JUNE 6, 1993 SPORTS
Copyright 1993/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Great Expectations Nearing Fulfillment
When Bruce McNall traded for Wayne Gretzky in 1988, we all knew he wasn't merely buying a hockey player, he was buying the Stanley Cup. It came attached to Gretzky. After all, he had won it four times for the Edmonton Oilers.
And, when he didn't win it, he was in it. The final, that is.
No one in L.A. even knew what the Stanley Cup looked like. Or Gretzky, for that matter. All we ever saw of him was this guy skating around in a plastic helmet, waving a stick in the air after he had whipped in another goal against the Kings.
He got 56 of them and 170 points in only 63 games against the Kings. He found them barely harder to get through than Kleenex.
So, we hurried to the news conference when he was traded to get a fix on this new L.A. mega-star. I remember how startled we were at our first close-up at him. I don't know what we pictured — your basic Canadian roughneck dripping tobacco juice, toothless, face stitched like a wall motto, parts of his ear missing. I guess. Something called "Boom Boom," or "the Rocket," or "the Gorilla."
Heck, this guy didn't even look like Cowboy Flett. He had all his teeth, for cryin' out loud! Didn't have a stitch on him. He wasn't big. He looked too frail to be a hockey player. Not a tattoo anywhere.
He had this almost baby face, a nice smile, long blond hair. You would have figured him for a surfer if you'd run into him on the sand at Santa Monica. He could play the angel in a Christmas play.
This was a guy who had scored the most goals, 92, in a single season? Who scored the most single-season points, 215? Who scored the most points in the history of the game?
Our first thought was, those smart-alecks up in Canada had pulled a fast one. This couldn't be the great Gretzky, this — this altar boy. This was a fax.
But L.A. fans were patient. They told him to take all the time he'd need. Take a year, if necessary. We'd wait.
Then, they sat back to see how he would do it. Unfortunately, his teammates did, too. Some of them should have paid to get in. They didn't think Gretzky needed any help. All of them would have qualified for the Lady Byng Trophy, which they give in this league to the player who tries to kill the fewest opponents during the season.
Everybody figured this was Wayne's world. They stood around waiting for him to do it all. All they wanted to do was take the bows.
The public kept waiting, too. Each day it kept expecting to pick up the paper and see where Gretzky had exploded for eight or 10 goals, had performed a double hat trick — after all, 49 times in his career he has had three or more goals in a game.
But first you need the puck. The Kings could never seem to find it, get it to him.
Gretzky handled it well, tried his best. No one brought it up specifically, but as year piled on to year, you could feel the unspoken parts of the postgame interview as Gretzky would patiently account for another disappointment.
"Er, ah, Wayne. It's about the Cup. Er, ah, the — ahem — Stanley Cup? Er, when can we expect that?"
When it looked as if it would be never, along came 1993. It had not been a good season for Gretzky. All those years of getting hammered into the boards had paid off in a herniated disk. He never even got on the ice till the season was half over.
But that was the bad news. The good news was that the Gretzky who came back was the old whirlwind, the center iceman with the uncanny knack for being where the puck was, who could find the open man in the crowd at Times Square on New Year's Eve and get the puck to him at the precise moment the goalie was looking the other way.
There was also the likelihood the team had learned to fend for itself in Gretzky's absence. It had matured. The chemistry was there. Gretzky only ignited it.
The Cup playoffs were like old times. There was Gretzky making a playoff game look like an ice show, skating around and through the opposition, pulling hat tricks, slapping in winning goals.
Suddenly, the Holy Grail of hockey was right there for grabbing. The upstart Kings rolled through the Montreal Canadians in the first game like the German army through Belgium. The only score the Canadians had was kicked in by Gretzky.
The Canadian coach, a sly fellow, found a way out with one minute to play to win a game with a rule book instead of a puck when he invoked a hockey version of the corked bat to remove from the lineup a key player at the critical time. Hockey is the only game that does not play on a level field personnel-wise, and the hole in the lineup was fatal.
But if anyone doubted Gretzky's importance to his hockey team, Game 5 of the test matches would have overcome them. As these ice follies came to Los Angeles for the first time in history Saturday night with the whole town waiting to form up for a ticker-tape parade, the Kings suddenly developed a case of what is known in the theater as flop sweat. They kept, so to speak, blowing their lines, falling into the scenery.
They fell behind, 3-0, and seemed to be looking around to see where to go to surrender.
Gretzky wouldn't let them. Suddenly, there he was behind the net with the puck. He spotted the open Luc Robitaille, flicked the puck to him for the score. The Kings were back in the game, calling for cards.
Nine minutes later, after Tony Granato made it 3-2, there was Gretzky weaving down center ice with the puck on his stick, a sight no goaltender wants to see. Aaron with a hanging curve. Gretzky slapped it in from 30 feet or so. The score was tied.
It wasn't enough. For the second game in a row, the Kings lost quickly (34 seconds) in overtime.
But it couldn't obscure a central fact for the Kings. When Gretzky is on the ice, they are a Stanley Cup team. When he isn't they are — well, maybe not a buttercup team but at least a hiccup.
He put them in the Stanley Cup finals. Will they come back?
Even if they don't, the fact that they're there means the community has now found out something the rest of hockey already knew. Wayne Gretzky is half a hockey team all by himself. Behind that choirboy exterior beats the heart of a train robber. The halo slips when he gets the puck.
He has finally done what he came to do. When you think of the athletes who came to this town with flags waving and bands playing but who crept out whining and complaining, Gretzky stands up and stands out. He starred for his sport and spoke for his sport. He put hockey on Page 1 and in Prime Time. That's a hat trick all its own.
Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.
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