JOHN RIORDAN: Redemption at hand as Kings seek unlikely coronation

Until this season, the Los Angeles Kings ice hockey team were really only known for one saga: the infamous big-money acquisition of Wayne Gretzky, a move that shocked the sport and tore the heart out of a city and a country in the late 1980s.

For a long time too, they were weighed down by the actions of the man who made the deal a reality, to the extent that they almost went out of existence while their former owner headed to prison.

Redemption is at hand. Tonight they get the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals going against the New Jersey Devils and will be bidding to finally forge an identity which can be distinguished from the legacy of their giant former player (not to mention their fellow tenants at the Staples Center in downtown LA, the NBA’s iconic Lakers).

Gretzky is of course the only player familiar to those of us with no interest in the sport. He is “The Great One”, a moniker shared with a select few. But across North American sport, there is only one “Trade”.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that outside of the love garnered among the hockey-obsessed community of Edmonton, Canada, its beloved Oilers achieved little before Gretzky arrived and not much after his acrimonious departure.

There was a brief sign of life from the corpse Gretzky left behind. During their second season without a player who had led them to four Stanley Cups throughout the 1980s, they added a fifth in 1990, their eighth of eight consecutive appearances in the finals, the dying sporting roar of Canada’s so-called Oil Capital.

The kicker is that apart from one appearance in the Stanley Cup in 1993, the Kings reaped almost nothing from their big investment. It was all very well having Gretzky continuing in the form that copper-fastened his legendary status but with nobody around him, it was essentially a one-man team.

I’d be a fraud if I elaborated on the complex tale that brought Gretzky to Inglewood and energised the great and the beautiful of Hollywood.

Better for you to watch the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, “King’s Ransom”. Director Peter Berg offers laypeople like you and I a well-constructed analysis of what Gretzky meant to Edmonton and Canada. It’s almost like a suspense thriller the way the trade becomes a reality, even LA Kings owner Bruce McNall can’t believe his cheeky proposition has been accepted.

(As mentioned, McNall subsequently spent time in prison, proven to be an enormous huckster who pilfered valuable coins to make a fortune built on sand and fraudulent bank loans. But he retained the affection of former players like Gretzky who refused to have his jersey number 99 retired until his former boss was released from prison and able to attend the ceremony). Gretzky was 27 when he arrived in LA. It didn’t help that he had just married a beautiful actress, Janet Jones, just over two weeks before the incredible news broke. Her perceived influence over him added to the anger in Edmonton. The parallels with Posh and Becks are obvious but today, she makes a good case for not having had any say in the matter.

Not that anyone in Southern California cared. An insignificant team was now sold out of season tickets and every imaginable celebrity was keen to be seen in and around the Forum’s red carpet. It also led to a growth of the league from 21 teams to 30.

That’s all a distant memory now though. The Kings barely survived the excesses of that heady period and the league itself has reentered the shadow cast by the other professional sports jostling for space on the top tier.

It doesn’t help that the New Jersey Devils ruined everyone’s fun by knocking out the New York Rangers, thus destroying a potentially lucrative plot line involving the major cities of the US.

This is the showpiece of an increasingly desperate league which consistently fails to crack down properly on its absurd violence. Instead the Devils and the Kings will be playing second fiddle to the NBA play-offs which are reaching a crescendo this week and next.

In the east, the star-studded but ego-bruised Miami Heat are taking on the veteran Boston Celtics who will be looking to cement their greatness before their “Big Three”, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, submit to the passage of time.

The story is similar in the Western Conference finals. The San Antonio Spurs are hoping to do it one more time as a unit with an even bigger legacy to nurture: four titles in over a decade as opposed to just the one for the Celtics. In their way are the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder who are on the verge of years of dominance if they can topple the incredible Spurs.

If the LA Kings break through and make their own headlines, it will be the most unlikely story of survival against the odds, worthy of The Great One himself.

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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