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All Is Forgiven

Gretzky may have regretted being traded away, but time is a great healer for King whose jersey will be retired

October 07, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wayne Gretzky never really left Los Angeles. Not during the hiccup in time when he wore a St. Louis blue note on his sweater, and not during the three seasons he cheerfully jostled for taxis in New York.

His home was always here. His heart was too.

So when the Kings honor him at a charity dinner today at Staples Center and retire his jersey to the arena rafters Wednesday, it will be easy to imagine he has been here all the time.

Easy to pretend the Kings never traded him to the Blues. That Gretzky and owner Philip Anschutz, strong-willed men who hadn't gotten full measure of each other, were never at odds after Gretzky urged club executives to add talent and revive the sagging team. Anschutz, accustomed to deference and not debate, figured Gretzky merely wanted more money and backed then-general manager Sam McMaster's decision to trade Gretzky for an assortment of young players on Feb. 27, 1996.

Gretzky, who last year became a 20% owner and managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, said he harbors no bitterness. But he resented being portrayed as greedy, leaving unsaid that if not for him, the Kings and Staples Center might not exist today.

"I would have loved to finish my career in L.A., but since then, he and I became friends," Gretzky said. "We talk about it. He made a business decision, and I understand that. Not everything in life works out. There are no hard feelings."

But think what could have happened if he had stayed and won the Stanley Cup championship that still eludes the Kings, who haven't gotten past the second round of the playoffs since their exhilarating run to the 1993 finals.

"I wish that could have happened, because in a lot of ways, I worked harder in L.A. than I did in Edmonton," he said. "In Edmonton, the team was so good, so powerful and so talented, and being in a Canadian city, it was a hockey city. When I came to L.A., the team had finished second to last in the NHL that year and was drawing 6,000 people a game. We as an organization worked hard in the community selling hockey and getting kids to participate in hockey."

Imagine, finally, that the last jersey he wore before ending his unparalleled career in 1999 was the black-and-silver model the Kings will wear Wednesday in homage to the NHL's all-time scoring leader. Tim Leiweke, president of the Kings and Staples Center, has pictured that often.

"From my standpoint and the organization's standpoint, I have a great deal of respect for him and have an extremely good relationship with him now," said Leiweke, who was hired by Anschutz a few months after Gretzky was traded. "But it took some time."

While Gretzky mended fences with Anschutz, he also was waiting for former King owner Bruce McNall to emerge from behind the barbed-wire fences of federal prison, where McNall served nearly four years on two counts of bank fraud and one each of wire fraud and conspiracy.

By McNall's count, his misdeeds cost Gretzky about $1 million, plus about $400,000 in legal fees for McNall and some associates. Yet, Gretzky stuck with him, visiting him wherever he was moved and offering support--but never explaining why he put off the Kings' requests to retire his jersey alongside those of Dave Taylor, Rogie Vachon and Marcel Dionne.

It was Rick Minch, Gretzky's personal assistant, who told McNall that although the NHL retired Gretzky's No. 99 and the Edmonton Oilers retired his jersey, Gretzky wouldn't participate in a ceremony in Los Angeles without McNall.

"I thought it was one of the most incredible things anybody had ever done," said McNall, who is executive-producing three films and writing a book to pay his legal fees and repay his victims. "I almost couldn't imagine it. I told him to do what's best for him, but he said he wouldn't do it until I was able to participate. I was flabbergasted by it all."

Gretzky is famously loyal to friends. He helped World Hockey Assn. teammate Bill Flett through alcohol rehabilitation and performed similar mercies for "countless" others, said his agent, Mike Barnett. "Whether it be a car here or some other form of assistance, you couldn't count them all on two hands," Barnett said.

His bond with McNall, though, was unique.

"I felt really strongly that Bruce had gone through a tremendous amount and had been punished and served his time," Gretzky said, "and had it not been for the Kings organization and Bruce, I would never have played in Los Angeles."

How he became a King and how he and McNall helped the NHL extend its short reach to unexpectedly far places is worth retelling.

"When Wayne went to L.A., he really changed the lay of the land for a lot of people," said Glen Sather, who was the general manager of the Oilers in 1988 and reluctantly obeyed owner Peter Pocklington's order to trade Gretzky. "He popularized hockey in L.A. and created a big-time atmosphere. The exposure was immense, not only there, but in a lot of places.

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