At Gretzky's request, his roommate on the road this season is the enigmatic Bob Carpenter. L.A. is Carpenter's third stop in his eight years in the NHL; both of his previous clubs, the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers, called him a disappointment before unloading him. In the 1984-85 season he scored 53 goals for the Caps, but in the next three seasons he had 27, nine and 19. If he is ever to regain his old form, it will be as Gretzky's left wing.
"Maybe he did get lucky a few times the year he got 53," says Gretzky. "But Bobby is a legitimate 40-goal scorer."
Carpenter, 25, is clearly buoyed by Gretzky's faith in him. " Wayne has helped me in a lot of ways," says Carpenter. "Just by his being here, we have 20 new players; it's like we're a different team in the same city."
Still, things in L.A. are not entirely rosy. Gretzky and coach Robbie Ftorek have struck sparks off one another. An incident during L.A.'s 8-3 romp over Detroit in Joe Louis Arena on Nov. 23 fueled a firestorm of speculation. Frustrated after being fleeced of the puck by the Red Wings' Steve Yzerman, who then scored, Gretzky smashed his stick against the crossbar. Ftorek benched him for eight minutes, even though Gretzky already had five assists and a goal—the 600th of his NHL career—in the game. To add to Gretzky's embarrassment, a contingent of his family and friends had made the 150-mile drive from Brantford, Ont., for the game.
"I'm sorry about that, Wayne," Ftorek reportedly told Gretzky after benching him, "but I'm trying to teach these guys some composure."
"If you want to teach...teach in New Haven," Gretzky reportedly replied. "We're trying to win a Stanley Cup."
Ftorek refused to elaborate on what later happened. "What's said in the dressing room stays in the dressing room," he says. "Its family stuff." Gretzky would only say that the incident has been "totally exaggerated."
Another possible pitfall for the Kings is the level of competition in the Smythe. The Kings are a sterling 16-3 outside the division and 3-7-1 within (1-4 against Calgary and Edmonton). But Gretzky is thoroughly upbeat. "What we lack right now is patience," he says. "We've got to have the confidence to know that if we're down 2-1 or 3-2 in a game, we don't have to take chances. We're going to score goals."
Nicholls, for one, is ready to do just that. The day after his eight-point dissection of the Leafs, he admitted he had been too excited to sleep. "You have to understand," he said, with the giddiness of a child on Christmas morning, "I haven't had many highlights in my career."