Gretzky's arrival naturally charged up the Kings, who have always been the NHL's long-lost brothers, stuck out there in sunny California with nobody for company. In 1972, then Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke observed that there were supposed to be some 800,000 transplanted Canadians living in Southern California and that they all had moved there to get away from hockey. But Gretzky is King, and L.A. loves superstars, domestic or imported. "It is not just one new guy," says Kings defenseman Steve Duchesne, a holdover from 1987-88. "It is 23 new guys."
In fact, the Kings got off to a 4-0 start, the best in the franchise's dismal 21-year history. Gretzky's coming out against Detroit in the Forum on Oct. 6 was like a Hollywood premiere, complete with klieg lights and megawatt celebrities, and the Great One delighted the assembled glitterati by scoring on his first shot in an 8-2 Kings victory. Then came home victories over Calgary, the New York Islanders and Boston, followed by a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia. Though they were competing against the Dodgers, the Kings averaged 13,778 for those five games, up 2,111 over last season's average, which was the second worst in the league. Better still, the Forum was abuzz with the sound of diehards explaining to newcomers the difference between icing and offsides.
Then the schedule played a dirty trick on the Kings: It sent them on the road. Their first trip took them to Calgary, where on Oct. 17 the Flames' notoriously accomplished Gretzky-baiting fans accorded him a disorienting 20-second ovation. They probably were relieved that Gretzky was playing for L.A., not for their Alberta nemesis to the north. It was kinder treatment than the Kings received on the ice, where they were routed by the Flames 11-4.
L.A. trailed just 4-3 going into the last period; three of the Flames' seven third-period goals came within 60 seconds. Kings coach Robbie Ftorek kept goalie Rollie Melanson in the game all the way, later arguing, with some justification, that Melanson had not played poorly, 11 goals or no. Also distinguishing themselves for L.A. were defensemen Ken Baumgartner, who took six penalties, and Larry Playfair, who flung a cooler of chilled pucks from the penalty box onto the ice, costing his team a two-minute bench minor that led to Calgary's 11th goal. McNall, for one, discerned something positive in Playfair's rebellion. "It was a good sign," the owner said. "This team has accepted losing in the past, and now it sees losing as unacceptable." (Two days later, Playfair was dealt to Buffalo for left wing Bob Logan and a ninth-round draft choice in 1989.)
After the game in Calgary, the Kings, glumly silent, piled into a chartered bus and motored the 185 miles to Edmonton, where they checked into the Westin and crashed. It was in the same hotel—in the Crown Suite that has also housed Queen Elizabeth II, for whom it was named, and her son and daughter-in-law the Prince and Princess of Wales—that Gretzky and Jones had spent their wedding night. But now, here was Gretzky, three months later at a press conference, hoping aloud that the boos he expected to hear when he stepped on the Northlands Coliseum ice Wednesday night wouldn't be "too terrible, but you never know."
The Oilers did not exactly savor the notion of having to clamp down hard on the guy who had scored or set up 1,669, or 48%, of their goals since 1979 and had led them to four Stanley Cups. "I've been wondering what I'm going to do the first time he comes up my wing." said hulking defenseman Steve Smith. "Do I take him hard into the boards? Do I just hold him?" And Oilers general manager and coach Glen Sather said, "I've got enough aggravation as it is. I sure wouldn't mind having this one over with."
The Oilers got off to their usual sluggish start this season. Goalie Grant Fuhr had reported overweight and then injured his knee. Glenn Anderson had no goals in the first six games. Jimmy Carson, the wunderkind center who came from Los Angeles in the Gretzky deal, was taking a long time to adjust to Edmonton's style of play; on a team of speed merchants, he seemed a half step slow. On Oct. 12, Vancouver won at Edmonton for the first time in 3� years. The Oilers showed up for Gretzky's return with a 2-2-2 record and were coming off tie games against Winnipeg and Minnesota, two of the more underwhelming teams in the NHL.
"We're still a good team," said Edmonton co-coach John Muckler. "We used to be a great team."
For all of Gretzky's trepidations, it quickly became apparent that all the good citizens of Edmonton wanted was the chance to bid their favorite son a proper goodbye, something the midsummer night's deal had deprived them of. The Canadian Broadcasting Company switched a regular-season broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada, usually seen on Saturday, to midweek for the first time in that program's 37-year history. More than 200 media credentials were requested, about five times the usual number for a nonplayoff game. A local radio station invited listeners to call in and share their "favorite Gretzky moments from over the last 10 years."
"I remember the time he gave the Stanley Cup to Marty McSorley, and Marty skated over and gave it to his dad...."