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He's Still King of the Forum : All That's Left Are Memories

March 07, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

A few years ago, when Wayne Gretzky was a hero here, Luc Robitaille was his extremely popular teammate, their boss Bruce McNall was the toast of the town, hockey was a hot ticket and Ronald and Nancy Reagan sat rinkside, chatting with Goldie Hawn. What a golden time that was.

Thursday night, Gretzky came to the Forum wearing a blue New York Ranger uniform, as did Robitaille, while somewhere, McNall was preparing to go to jail, which he will do on Monday. Blue is the word today for hockey in L.A.

Gretzky, Robitaille, Mark Messier and a star-studded cast of Rangers made the nondescript Kings look inept, winning easily, 6-2. Gretzky scored a goal before any King even got off a shot.

Returning here to play now is "really not a whole lot of fun," Gretzky said before the game. "It's difficult because, you know, you're torn."

He has friends and admirers here and always will. And yet Gretzky is no longer unanimously loved, having left Los Angeles when the going got tough, then selling St. Louis down the river shortly thereafter. Gretzky's number has not been retired by the Kings and probably won't be until the Kings play in a new downtown arena, or perhaps never at all.

He is hardly the player he used to be, recently going 21 games without a goal. Gretzky's magnetism remains undeniable, however, and there was an air of excitement at the Forum that had been absent through much of the season.

By winning five of their previous six games, the Kings were attempting to make one last mad rush at the Stanley Cup playoffs. They began the day six points behind the Chicago Blackhawks, for the eighth and final spot in the conference playoffs, but had lost their goaltender, Stephane Fiset, to an injury and looked terrible against the Rangers from start to finish.

Revisionist history keeps people believing that the Kings were a great hockey team when Gretzky was here. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that the Kings were a third-place team during that season when they got hot in the Stanley Cup playoffs and reached the final against Montreal, and that Gretzky did not produce a championship in 7 1/2 seasons here, even with many outstanding teammates.

Now anonymity has engulfed the Kings again. Their players, once familiar names around town, are now Vitali Yachmenev, Vladimir Tsyplakov and Dimitri Khristich, none of whom can be pronounced by anybody in town except Larry Robinson and Bob Miller.

The loyal fans, knowing full well that all any NHL team needs to do is qualify for the playoffs to have a pretty fair shot at winning the Stanley Cup, came hopeful that the Kings had saved their best for the last, peaking at exactly the right time and perhaps even making the playoffs while the neighboring Mighty Ducks did not.

They also were catching the Rangers at a good time, with Gretzky in a prolonged scoring slump and the huge-payrolled New York team having won only once in their last nine games.

But whatever excitement this game promised, it was ended in the opening minutes, when Gretzky, 36 years old and goal-free for most of 1997, slipped a pick between King goalie Byron Dafoe's pads.

After that for the Kings, things only got worse. David Oliver, acquired on waivers from the Edmonton Oilers, scored his first goal as a Ranger, with the Kings' Mattias Norstrom caught helplessly on a two-on-one because of defenseman partner Sean O'Donnell's over-committing himself on the other end.

Twenty seconds later, Gretzky passed to Robitaille, who narrowly missed. Twenty seconds after that, Gretzky pulled up and shot himself, hitting the side of the net. The score was still 2-0, but the Kings were under siege.

Even when they had a chance to score, it didn't matter that New York was one of the NHL's worst penalty-killing teams, because L.A.'s power play is even worse. One of the later Ranger goals in the game, in fact, came short-handed.

No, hockey isn't what it used to be at the Forum, where once the arena rocked. Having Gretzky in town, even for a night, reminded everyone of the way things used to be. Unfortunately, all that remains now is the way things are.

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