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Old 12-26-2017, 03:24 PM   #1
Amazin69
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(Mc)Master of his Domain, King(s) of his Castle

Summer, 1988

It’s another beautiful summer in Los Angeles. The LA Dodgers are driving towards what will be, as of 2017, their final World Series title. (The idea of preparing for the upcoming NLCS against the New York Mets by going 1-11 against the Mets in the regular season seems a little strange, but hey, it worked for the ’83 Phillies against the Dodgers, so…)

The LA Lakers, having become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the old Bill Russell Celtics of two decades previously, are preparing for a third win. So much so that coach Pat Riley has gone and trademarked the word “threepeat.” And with Earvin "Magic" Johnson only now coming up on his 29th birthday, likely to stay on top for quite a while.

The LA Raiders, having cast loose coach Tom Flores after a depressing end to last season, can at least take comfort in the fact that two-sport star Bo Jackson seems to be the real thing, and are optimistic about their new coach, former Denver offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan. (Al Davis always did love the “young genius” types.)

But perhaps the biggest news in the Southland this summer comes from the unlikely source of the hockey franchise, the LA Kings. Previously the “second team” owned by Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke (and then by Dr. Jerry Buss, to whom Cooke sold both teams), the Kings are now the property of jovial jumbo-sized Bruce McNall, a former “fat kid at the coin show” who turned his hobby into a fortune and wants to give the team its own identity. Some of this is cosmetic, such as changing the Kings colors from mirroring the Lakers’ purple/gold to the Raiders’ silver/black, but then comes the biggest bombshell of all…

Wayne Gretzky was coming to town.

Yes, the greatest of all time was going to be a King. Former owner Jerry Buss had actually tried to purchase Gretzky for $15,000,000 three years previously, but Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington had refused. Now, with Pocklington’s other businesses taking in losses (and with Gretzky chafing under his small salary of less than $1,000,000 per year), the Oilers owner was ready to deal.

Gretzky had been initially shocked to find out about the possibility of the trade. (His dad had been told by Nelson Skalbania, who first signed Gretzky to the pros, that Pocklington was shopping Wayne, but Walter Gretzky kept it secret until after the Oilers had won the Stanley Cup, again.) But, after reflection, there were a few upsides. Not only the money (Gretzky would make almost $3,000,000/year as a King), but Wayne was also getting married to Janet Jones, an American actress, and being able to relocate to Los Angeles would have its benefits there. Also, the implication that the Oilers’ success had been more due to the team than to the Greatness of Gretzky, per se, was felt to be something of an insult, and Wayne could see taking a new team to the top as a way to prove himself, even more.

And also, the money.

And so, the stage was set. Each side insisted on its own preconditions; Gretzky wanted his ‘personal protector”, Marty McSorley, in the deal (he even gave hand signals to McNall during the call about this), along with corner-mucker Mike Krushelnyski, while McNall and GM Nick Beverley vetoed the Oilers’ request for “super sophomore” Luc Robitaille, substituting Jimmy Carson instead. (The pair had tallied 111 and 107 points, respectively, the previous season, but the Kings felt they were deeper at center, with Gretzky and Bernie Nicholls, as well as former All-Star Bobby Carpenter, than at wing. And, as Robitaille made the Hall of Fame and Carson was out of the league before he turned 30, despite “Lucky” having been a 9th-round draft pick to Carson’s #2 overall, good call.)

Meanwhile, besides getting Carson, the Kings’ most-recent #1 pick (Martin Gelinas, who had a 17-year career, so not too shabby), and three other future #1 picks, and the original $15 million offer, Pocklington wanted one thing more: for Gretzky to be the one to formally call and request a trade, so he (Pocklington) wouldn’t get run out of town on a rail. Gretzky agreed, even though this got him called a “traitor” by over-zealous Canadian fans for the rest of his career. But finally all was agreed, and the Fat Kid, the Great One, and That Guy Who Traded Wayne Gretzky all got what they wanted, and suddenly as of August 9, 1988, the brightest star in Hollywood wore skates.

Wayne Gretzky was a Los Angeles King.

But…

But…

But…

(wait for it…)

(No, seriously, wait for it. If I tell you to wait for it, wait for it. Who’s writing this thing, anyhow?)

But…this dynasty ISN’T about the year that Wayne Gretzky joined the Kings. (Although I might do that one, some day.)

It’s about the year he left them, seven seasons down the road.

More to follow.
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Old 01-02-2018, 10:01 PM   #2
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A one and a two, and a one…

Summer, 1989.

Kings fans had been stunned by “The Trade”. Where before they had been anticipating a slow rebuild after having traded franchise superstar Marcel Dionne to the Rangers in the middle of the 1986-1987 season, built around the three All-Rookie team members the Kings had that year (Calder winner Robitaille, Carson, and defenseman Steve Duchesne), now the team was projected to be a contender for the Cup. Heady ground for a franchise that had never even reached the Conference finals in their history.

The team fought through the season, finishing ahead of Gretzky’s ex-Oilers teammates, but well behind division leaders Calgary. The most significant move was to trade Carpenter, who had failed to regain his Washington form, to the Boston Bruins for perennial Selke Trophy candidate Steve Kasper, who gave the team valuable defense. Still, it was disappointing that the ultimate return for Dionne (who had been traded for Carpenter, essentially) was only a checker.

As for the offense, fans had anticipated Robitaille thriving with Gretzky to feed him, but the two were too similar to mesh well, and Luc actually saw his scoring decline from 111 points to 98. By the playoffs, Gretzky was being flanked by Krushelnyski and ex-Islander John Tonelli, and Robitaille was on the second line, despite making NHL 1st Team (Gretzky only made 2nd [behind Mario Lemieux], even though he won the Hart Trophy as MVP).

Bernie Nicholls, OTOH, flourished, recording a career-best 70 goals and 80 assists. Since, after all, if you have a good checking center, you weren’t going to play him against Nicholls when Wayne Gretzky was about to come over the boards. With Robitaille on one wing and veteran Dave Taylor on the other, the Kings could boast perhaps the best second line in the league.

In the playoff, the Kings met Edmonton in the first round, with both sides wanting to prove themselves in wake of The Trade. Kings goalie Kelly “Hollywood” Hrudey had to miss game 1 due to illness, and the Oilers promptly stole the home-ice advantage, beating backup Glenn Healey. If not for taking game 2 behind a hat-trick from an unlikely source, depth center Chris Kontos, the Kings would have been swept out in four straight games.

(Kontos, who only played 7 games for LA after spending the season in Switzerland, scored a bizarre eight goals in this series. He only ever tallied 2 goals in any of his three cameo stints [6, 7, and 7 games] for LA in the regular season. Although he did manage 27 goals with the expansion Lightning in ’92-’93 and even set the Tampa Bay franchise record with a four-goal game against their debut game against the Blackhawks, but that’s in the future…)

The Kings rallied to take the last three games against Edmonton, knocking out the defending champs, but Calgary, who would go on to win this year’s Cup, was far too powerful, and swept LA out in the second round. So, the thrill of beating Mark Messier and his other ex-teammates aside, it was a frustrating season in the sun for Gretzky.

Summer, 1990.

The Kings had tried to make some tweaks for the new season. They had fired their fiery head coach, Robbie Ftorek (who had clashed with Gretzky once too often) and hired Tom Webster, seen as a teaching coach, who had previously had to resign as coach of the NY Rangers due to an inner-ear infection that prevented him from flying. But with Webster’s health cleared up, he was seen as a valuable addition. And they signed Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson as a free agent, to give leadership to the back line. (Future HoF Rob Blake would make his first appearances with the Kings this season, playing in four games at the end of the schedule.) And Gretzky was willing to say this was now his team, assuming the captaincy in place of Dave Taylor.

But it clearly wasn’t working. An 0-6-1 skid in early January convinced management to shake things up; Gretzky was suffering with inferior linemates, while Robitaille and Nicholls were being wasted on the 2nd line. So, on January 20, the team (which had beaten Detroit in their last game to get back to .500) traded Nicholls to the Rangers for LW Tony Granato and RW Tomas Sandstrom.

As trades go, it seemed to make sense; while Nicholls would never flourish in NY as he had for the Kings (remember, if you don’t have Wayne Gretzky on your team, the opponent uses the checking line against you) he was the centerpiece of the later deal the Rangers made to obtain Mark Messier, so that worked out. And Sandstrom and Granato both became popular and successful players for the Kings. But in the immediate situation, it was no help at all. After a tie against Vancouver in the first game following the trade, the Kings plunged under the .500 mark, going 7-13 in their next 20 games, and never returned to level ground. They barely scraped into the playoffs (4th in the division, 8th in the West) and drew the defending champion Flames as their 1st round opponent.

And then, for the second straight year, they knocked off the defending champs, stealing game 1 in Calgary, and then defending the home ice with an overtime win in Game 3, a 12-4 blowout in Game 4, and a double-OT thriller in Game 6, won by another unlikely hero when Krushelnyski scored the series-capper.

And then, for the second straight year, the Kings were swept out in the second round by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, as Messier and the Oilers extracted revenge for the previous year’s upending. And so the Kings got no farther than they had before. Gretzky won the scoring title (again) and passed Gordie Howe for the all-time goals record (it was bound to happen, eventually), but that was it. No honors for anybody, nor should there be when you go 34-39-7.

So…what next?

Last edited by Amazin69; 01-02-2018 at 10:58 PM.
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Old 01-17-2018, 06:50 PM   #3
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(I really should have written up all of these prequels in advance, shouldn't I? Oh, well…)

Summer, 1991.

Finally, the Kings had a season where everything seemed to click. Daniel Berthiaume had come over in a trade for failed 1st-round pick Craig Duncanson, and provided a solid goaltending partnership with Hrudey. (Berthiaume was available cheaply because of an incident in Winnipeg where he allegedly swore at a young autograph-seeker; he apologized, then took back the apology and blamed it on Jets management. Flipped to Minnesota at midseason as a consequence, he had barely played behind John Casey and the North Stars had little interest in keeping him. But the Kings had a need to fill.) A trade with Buffalo brought over the useful Mike Donnelly in exchange for Illka Sinisalo, who had been nothing more than filler.

More controversial was the early-season disposal of Krushelnyski, playoff heroics and friendship with Gretzky aside, for depth center John McIntyre, but the presence of Jay Miller (part of the Carpenter-Kasper trade) made him superfluous as an enforcer, and with Granato moving Tonelli down to the 3rd line and Donnelly filling in on the 4th, there really wasn’t space available on the left wing. (Yes, Tonelli had seen his numbers drop after posting consecutive 31-goal seasons, but that was a consequence of being moved off of Gretzky’s line, of course.) On the other side, Taylor was back at full health after missing a chunk of the previous season, and returned to form. Center remained a bit of a concern, as Todd Elik (who had flourished after taking the place of Nicholls, even leading the team in playoff scoring) seemed to be suffering from the sophomore jinx and the likes of Kasper and McIntyre were never offensive threats.

But it was on the backline where things were coming together. Duchesne and McSorley were meshing well as the top pair and Blake was flourishing under Robinson’s guidance as the #2 coupling. The team had adapted to Webster’s system and got off to a flying 16-5-1 start before hitting their worst “skid” of the season, an 0-4-4 stretch. But even that wasn’t so bad, and the Kings rebounded, ripping off a pair of 7-game winning streaks later in the year, one in January and one in February.

The Kings finished with 102 points, winning the division for the first (and still only!) time in their history. Gretzky won the scoring trophy, and had the longest assists streak. McSorley led the league in plus-minus, and Taylor won the Masterton for his return from his injuries. Everything looked good.

And yet it nearly came crashing down right away in the playoffs. Once again, the Kings had home ice stolen from them in Game 1, losing to Vancouver, and they needed an overtime win in Game 2 to even head north at 1-1. They lost Game 3 (also in OT) to fall behind, but then pulled out the win in Game 4 to reclaim the advantage and two more wins put them into the (dreaded?) 2nd round.

It was Edmonton, once again. Messier and the defending champions had finished 20 points behind Calgary in the regular season, but had won the “Battle of Alberta” in the opening round nonetheless, dousing the Flames in seven games. This time the Kings won the opener, in OT, but then lost the longest game in their history when Edmonton’s Petr Klima beat Hrudey in double OT in Game 2. A move back to Edmonton saw the Oilers win another 2OT game (this tie with Esa Tikkanen tallying the game-winner) and then the Oilers held serve again to go up 3-1. While the Kings staved off elimination by taking Game 5 at home, it only delayed the inevitable, as Craig MacTavish (still hatless) put home the series-winning goal in OT of Game 6, sending the Kings home after playing 6 OT periods in six games, to no avail.

And so ended the Kings’ only reign as division champions. For the 2nd straight season, Messier had knocked Gretzky out of the playoffs. The fact that the Oilers were exhausted and got wiped out by a North Stars team that had finished 7th in the West (in only 5 games) was thin consolation, indeed.

Summer, 1992.

One step forward, two steps back.

Having come so close, Gretzky was convinced that the team only needed a little more to get past Edmonton. (Little did he know that Pocklington, still losing money, would be holding a fire sale come training camp.) So he convinced McNall to make a trade for Jari Kurri, who had spent 1990-1991 playing in Italy when Pocklington had refused to meet his salary demands. The three-way deal with Philadelphia cost the team the services of Duchesne and Kasper, as well as a 4th-round pick, but it was hard to argue against acquiring a future Hall of Famer. (To say nothing of Jeff “Father of Jakob” Chychrun, who joined Brian “Father of Matt” Benning and Scott “Uncle of Nick” Bjugstad on the genetically-useful depth chart, not that the Kings knew that then…) Still, the Kings would struggle without their Power-Play QB and their best checking center, it turned out.

Another nostalgic trade urged by “GM Gretzky” brought in Charlie Huddy, who the Oilers had left unprotected in the expansion/dispersal draft. (The owners of the Minnesota North Stars had wanted to move the team to San Jose, but instead the league expanded and let them take half the North Stars’ players to stock the new San Jose Sharks, then held a draft to restock the depleted teams. Of course, this ripped the heart out of the North Stars team that had made such an unlikely run to the finals and as the league didn’t get a commitment from the new owners to keeping the team in Minnesota, either, it was only two more years until the Twin Cities ended up abandoned, anyhow, so one wonders why the NHL couldn’t have just let them move to San Jose in the first place, but…) The Kings traded Elik for Huddy and two other scraps the “No Stars” had garnered in the draft, replacement center Randy Gilhen and depth forward Jim Thomson (whom Minnesota had taken from the Kings in the first place), as well as a 4th rounder to replace one sent away in the Kurri trade.

(This draft pick would prove the salvation in the trade, as the Kings, having already traded away their 1st and 3rd round picks, took a gamble and selected promising teenage Russian defenseman Alexei Zhitnik. Zhitnik’s talent was evident, as he had just earned promotion from Sokol Kiev to CSKA Moscow, but at the time it was uncertain whether the Soviet Union [still existing…for another two months] would let their most promising youth players head west, so it could have been a wasted pick.)

But the season started on a painful note, when Gretzky was knocked out of the Canada Cup by a vicious check into the boards from Team USA’s Gary Suter. Gretzky, who had missed some games in 1990 with back problems, started slowly, and so did the team. It hardly helped when Gretzky’s father, Walter, suffered a brain aneurysm and Wayne took a leave to be by his bedside. Even as Walter recovered, the stress was clearly taking its toll on Wayne, who recorded career-lows in goals and points and his fewest assists since his rookie season. He also continued to complain of rib pains, presumably from the Suter hit. Blake and Sandstrom also missed time due to injuries, Tonelli (feeling dispensable after the Kings had left him exposed in the draft) had departed via free agency, and Taylor and Robinson were showing their age and in decline.

Worst of all, Berthiaume had blown a tire and was suddenly useless, sporting a GAA of 4.04 and a sub-.900 save percentage. The Kings eventually dumped him on Boston for the ever-vague “future considerations”, leaving Hrudey without a viable partner to share the load. With Gretzky operating at a sub-par level and no juice from the backline (Benning got Duchesne’s minutes but couldn’t match his production; solid Finnish free agent Peter Ahola led the team in plus-minus, but was mostly unremarkable) the team muddled along, spending most of the season at .500 or slightly below.

What to do? To Gretzky, the solution was evident. The Pittsburgh Penguins were shopping Wayne’s old Oiler teammate, Paul Coffey, the highest-scoring defenseman in league history. Of course, sometimes the “defense” part of Coffey’s position was theoretical at best, with his having recorded a horrific -25 in 1990-91. But his stats had been better in the current season, despite being slowed by a hip injury, and there was no denying that he would fill the PP QB void. Besides, as Robinson told the Los Angeles Times, “Coffey can play defense…when he wants to.” (The Times was not exactly reassured by this.) So the Kings sent Benning, Chychrun, and a #1 pick to Pittsburgh for Coffey. (The Penguins made it a larger trade by packaging Benning and the pick with Mark Recchi to get Rick Tocchet and others from the Flyers. And with the space created by moving two defensemen for one, the Kings took a first look at young prospect Darryl Sydor.)

And surprise, surprise…it worked! The Kings almost immediately ripped off an eight-game winning streak, scoring at least four goals in every outing, and essentially locked up not only a playoff spot, but home ice in the first round. They then rested Coffey for the rest of the season, as well as Hrudey (the Kings had acquired veteran Steve Weeks from the Islanders to be a nominal backup…but he wasn’t much better than Berthiaume at this point), not particularly caring that the season-ending 3-7-1 coast left them only two points clear of the third-place Oilers. At least they had home ice. And Mark Messier was a Ranger now, safely in the other Conference.

And yet…it turned out to make no difference, after all. The Oilers stole game 1 in LA, the Kings retook home ice by winning game 4 in Edmonton, the Oilers re-retook the advantage by winning game 5 in LA, and finished the Kings off in six games. Coffey was Coffey, tying for the team lead in scoring (7 points) and posting the worst +/- on the team (-5; a dispirted Gretzky was second-worst at -3, Ahola led the team with a +4). The Kings surrendered between three and five goals in every game (GAA of 3.83), whereas they were held to 0, 1, and 2 goals by Edmonton’s Bill Ranford in three of their four defeats.

So, for the fourth straight season, the Kings had failed to get past the second round, this time not even reaching the second round. For the third year in a row, Gretzky’s Kings had been bounced from the playoffs by the Oilers, but not even the Oilers of Messier and company, rather Bernie Nicholls and Vincent Damphousse and Joe Murphy. Tom Webster was fired as coach, Robinson retired at the age of 42, and Gretzky, albeit only 30, was considering if he should do the same. Especially when he went on vacation with Granato, Coffey and their wives and felt such a strong pain in his side as the plane took off that he had to get permission to lie down in the aisle. He also felt the pain once the group got to Hawai'i, at dinner, but it passed both times, so he just put it down to a possible broken rib, and when the x-rays came back negative, got on with his summer.

And over that summer, Gretzky rediscovered his desire. The news that his wife, Janet, was pregnant with the couple’s third child lifted Gretzky’s spirits, and so did McNall’s hiring of Barry Melrose, coach of the Calder Cup-winning Adirondack Red Wings to lead the Kings. Maybe this next year would be different.

And then training camp started and on the morning of September 16th, Gretzky woke up with an even sharper pain in his chest. So strong that Gretzky was certain he was having a heart attack…

Last edited by Amazin69; 01-19-2018 at 04:39 PM. Reason: I'd conflated the two cases of Gretzky experiencing pain. My bad.
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