You can't say the lunatic is running the asylum, since Gretzky always has represented himself and hockey with grace. So let's put it this way: The icon has helped run the sacristy. As befits a legend who made hockey work in California and helped establish the NHL's popularity in other nontraditional hockey venues, his influence on the Kings has been enormous since Day One. Even before Day One. Gretzky sat in former owner Bruce McNall's office giving hand signals as McNall hashed out details of the pending Gretzky trade on a speaker phone with Oiler owner Peter Pocklington. Gretzky asked McNall not to close the deal without landing tough-guy defenseman Marty McSorley as part of it, which he did.
Gretzky as G.M.-without-portfolio became an NHL inside joke. Even the Kings laughed about it. At the '92 press conference when McNall promoted Beverley to G.M., McNall said, "O.K., Wayne, take off that Nick Beverley mask."
Gretzky and McNall were close. McNall, who is expected to be sentenced in July after pleading guilty on Dec. 14 to two counts of bank fraud, one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy in connection with allegedly inflating his net worth and whose remaining 28% of the team is being held by a bankruptcy trustee, didn't just trade for a player when he acquired Gretzky. He made an investment. Gretzky's salary—he is in the second year of a three-year, $25.5 million deal—made him more like a partner than an employee. In fact, he became partners with McNall in ownership of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, some racehorses and a 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card purchased for $451,000 in 1991. "Bruce had a unique relationship with Wayne," says Roy Mlakar, the former King president who resigned in April and is now the Pittsburgh Penguins' CEO. "A name of a player would come up, and Bruce would say, 'Oh, Wayne likes that guy.' You can't underplay that close a relationship, but Wayne was a huge asset while I was in L.A."
Beverley, now the director of scouting and player personnel for the Toronto Maple Leafs, is guarded on the subject of Gretzky. "There was an element of discomfort because of the relationship between ownership and Gretzky that didn't sit well in the dressing room," says Beverley, who traded Coffey, one of Gretzky's best friends, to the Detroit Red Wings in January 1993, and forward Tomas Sandstrom to the Penguins in February 1994. Current King players dispute Beverley's contention that Gretzky's power created tension on the club, although the relationship between Gretzky and former star left wing Luc Robitaille did grow strained. When McMaster traded him to Pittsburgh for rightwinger Rick Tocchet on July 29—one of the rare King deals in recent times that hasn't backfired—Robitaille spoke out. He didn't use Gretzky's name, but he said, "Players should play, and managers should manage. Maybe one of the reasons I'm going is because I agree with that."
"I used to worry about that," Gretzky says of the perception that he is a player-general manager. "If we traded for an ex-Oiler, people would say, 'Oh, wow, that's Wayne Gretzky's deal.' That bothered me tremendously. Then I saw Mark Messier [his former Edmonton teammate and a current New York Ranger] skating with the Cup with about six ex-Oilers around him, and now I don't give a flying——. With an opportunity left to win a Cup, I don't care who's on my side.' "
That window of opportunity looks grimy. Since losing in the '93 Cup finals to the Montreal Canadiens, Los Angeles has won only 32 of 101 games. The Kings are in transition. They are bigger, tougher and marginally more conscientious on defense than they were last season, but right now they are no better. Their defense has been eviscerated by injuries, forcing the team to play youngsters. The peach-fuzz blue line has undermined Gretzky's offense more than his increased defensive responsibilities have, because his great asset always has been an ability to exploit his options. This season he has not been receiving crisp breakout passes from the King zone nor has he had trailing defensemen who can do something with his drop passes at the other end of the ice.
But Gretzky makes no excuses. He never has. "I only compare myself to myself," he says, "and when I've been mentally strong, I've been dominating. Mentally I haven't been strong enough. If I'm contributing what I should, we could have won some of the games we didn't."
Age isn't an ally of Gretzky's, but don't count him out yet. In February 1993, buried in a career-worst streak of 16 games without a goal after having missed 39 games with a herniated thoracic disk, he moped through All-Star weekend in Montreal. Four months later, on top of his game, he was back in the Montreal Forum playing in the Stanley Cup finals.
"Wayne has played more hockey than almost anyone in the world, a hundred games a year, so age is a factor," Melrose says. "For periods he can still be the best player in the world. He has to find the fire because we're not going anywhere without Wayne Gretzky."
And Gretzky isn't going anywhere without the Kings. There has been speculation that if the Kings don't right themselves, next season Gretzky would be willing to move to a contender unafraid of his hefty contract—the Red Wings, maybe?—and try for a fifth and farewell Stanley Cup. Gretzky says no. "My life is in L.A.," he says. "I will end my career as an L.A. King. I've spent countless hours, not only in the dressing room, but selling the sport and promoting the NHL. I don't have the desire or the energy to start all over again. It's a big commitment to go to another organization. This is it. When it's over here, it's over."