Wayne Gretzky has a long memory. The most prolific scorer in the history of hockey can recall the tiniest details of past games. His business life has been enhanced by his ability to remember names and faces, and he never forgets the kindness of friends. But he also remembers the bad times and personal slights, and it was that vivid recall, as much as anything else, that cost the Los Angeles Kings the services of hockey's Great One last week. Although he never said so publicly, Gretzky had grown weary of the Kings' instability over the last eight years. The owner that brought him to Los Angeles, Bruce McNall, is facing fraud charges. At one point, the players' paycheques bounced. But to No. 99, the most galling lapse was the failure of the current owners, Edward Roski and Philip Anschutz, to keep a promise to build a contender. Gretzky is intensely competitive and, as soon as it became clear that contending was no longer in the Kings' short-term plans, he was as good as gone. "I'm a hockey player," he said recently. "I want to win."
Gretzky's trade to St. Louis last week ignited a passionate debate among hockey fans about whether, at 35, the Great One could lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup. He gave a strong indication of his value in his first game last week, scoring once and setting up several more good chances in the Blues' 2-2 tie in Vancouver. But even if he is not the player he once was, the deal demonstrated that Gretzky is still the National Hockey League's dominant newsmaker. From the moment his unhappiness in Los Angeles became public in mid-January, speculation about his motives and his possible trade destinations filled sports sections across the continent. Fans in Vancouver skipped work and school to jam the Canucks' practice facility to watch his first workout in blue. And around the league, he reinforced his position as hockey's greatest salesman. Sporting goods stores reported immediate backlogs in orders for Blues' jerseys bearing the fabled 99, and tickets for St. Louis's remaining home games quickly sold out.
The trade itself was anticlimactic. Toronto Sun columnist Al Strachan, a close friend of Gretzky's, reported that a deal with the Blues was imminent on Jan. 12 and, later, revealed the package of players St. Louis would eventually send west - rookies Craig Johnson and Patrice Tardif, junior prospect Roman Vopat, a fifth-round draft pick this year and a first-round pick in 1997. When the deal was finally announced, Gretzky looked more relieved than happy. "It's been the hardest six weeks of my career," he admitted.
During those weeks of uncertainty, the Kings' management fiddled with other offers for Gretzky while the team got burned on the ice, falling out of play-off contention. Critics in the media assailed Gretzky's previously unblemished character, claiming that he was interested only in money, that he was behaving as if he were bigger than the game, that he had used friends in the media to advance his cause. He lost 12 pounds and, in February, his performance slipped, leading those same critics to suggest he wasn't worth the millions he commanded.
Supporters, however, insist that Gretzky had bent over backwards for the Kings. When he signed his last contract nearly three years ago, he agreed to defer most of his income to make it easier for the Kings to sign other top players. Instead, the team was repeatedly weakened by bad trades and a failure to sign key free agents - particularly this season after the squad was beset by injuries. Most observers, including the players themselves, were perplexed. Resignedly, Gretzky suggested last January that the team ought to trade him because, otherwise, he would be a free agent this summer and would leave the Kings empty-handed.
To some observers, Blues coach and general manager Mike Keenan took a huge risk by trading for the aging superstar. The Blues already have one of the league's fattest payrolls, and Gretzky is unlikely to accept much less in St. Louis than the three-year, $35-million deal he had with the Kings. And even with Gretzky, right-winger Brett Hull and centre Dale Hawerchuck, the Blues may not be ready to challenge divisional front-runners Detroit, Colorado, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers for the coveted cup. But Gretzky is sure to help. Even on the mediocre Kings, he had been enjoying a banner year until his February slump - he was the NHL's top point scorer in January. But it is Gretzky's competitiveness - which helped the Edmonton Oilers capture the cup four times in the 1980s - that Keenan most prizes. "I have complete confidence in Wayne," said the typically terse Keenan.
As in Edmonton, Gretzky had felt at home in Los Angeles. His three children were born there; his wife, actress Janet Jones, continues to pursue a career there. And because it is a media centre, he was able to fulfil many of his off-ice obligations to sponsors - commercial shoots, golf outings and such - without leaving home. Moreover, the couple had just finished building a new home at the exclusive Sherwood Country Club in suburban Thousand Oaks. "I guess it'll be a summer house," Gretzky joked privately. But St. Louis does have other attractions. Jones grew up there and still has family in the area, and Hull is one of Gretzky's best friends.
For fans, the trade evoked memories of the summer of 1988, when Oilers owner Peter Pocklington shipped Gretzky to the Kings for $18 million. "I think my emotions are similar to those of eight years ago," Gretzky said. "A lot of me is disappointed that I had to leave, and part of me is excited about where I am going." But he is quick to remind people that the similarities end there. When a reporter asked whether he ever thought he would be traded twice in his NHL career, Gretzky was adamant. "Once," he said emphatically. "The last time was no trade. I was sold." Gretzky, it seems clear, never forgets.
Maclean's March 11, 1996