WINNIPEG, Canada — In what has become almost a daily ritual, the Kings on Sunday denied reports broadcast in Canada and the United States that they had agreed in principle to trade Wayne Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues for forwards Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson and Patrice Tardif and a 1997 first-round draft pick.
ESPN and its Canadian counterpart, TSN, said the "hockey end" of the deal was set but it hinged on the resolution of financial details, including the Blues' desire to own Gretzky's lucrative marketing rights. That income could help the Blues recoup an investment they hinted might reach $21 million over three seasons.
However, one "detail" is a potential deal-breaker--the Kings have not given Gretzky's agent, Mike Barnett, permission to negotiate with other clubs. Because Gretzky can become a free agent without compensation after the season, other clubs are unlikely to give up players of any consequence to acquire him without assurances he would be willing to sign for two or three more seasons.
"There's absolutely no deal confirmed with regard to any of our players with any team in the NHL as we speak, [and] there's no deal imminent," King General Manager Sam McMaster said. "Anybody who spreads rumors or talks about what they're doing is irresponsible.
"I've had discussions with the Blues on several of the Kings' players but no trade has occurred. We have said that we would talk to any team, and we have had discussions with numerous teams."
ESPN also reported the Blues asked the Kings to hold Gretzky out of their lineup tonight so he could play for St. Louis Thursday at Vancouver. However, King spokesman Rick Minch termed that "ridiculous" and said Gretzky will play for the Kings at Winnipeg.
Said Barnett: "He's playing tomorrow, no doubt about that. We have no reason to overreact to these recent reports."
Barnett, who said the Kings told him they would notify him if a deal was imminent, called McMaster late Sunday and was told nothing is pending.
Gretzky, who registers at the team's hotel under a pseudonym to guard his privacy, did not take phone calls Sunday.
Blues General Manager Mike Keenan has made no secret of his interest in Gretzky, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman last month cautioned general managers to avoid tampering violations. The Rangers and Canucks also talked to the Kings about Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer, but the Rangers last week withdrew from contention.
Sources close to Gretzky indicated he may want to stay with the Kings and not be traded. Asked after the Kings' 2-2 tie at St. Louis on Saturday if management had satisfied his request to improve the team's talent level, he said, "They're definitely going to be a Stanley Cup contender. It's just a matter of time. We have good ownership, and Larry [Robinson, the Kings' coach] is very patient. Time will tell."
Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.