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Stanley Cup Finals / New Jersey vs. Mighty Ducks |
Game 3, Tonight at the Pond, 5 p.m., Ch. 7, Devils
lead series, 2-0

Bruce Almighty

Before he went to prison for fraud, but after he became one of the most popular sports figures in Southern California, McNall helped create the Ducks

May 31, 2003|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

The Mighty Ducks have been portrayed as having skated straight out of Fantasyland, a Disney movie come to life under that company's ownership. But the reality is, they were first Bruce McNall's fantasy, a vehicle for easing his dire financial problems.

If it weren't for the former King owner, there probably wouldn't be an NHL team called the Ducks, nor Stanley Cup finals at the Arrowhead Pond this weekend, nor, perhaps, pro hockey franchises stretched across the Sun Belt.

And although that is no consolation to investors who lost millions to him, or those who pleaded guilty to crimes committed under his direction, it did earn him a phone call from Disney chairman Michael Eisner, inviting him to Anaheim to see the Ducks play in the finals.

To Eisner, owning a hockey team called the Ducks was a logical extension of his entertainment empire. To McNall, sinking fast toward the bottom of a financial quagmire, the idea was a temporary $25-million lifeline from creditors he owed about 10 times that amount.

By letting an NHL expansion team share his territory, that's how much McNall stood to gain from any deal.

"I figured any money I could get would stem the bloodletting," said McNall, now a movie executive with Fine Arts Entertainment after serving four years in prison for bank fraud. "And I thought, if we could get Disney in our league, what a coup that would be. What a huge coup."

Former King superstar Wayne Gretzky, who has remained close to McNall, credits him for looking out for hockey's best interests above all. "Bruce really wanted to grow the sport," Gretzky said. "It was kind of gutsy on Bruce's part. Just a few years earlier the Kings were drawing only 7,000-8,000 a game and some of their fans were coming from Orange County, which was only an hour's drive away. If the Ducks came into being, people might say, 'Why drive an hour when we can support our own team and still see NHL hockey?' Bruce, to his credit, saw what was best for the NHL."

Eisner declined to be interviewed for this story, but during their phone call, McNall said Eisner told him, "You thought of the idea of the Ducks. It was your concept. You were the father of the whole idea."

McNall dismisses that theory.

"I think I'm getting more credit than I deserve," he said. "A lot of things just came together."

But he smiles at the mention of the phone call. Actually, almost everything makes McNall smile these days.

At 53, he feels he has found the happiness that eluded him in the early 1990s when he seemed to have it all as owner of the Kings, racehorses, rare coins and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. He was chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors, Gretzky's best buddy, and hobnobber with the likes of President Reagan, John Candy, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.

Whether ice-side at the Forum watching his team skate to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, on board his private 727 headed for the next game, locked in a back room negotiating a multimillion-dollar deal or seated in a viewing room screening his newest movie, McNall was a man in motion.

Few knew that he was heading for a big crash. He was fraudulently obtaining loans to finance his various enterprises. His collateral included phony coins, coins borrowed from others, even dead horses.

"I thought I was omnipotent," McNall said. "I always thought I would find a way to fix everything. Borrowing here, borrowing there, illegally, it would all work out. It was stupid. It was a mess."

McNall continued looking for ways out. He considered selling the Kings to Sony Corp. But around the same time, the Arrowhead Pond, then to be known as Anaheim Arena, was taking shape.

The Ogden Corp. agreed to underwrite the arena's financing, and company chairman Richard Ablon asked McNall to help him find tenants.

Clipper owner Donald Sterling was approached but declined.

McNall thought about filling the hockey dates himself, with the Kings. "It was a viable option," he said.

Except he had a lease with Jerry Buss to play at the Forum.

"If I was Al Davis," McNall said, "I would have just moved and let Jerry sue me. But I considered Jerry a friend. He was the one who got me into hockey in the first place. Breaking the lease would have been morally wrong. Here I was, falsifying bank statements, and that was OK, but breaking a lease was wrong. How crazy was that?

"I could have declared bankruptcy. That would have wiped out the lease. It would have been the right move. But then, I'd be admitting to myself and others that I couldn't fix the problems, that I couldn't keep the ship afloat."

Then along came Norm Green. The owner of the Minnesota North Stars wanted to move his team to Anaheim for the 1993-94 season. McNall was overjoyed. The $25-million indemnification fee was in his sights. Green toured the Pond construction site and was sold.

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