Wayne Gretzky, whose arrival propelled a faltering franchise to hockey respectability and brought the Kings within three games of a Stanley Cup in 1993, left Los Angeles having fallen short in his ultimate mission Tuesday when he was traded to the St. Louis Blues.
It was the second trade in Gretzky's illustrious NHL career. The first brought him from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings in 1988 and had Gretzky in tears. This time, Gretzky's primary emotion was relief as the months of rumors became reality. He goes to the Blues for three young forwards--Roman Vopat, 19; Craig Johnson, 23, and Patrice Tardif, 25; a first-round draft pick in 1997 and a fifth-round choice next summer.
"It's a tough day for everybody," said Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer and nine-time MVP. "I didn't think when I left Edmonton, I would go through another day like that. But it's time to move on, that's the bottom line.
"The hardest part was that [owner Edward Roski] was so classy. After meeting with him, my heart was telling me to stay. But my gut was saying it was best to move on. I don't know, it was just a gut feeling."
But Gretzky, while talking about his torn emotions, was almost giddy at the prospect of playing with his close friend, star right wing Brett Hull, and for General Manager and Coach Mike Keenan of St. Louis. In fact, Hull was one of the first to call Gretzky, long before the trade was announced.
Earlier in the day, there were mixed signals as Gretzky and his agent, Michael Barnett, had a one-hour meeting with Roski and Robert Sanderman, the team's representative to the league's Board of Governors. Then Gretzky and his wife, Janet Jones, met with Barnett and weighed the decision.
No one could completely explain why Gretzky chose to move on. He said it never came down to money. But Sanderman, at a news conference Tuesday night, said the Kings had offered Gretzky a contract at their mid-day meeting at the Forum.
"He went away and discussed it with his family and let us know late in the afternoon that he preferred not to remain with the L.A. Kings," Sanderman said. "The offer we made included both his remaining playing days and a substantial period after he was done as an active player, in a senior capacity with the Kings' organization."
But the Blues made the deal without signing Gretzky to a contract, a point Gretzky expects to become moot within a few days, saying he did not foresee any contract problems.
Meanwhile, Gretzky seemed unable to put a finger on the reason behind his decision. Maybe it was the chance to escape what has become a hockey gulag, a sagging team that has fallen 13 games below .500 with not much of a bright future. At 35, he has realized there is not much time left in his career and had urged the Kings to improve the team so it could win now, not later, since he was set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
The Kings, fearing they would lose Gretzky without compensation, put out the word that they would entertain offers for him. Among the other interested teams were the New York Rangers and the Vancouver Canucks, but the Blues were the most persistent and talks escalated late last week.
"I could just tell that we weren't on the same wave length," Gretzky said. "If I had it to do all over again, I'd play in L.A. again. At the end of the day, I want it to be great for the Kings too. For me, I'm going to a guy [Keenan] that will stop at nothing to try to win a championship. Nobody has all the answers, nobody has the guarantee of winning the Stanley Cup, but I know one thing, Mike [Keenan] is going to try as hard as anyone to win it."
For Gretzky, who played on four Stanley Cup teams with the Oilers, it nearly happened in Los Angeles. The Kings lost to Montreal in five games in the Cup finals in 1993. He might have turned Hollywood on to hockey and helped spawn two more franchises in California--the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks--but he remains proudest of the Cup run.
"Everybody tries to remember the Miracle on Manchester, but the year we went to the finals, that's where the Kings were at their best," he said. "That was so much fun and we got so close. Nothing else comes close to that, it's ridiculous to even say that."
But while Gretzky brought the sellout crowds and helped the Kings get past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 1993, the franchise has struggled since. The Kings have missed the playoffs the last two seasons, have had three ownership groups since 1993 and even went into bankruptcy proceedings last fall.
The trade of Gretzky signals the further dismantling of the team that captured the imagination of Los Angeles in 1993. Many are convinced that his trade is the first of many involving high-priced veterans, among them forward Jari Kurri, defenseman Marty McSorley and goaltender Kelly Hrudey.