|Wednesday, October 9
Updated: October 11, 1:56 AM ET
Gretzky jersey ceremony turns into L.A. lovefest
LOS ANGELES -- Three years after hanging up his skates with 61 NHL records, the Los Angeles Kings retired Wayne Gretzky's silver-and-black No. 99 jersey in a ceremony that turned into a lovefest for the player credited with making hockey a success in some of North America's warm weather climates.
Gretzky wiped his left eye as a soldout crowd at Staples Center saluted him with a prolonged standing ovation and chants of his name.
"To be remembered as an L.A. King is something special,'' he said before the game.
Gretzky's arrival from Edmonton in 1988 turned hockey into a hot ticket in Los Angeles, and led to the NHL adding franchises in Anaheim, San Jose, Phoenix, Florida and North Carolina.
"When I was traded here in '88, people probably didn't expect this day to happen because there was a lot of people who didn't expect hockey to survive here,'' he said. "The fans deserve a lot of the credit for me having this night because of their support. They proved that this is not only a good sports city, but it's a good hockey city.''
A bronze statue of Gretzky in his Kings uniform was unveiled outside Staples, which opened three years after he was traded to St. Louis in 1996, a move that stunned Los Angeles. His jersey hangs on the south wall of Staples, joined by ones belonging to former Kings stars Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Rogie Vachon.
Gretzky's jersey was first retired by the Edmonton Oilers, and his number was retired by the NHL three years ago. The Kings were late to the party because Gretzky was waiting for former team owner Bruce McNall to get out of jail.
McNall served nearly four years for bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy. Desperate for cash after Gretzky led the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, McNall was forced to sell a majority stake in the club the following year.
Gretzky remained steadfast in his support of McNall, vowing not to participate in a ceremony in Los Angeles without him.
"He was the person who brought me to L.A. and I'm glad he's here,'' Gretzky said. "Bruce paid his punishment and served his time and life goes forward. I think he's a good person who made a mistake.''
McNall was booed heartily by the crowd when he was introduced, a reaction he anticipated.
"They have every right to boo me. I boo myself sometimes,'' he said, laughing.
But he turned serious when talking about Gretzky's loyalty.
"Being close to me at that time was not the most popular thing in the world, especially for a man like Wayne Gretzky, who is king of the driven snow,'' he said. "He was a brave man to do it.''
Several of Gretzky's former teammates in Los Angeles and Edmonton, where he won four Stanley Cups, joined him in the pre-game ceremony. Among them were Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Luc Robitaille, Kelly Hrudey and Rick Tocchet.
Gretzky's parents, Walter and Phyllis, his wife Janet and their four children also were present.
Also getting booed was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"Wayne, I will take a boo for you any day,'' Bettman said.
During the season opener against Phoenix -- Gretzky is a managing partner of the Coyotes -- the Kings wore their old silver-and-black jerseys from 1988-96, when Gretzky's presence guaranteed sellouts at the Kings' old venue, the Forum in suburban Inglewood.
During warmups, the Kings wore jerseys with No. 99 and Gretzky on the back. Fans were able to bid on each sweater, which was signed by Gretzky and the player who wore it. Gretzky's career highlights as a King were shown during the ceremony and timeouts.
Although Gretzky won all four of his Stanley Cups in Edmonton, he said he had the most fun in 1993, when the Kings lost to Montreal in the finals.
"It was something truly tremendous,'' he said.