Wayne Gretzky, the newest member of Tinseltown's glitterati, was seated in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel last Friday morning and speaking on the phone to his new boss, Bruce McNall, owner of the Los Angeles Kings. "Who called?" Gretzky asked McNall, a roly-poly 37-year-old who some 72 hours earlier had pulled off the unthinkable and put the historically hapless, inconsequential Kings onto the front pages of newspapers across North America. "You're kidding," said Gretzky. "Well how old is he? [Pause] Thirty-four? [Pause] Why not? What do you have to lose?"
Gretzky could not suppress a grin. At the end of a long—and at times grim—week, here was some news that tickled him. Guy Lafleur's agent had just contacted the team, saying that Lafleur, the former Montreal Canadiens great, wanted to come out of retirement and try out when the Kings' training camp opened in three weeks. So what if Lafleur is actually 36. The Great One skating side by side with the aging Flower in la-la land, which had suddenly become gaga land over hockey, was no less imaginable than the events that had transpired in the previous few days.
"I knew this thing would be big," Gretzky said, putting down the phone. "But I had no idea it would be this big."
In case you have been walking the picket lines outside The Last Temptation of Christ and have missed the news, on Aug. 9 the Kings and the Edmonton Oilers swung the biggest trade in NHL history and, at least monetarily, the biggest in the history of sports. In return for $15 million in cash, plus 20-year-old center Jimmy Carson, first-round draft picks in 1989. '91 and '93, and 18-year-old Martin Gelinas, who was the seventh player taken in the June draft, the Oilers traded Gretzky, now 27, who for the past nine years has been, to many, the Edmonton franchise, the spokesman for the game and the greatest hockey player in the world. In addition to Gretzky, the Oilers sent forward Mike Krushelnyski, 28, and tough-guy Marty McSorley, 25, to L.A. (The negotiating rights to a couple of unsigned defensemen—the Oilers' John Miner and the Kings' Craig Redmond—were also exchanged.) If the Great One's arrival in the City of Angels does not exactly mark the Second Coming, it's the closest thing to divine intervention that the Kings have seen in their 21 years of trying to put fannies in the seats of the Forum.
The deal stunned the sports world. Not since the Milwaukee Bucks sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in 1975 had an athlete of Gretzky's magnitude been traded in his prime. Because of the huge amount of money that changed hands, comparisons were immediately made to the 1919 deal which sent Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees for $100,000 (see box. page 24). Reactions throughout the U.S. and Canada were immediate and wide-ranging:
•Canada's New Democratic Party House leader Nelson Riis: "Wayne Gretzky is a national symbol, like the beaver. How can we allow the sale of our national symbols? The Edmonton Oilers without Wayne Gretzky is like...Wheel of Fortune without Vanna White."
•Kings fan Earvin (Magic) Johnson: "Hey, he belongs in L.A. He's the greatest. I'm definitely going to get season tickets. Even if they never win a game, it will still be exciting to go now."
•Harry Sinden, Boston Bruin general manager: "It brings everyone in the league closer to Edmonton and brings Los Angeles closer to everyone."
•Pat Quinn, general manager of the Vancouver Canucks: "The Kings have got to try to be successful for the next three years, and if that doesn't work out they've left their team in mud for the next 10 to 15 years."
•Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Calgary Flames: "All of a sudden the Kings have the potential to beat anybody in a short series. Gretzky won't tolerate anything less than winning."