They were Kings
Arash Markazi [ARCHIVE]
ESPNLosAngeles.com
June 4, 2012
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Los Angeles in 1993 was a sports city in flux.
The Lakers were fighting to stay relevant two years after Magic Johnson's retirement, the Clippers flirtation with winning under Larry Brown was fleeting, the Dodgers were in the midst of six straight seasons without a playoff appearance, and the Raiders and Rams were near the end of a slow descent that eventually would lead them out of town.
Wayne Gretzky had come to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988 with the promise of raising the profile of the Kings in Los Angeles and the NHL throughout the western United States. By 1993, he and the Kings were the city's lone, improbably shining star on a run to the Stanley Cup finals. This is the story of that season through the eyes of many who lived it.
I. 'I'm going to get you one day.'
Bruce McNall (Kings owner, 1986-94 ): I was a Kings fan growing up. I was a fan during the early '70s when "Whitey" Widing, Butch Goring, Rogie Vachon and those guys were playing. I loved going to games and became friends with (former Kings and current Lakers owner) Jerry Buss.
I would always bug him about the Kings. "Gee, Jerry, why don't you sell me the Kings? Why don't you sell me the Kings?" He never would but in 1986 he needed some money and he called me and said, "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll sell you a quarter of the Kings with an option to buy half for $16 million." I said OK and within a few months I owned half the Kings. He put me on the Board of Governors and basically told me I could run the team. I loved it and I kept bugging him about the other 50 percent and he finally sold me the rest in 1987 and I became the full owner.
To me, I was just a fan that happened to be an owner rather than the other way around. It was all about making the players happy for me.
Jim Fox (Kings right wing, 1980-90; now a color analyst on Kings television broadcasts) : Bruce made you feel like a star. When he first became a minority owner, I remember we were in Long Island and Bob Kudelski's luggage didn't make it. We weren't flying on the private planes back then and Bob had just been called up so he's there without his luggage and Bruce just peeled off 500 bucks cash and said, "Go buy yourself some suits." That was the way he was. He gave us a different feeling like, "Yeah, we are important." He really made the players feel special.
Bob Miller (Kings play-by-play announcer, 1973-present): I almost felt like he wasn't my boss. He was such a fan. We'd be on the plane and he'd ask me to tell him stories about (former Kings and Lakers owner) Jack Kent Cooke. He told me how he grew up in Arcadia and used to listen to me call Kings games and he wanted to talk about those games and those players. It was almost like this fan all of a sudden had enough money to buy the team. He had been a fan of the Kings for all these years. He was so excited about being the owner and he always wanted to be around the players and take care of the players. He was also a Hollywood guy and he knew for the Kings to be big in Los Angeles they needed a superstar.
McNall: I was near the ice right after I had bought the team and I felt someone slap me on the back with a stick and I turned around and it was Wayne Gretzky before a pregame skate against the Edmonton Oilers. He said, "Congratulations." I said, "Yeah, thanks, I'm going to get you one day." We laughed about it and later he wanted to go to a Lakers-Celtics (NBA) Finals game with (now wife) Janet, on one of their first dates. So I arranged that and sat with them and I subtly teased him about how great it would be if he came to L.A. and he laughed again. I don't think he ever thought it would happen.
Miller: I don't think anyone believed it could really happen.
McNall: After I had bought the team, Jerry Buss told me he had been having on and off conversations with (Edmonton Oilers owner) Peter Pocklington about the possibility of trading for Wayne Gretzky and said I should pursue that sometime. So I started bugging Pocklington about Gretzky every time I would see him at a board meeting or at a game. I'd say, "So Peter, how about Wayne?" He would always brush it off but in the summer of 1988 Peter called me and said, "If you're really serious about this, let's do it. I need $15 million cash and I need it fast." The rest is history.
The Kings began attracting new fans and national attention with Gretzky but it would take five years for the team to make history on the ice. The Kings made it to the playoffs in Gretzky's first four seasons in Los Angeles but never advanced past the second round.
It looked as if the 25-year streak would continue heading into the 1992-93 season when Gretzky was diagnosed with a herniated disk located between his shoulder blades. The injury was described as "one-in-a-million" by Dr. Robert Watkins, a spinal consultant who spoke at a news conference held at the Forum Club during the preseason to describe Gretzky's condition. "This problem," Watkins said, "has the possibility of being career-threatening."
II. 'I honestly thought that was it.'
Tony Granato (Kings left wing, 1989-96): Bruce McNall called a few of us over and mentioned what came back on the MRI and it was a very somber day because there was a possibility Wayne's career could be over. They described it as a bulging disk, but it was worse than that and they weren't sure how it would heal. We were all in shock. Here we were getting ready for the season and we find out we're going to be losing our best player not only for part of the season but maybe for his career.
McNall: I took some of the leaders on the team at that time aside and I told them, "We have to plan on this season without Wayne. You guys have to step up. We just have to fight through this and make the most out of what we have. Just enjoy your moment. This is a chance for you guys to step up."
Barry Melrose (Kings coach, 1992-95; now an ESPN analyst): About three months earlier, I had taken the Kings job and one of the reasons I went to L.A. was I wanted to coach Wayne Gretzky and then Gretzky gets hurt the first day of training camp and is out. So that was an interesting scenario.
Luc Robitaille (Kings left wing, 1986-94; 1997-2001; 2003-06; now a Kings executive): Wayne actually had a really good physical before camp. We had these push-up tests and sit-up tests and bike tests and Wayne's were the best he ever had. The next day there was a helicopter coming to pick him up from our training camp in Lake Arrowhead and two or three days later we heard he was done for the year and might never play again.
Miller: I remember thinking that may be the end of our season.
McNall: I honestly thought that was it. I thought he would never play again. I was nervous. I was nervous for Wayne personally. This is his life and his career. I also thought we were in real serious trouble as a team. There was no telling if he was ever...
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