Wayne Gretzky was back in Edmonton last week, an outsider visiting the city he put on the map. The question hovering over the Great One's return was not whether his new team, the Los Angeles Kings, would beat his old one. The Kings didn't, bowing 8-6 to the Stanley Cup champion Oilers, although a rudderless (read: Gretzkyless) Edmonton power play kept the game closer than it should have been.
No, the reason all of hockeydom was riveted to this otherwise unremarkable—indeed, this downright sloppy—early-season shootout was to see whether Gretzky would be booed or cheered by the people of Edmonton. And how long would the booing or cheering last?
Ten weeks had passed since No. 99 tearfully announced the fateful news that he and his pregnant bride, Janet Jones, whom he married on July 16, would be moving to a Southern California zip code. The resulting maelstrom of ill will swirled mainly around Jones, who was assumed to relish living in L.A. over Edmonton. Jones, an actress, was portrayed as the worst kind of dynasty wrecker until it was revealed that the deal had been initiated by none other than the Oilers' owner, Peter Pocklington, who felt he could get top dollar for Gretzky by unloading him before the Great One became a free agent in 1992.
Pocklington's image was further tarnished when it came to light that he had shopped Gretzky around before striking the deal with Los Angeles. Furious, Edmonton fans took to burning Pocklington in effigy.
For his part, Gretzky settled with his wife in the L.A. community of Encino and raved about his new surroundings. The Kings, he said, are "a great bunch of guys"; his "sensitive" new owner, Bruce McNall, "cares more about you as a person than he does about winning"; his adopted city is beautiful; traffic is "not that bad—if you drive at the right time. It's great going home from the game with the top down."
Gretzky looked forward to Wednesday night's game in Edmonton with something less than relish. It was not the pressure or scrutiny that had him spooked—he described the matchup as "just another one of those 'everybody's-watching' games"—but rather the idea of playing against his best friends.
"I'd really rather not have to go in there," said Gretzky, with a sigh. "We were the closest team, I think, that's ever been assembled in pro sports. It's going to be extremely tough."
Among those Gretzky would be facing was his former housemate and roommate on the road, Kevin Lowe. After the trade, Lowe had stopped talking to the press and gave up his weekly column for The Edmonton Sun
. But Gretzky expected no quarter from Lowe. "I see myself going one-on-one with Kevin and getting knocked down in front of the net," Gretzky said. "I'm not looking forward to that."
Nor did he look forward to tangling with Mark Messier, his successor as the Oiler captain and, like Lowe, a member of the Gretzky-Jones wedding party. Shortly after the bombshell trade was announced. Messier had called a press conference. It was widely thought he intended to express his outrage at Pocklington, but at the 11th hour Messier canceled the session, presumably to keep peace with Pocklington, who, after all, was still his boss.
What gave the game against the Oilers added interest was that the Kings, thanks to Gretzky, had gone from being a poor-to-fair team to a fair-to-good one. They're certainly on their way to becoming a richer team. Indeed, the Kings stand a good chance of making money this year, after having lost between $3.7 million and $5 million in each of the past three seasons. It is estimated that Gretzky this season will generate an additional $15 million for McNall's and the league's coffers through increased ticket sales, greater licensing revenues and a sweetened cable television deal. The hottest piece of merchandise around is the new black, silver and white Kings jersey with Gretzky's famous 99 on the back. Everyone in L.A. seems to own one. In Edmonton, too.