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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Watching Los Angeles Kings' run has been really great for Wayne Gretzky

The NHL legend says the Kings have been spectacular in reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since he led them there in 1993.

May 23, 2012|Helene Elliott
  • The Kings, left, celebrate their 4-3 overtime victory over the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. NHL great Wayne Gretzky, who led the team to victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference finals, top right, says the Kings' playoff run has been "spectacular."
The Kings, left, celebrate their 4-3 overtime victory over the Phoenix… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)

The voice on the phone was animated, a Kings fan talking about the team's run to the Stanley Cup Final with the passion typical of their loyal, long-suffering audience.

"It's been unreal what they've done and what they've accomplished so far," Wayne Gretzky said Wednesday. "It's been unreal for the organization and it's been great for hockey in California and L.A. We live in L.A., so we're seeing it first-hand how fans are rallying around the Kings and hoping that they bring home the Stanley Cup.

"It's been fun to watch. It's been spectacular. They've been without question the best team in the Western Conference in the first three rounds of the playoffs and they deserve the accolades they're getting. It's no fluke."

Gretzky, of course, knows what he's talking about when it comes to the Kings, their playoff history, and the popularity of hockey around here.

He brought glamour to the game after his arrival from Edmonton in a 1988 trade, giving hockey an appealing, approachable face while making it trendy among bandwagon-jumpers. But his legacy goes far beyond the stars he brought rinkside.

The attention he drew here spurred the NHL's Sunbelt expansion and established the game on the grassroots level in Southern California, launching programs that routinely send kids to Canada's top junior leagues, premier U.S. college programs and to the NHL.

His exploits in leading the Kings to their first Cup Final appearance in 1993 — a five-game loss to Montreal —will always be franchise highlights. When FS West recently aired the last two games of the conference finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs, his dominance was no less incredible now than it was 19 years ago.

The only shame is that he's not involved with the game except as a fan and occasional spectator at Staples Center.

Gretzky's last NHL involvement, as a part-owner and coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, ended badly when he was caught up in the bankruptcy that engulfed the team three years ago. It's no coincidence he declined interview requests during the Kings' West final series against the Coyotes, but on Wednesday he happily reaffirmed that although he loves being a fan he's not looking to become affiliated with a team or the NHL.

"Oh, no, not at all. I don't even think about it right now," said Gretzky, who plans to attend the Kings' first home Cup Final game on June 4. "My enjoyment is just watching a game right now, truly. I've got a lot of friends in hockey that I talk to and sort of stay in touch with and talk about the game.

"Everything I have in my life is because of hockey, but I just really haven't gone down that road right now. I'm just enjoying what I'm doing. I watch as much hockey as anybody, but I watch in a different way now. I don't critique each individual player or system or style.

"Right now it's not sort of in my cards, I guess. But that's OK. The game has been great to me and has always been good to me in that sense. I just enjoy myself as a fan."

A rather knowledgeable fan, and the only one who owns 60 NHL records.

Based on that knowledge, he praised Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi's vision in building the team through the draft and leveraging surplus assets in trades for Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner.

"Over the last five years they made some really good, quiet deals on the side as far as stockpiling draft picks and being patient with players," Gretzky said. "And when you're able to draft a guy like Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty and you're able to trade a couple of really good, young players like Brayden Schenn and Jack Johnson to fill voids that you need on your hockey club."

He also said Coach Darryl Sutter brought the right intensity and strategy to lift the team to a higher level.

"He played hard every game whether it was in October or whether it was in May and I think that's what he instilled in this hockey club," Gretzky said. "I think the previous coach, Terry Murray, did a tremendous job in establishing the team system and I think from my point of view that Darryl tweaked it a little bit and that he's much more aggressive and [emphasizes] much more forechecking and on the puck, a lot like the way he coached in Chicago and Calgary.

"He took nothing away from their team defense, which is as strong as any team in the National Hockey League, and yet they pursue the puck, and create turnovers offensively to give them more time in the offensive zone, which creates less time in the defensive zone."

He also said there should be a way to reward Sutter's performance at the league level.

"I'd never fool with anything, because I have so much respect for the tradition and history of the game, but it's amazing," Gretzky said. "You look at changing the coach of the year award and picking it after the Stanley Cup playoffs and not before the playoffs start, I think he'd win in a landslide."

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