By Doug Ward | Special to LAKings.com
On Aug. 9, 1988, Kings owner Bruce McNall became hockey’s ultimate rainmaker, obtaining Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton in a landmark trade.
The deal wasn’t just a game-changer; it also changed the Kings’ identity. No longer an afterthought, the Kings were now one of the NHL’s glamour teams. With McNall, who was assuming a posture as hockey’s answer to George Steinbrenner, and Gretzky, anything was possible.
“The Kings went from obscurity to the top team in merchandise sales,” Miller said. “People would hang around the bus. On the plane — we didn’t have a charter in those days — people would be lined up in the aisle for Gretzky’s autograph. The Kings sold 4,000 season seats in the first week. Celebrities like President and Mrs. Reagan, John Candy, Michael J. Fox, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn started coming to games.”
It took five years, but Gretzky delivered, carrying the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. It was Gretzky’s greatness that enabled them to win the Campbell Conference Finals. First, Gretzky scored an overtime goal in Game 6 in Los Angeles, giving the Kings a 5-4 win and evening the series at 3-3. Then, The Great One played what he calls his greatest NHL game ever, scoring a hat trick to lead the Kings past Toronto, 5-4, in Game 7 of the Campbell Conference Finals.
“That series was a classic,” Miller said. “It was physical and emotional. Both Gretzky and Toronto captain Wendel Clark stepped up.”
Three nights later, Robitaille scored twice and Gretzky iced the Kings first Stanley Cup Finals win with an empty net goal to seal a 4-1 Game 1 win at Montreal’s storied Forum and the Kings’ destiny seemed pre-ordained.
But with the Kings holding a 2-1 Game 2 lead late in the third period, Montreal Coach Jacques Demers called for a measurement of Marty McSorley’s stick that would live in infamy.
The stick was illegal and there ought to be a law against what happened next: Demers pulled Patrick Roy, giving the Canadiens a 6-on-4 advantage and Eric Desjardins scored to force overtime. Then Desjardins scored 51 seconds into the extra session, completing the hat trick and changing the series. The Canadiens won the next two games in Los Angeles on overtime goals from John LeClair before wrapping up the series in five games.
No fans ever handled adversity better. Consider these two improbable, intertwined facts of the franchise’s history: 1. The Kings best shot at winning the Stanley Cup got away from them on McSorley’s penalty; 2. Eighteen years later, McSorley remains one of the most beloved players in Kings history.
A year after their Finals heartbreak, the Kings got a glimpse of their immediate future as they finished behind the first-year expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Pacific Division standings. It would mark the beginning of a long post-Finals hangover in which the Kings would go four straight years without a playoff appearance. Although the Ducks would go on to win a Stanley Cup in 2007, the Kings would remain the team of choice in Southern California.
In May of 1994, Joseph Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff purchased the team. At the end of the 1995-96 season, the Kings went through bankruptcy. The franchise bottomed out when Gretzky was dealt to St. Louis in exchange for Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson and two draft picks.
By October of 1995, current owners Philip Anschutz and Edward Roski stepped in and took over ownership of the club, guiding it toward a future in a grand new home in the heart of the city.Editor's Note: This is part three of a five-part series that will discuss the history of the LA Kings organization.