In a steamy passageway beneath the stands at Maple Leaf Gardens, Wayne Gretzky brushed the sweat from his famous forehead, took a swig of beer and allowed himself a moment to gloat. It may not have been the greatest night of his life, but it was close. The Los Angeles Kings would be playing in June, and for the first time in a long time, all was right with Wayne's world.
"I don't think I've ever had as much personal satisfaction," Gretzky said last Saturday night, after his three goals and an assist had lifted the Kings to a 5-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the seventh game of the Campbell Conference finals. "When you're Wayne Gretzky, you take the roses that are thrown at you, but you've also got to take the heat. Well, I took the heat, and I answered the bell."
This is Gretzky's sixth trip to the Stanley Cup finals, but the first for Los Angeles in the franchise's 26-year history. Gretzky played on four Cup-winning teams as an Edmonton Oiler before he was traded to the Kings in 1988, but his California sojourn has been one of promise unfulfilled. It seemed as though it would remain that way forever. A herniated thoracic disk kept him sidelined for L.A.'s first 39 games this season, and his teammates feared that the leading scorer in NHL history was through at 32.
But the back got better, and, baby, Gretzky came back, scoring 16 goals and assisting on 49 others in 45 regular-season games. Most important, he was playing his best hockey as the playoffs neared. So were the Kings, who came together at just the right time for their first-year coach, Barry Melrose. They finished third in the Smythe Division and then knocked off the second-place Calgary Flames and the first-place Vancouver Canucks to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 1969.
"Barry made it clear from the first day of training camp that getting to the playoffs and losing in the first or second round, like the Kings always seem to do, was not what he had in mind," says goaltender Kelly Hrudey, who has redeemed himself with an excellent postseason. "Nobody has ever put this kind of pressure on us."
"Pressure?" says Gretzky, with a smile as wide as Lake Ontario. "This isn't pressure. It's fun."
The playoffs have certainly been fun for Gretzky, who last Thursday night scored a power-play goal 1:41 into overtime to give Los Angeles a 5-4 victory that tied the series at three games apiece. Afterward, Melrose stood a few feet from Goldie Hawn in the Kings' celebrity-filled dressing room at the Great Western Forum and practically guaranteed that his team would advance to face the Montreal Canadiens in the Cup finals.
"We're going to Montreal," Melrose said. Then he repeated it. Twice.
Asked if he was worried that the Leafs might post the quote on their bulletin board, Melrose scoffed. "I may be wrong," he said, "but I don't think a bulletin board has ever won a Stanley Cup."
Neither has a team with a coach who wears his 'do spiky on top and shoulder-length in the back. "He spends more time on his hair than I do," says Melrose's equally flamboyant wife, Cindy, who harangued Canadian television commentator Don Cherry after Game 6 for what she considered unflattering remarks about her husband. She also held up a sign outside the broadcast booth that read, SOUR GRAPES. "She's like Tammy Wynette," an admiring Cherry later told his audience on Hockey Night in Canada. "She stands by her man."