.

It was quite a departure from his first contract in 1988, shortly after he was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to Los Angeles. They scribbled numbers on a piece of paper, and McNall kept insisting that Gretzky be paid more. Gretzky argued for less.

This time, others spoke for them. For McNall, it was his vice chairman and chief financial officer, Suzan A. Waks. Gretzky was represented by his longtime agent, Michael Barnett, and lawyer, Ron Fujikawa.

The climate had changed after a strain developed in McNall's relationship with Gretzky. A crack appeared last season when McNall and his management team angered Gretzky by trading to the Detroit Red Wings defenseman Paul Coffey, one of his closest friends. Worse yet, McNall never warned Gretzky, who was openly emotional when he and his wife heard the news from Coffey.

McNall later admitted that it was not handled adroitly.

"Obviously, the Paul Coffey trade was disappointing," Gretzky says. "It probably had something of a ripple effect."

The rift became public minutes after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup finals. Gretzky shocked the sports world--and his business partner and boss, McNall--with talk of possible retirement. Later, Gretzky and his entourage swept past McNall, who was surrounded by reporters, waiting for an explanation. "Thanks, Wayne," McNall yelled. Gretzky ignored him and walked by. The blood drained from McNall's face.

Months later, Gretzky and McNall insist everything is fine. "To me, it's back," McNall said. "There were some problems over the Coffey trade. There was a sense of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

"We're both busy. I see him all the time. Yesterday, he came over to drop by. Our relationship hasn't changed in the sense that the last couple of months have been fine."

Now, the major issue they differ on publicly is their football team. Gretzky wants to unload the Argonauts.

Gretzky said he did not go along with every venture McNall has suggested in the past, but has not ruled out future partnerships. "I trust Bruce," he said.

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