Frankly, the hockey player they call the Great One doesn’t look like he can live up to his adjective on this lovely Los Angeles morning. As he sits in a room overlooking the pool at a friend’s house with his wife, American actress Janet Jones, the weight of the world seems to be pressing down on his bony, boyish shoulders. There are dark circles beneath his eyes, and he says he’s lost 13 pounds from his already rail-like, 5’11”, 170-lb. frame. “Lately,” says Wayne Gretzky, 27, “the craziness has been nonstop.”
It was the Great One himself, of course, who unleashed this craziness. Only days earlier, he had announced he would be leaving his native Canada and the National Hockey League champion Edmonton Oilers to play for the lowly Kings of Los Angeles. “I decided that for the benefit of me, my new wife and our expected child…it would be beneficial for everyone involved to let me play for the Los Angeles Kings,” he told a hushed group of reporters at an emotionally charged press conference in Edmonton—and promptly found himself neck-deep in controversy.
The craziness will pass in a few more days. Wayne and Janet will fly to Europe for a delayed honeymoon. They’ll return for him to enter training camp on Sept. 9. At that time they’ll look for a house near the beach and relax with friends. By then, presumably, the heat will be off both of them. But now it is on full, and the Great Gretzky is whipped.
The Oilers’ former center and captain is considered the greatest hockey player ever. In his 10 years with the Oilers, he has led his team to four Stanley Cup championships, set 43 NHL scoring records and won the league’s MVP award an astounding eight times. But the craziness transcended mere sporting achievements. Gretzky is not only a superstar but one who is humble, likable, generous and polite. To Canadians he has ranked slightly below the Rockies as a national treasure, or “right up there,” as one member of Parliament recently put it, “with the Mountie and the beaver.” Some Canadians unabashedly drew parallels with the 1936 abdication of Edward VIII from the British throne, and the price L.A. paid for Canada’s hero (and two other Oilers) was in fact a virtual Kings’ ransom: two fine young hockey players, plus three first-round draft choices, plus $15 million in cash.
“I’m disappointed about leaving Edmonton,” Gretzky said to the reporters in a quavery voice. “I really admire all the fans…. but there comes a time…” Overcome by tears, Gretzky was unable to continue.
And after that, the trouble started. Peter Pocklington, 46, the Oilers’ owner publicly bad-mouthed Gretzky. Why did he ask to be traded to L.A.? “Wayne has an ego the size of Manhattan,” the owner said. Of Gretzky’s tears, Pocklington noted, “He’s a great actor. I thought he pulled it off beautifully when he showed how upset he was.”
The fair Janet, 27, took her lumps, too, from the public and press. The July 16 marriage had been labeled the Royal Wedding, but now she was seen as a sly manipulator, robbing Canada to serve her own ambitions. The actress has appeared in the movies A Chorus Line, The Flamingo Kid and American Anthem and plans to continue her career. She was called a Jezebel, Dragon Lady and another Yoko Ono, in reference to stories that John Lennon’s wife broke up the Beatles.
“I expected the other stuff,” says Jones. “But when I read that they called me Yoko Ono, I started crying.” She pats her slightly protuberant belly—their baby is due in January. “Can you imagine going through all this pregnant? My emotions are all up in the air.”
Wayne insists it was solely his decision to join the Kings, but it was a decision with a history. “I was hearing from coaches and owners in the league that I was on a semi-market,” he says. “Every so often I confronted the people in the front office, and they always told me it wasn’t true. But after a while, I began to feel it was time for me to move on. If it wasn’t for the wedding, I think I would have been traded in June. Then I got a call from Bruce McNall, the Kings’ owner. That was the first time I ever thought of going to Los Angeles. After I met him, I decided it was fine for me to go.”
Jones and Gretzky gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes. “It’s an easy out for people to blame me,” she says. “I love the guys on the Oilers so much. I feel bad they broke up, too.”
Edmonton’s loss of Gretzky was best described, says Gretzky’s father, by former teammate Dave Lumley, the retired Oiler: “Edmonton with Wayne was a glittering city. Edmonton without Wayne is just another city with a hockey team.” On the roads leading into this town of 560,000 situated on the plains of Alberta, signs have been erected by the Chamber of Commerce: Welcome to Edmonton, City of Champions. On a number of them, heartbroken fans have spray-painted “L.A.” over “Edmonton.”
In the days since the press conference, the public seems to have changed its mind about who’s to blame. Edmontonians no longer hold Janet Jones responsible. They now most often fault owner Pocklington. “Peter is now Public Enemy No. 1,” says Ian Erickson, a 22-year-old Oilers diehard. The team is in turmoil, and there have been reports that some players are talking about going on strike unless Pocklington sells the Oilers. Pocklington, a self-made millionaire whose holdings include meat-packing companies and horses, remains unperturbed. “I don’t blame the people of Edmonton for feeling upset,” he says. “When they get over the shock, people will realize it was a good deal. Actually, I thought the response would be worse. I thought they’d run me out of town.” He pauses for a moment’s thought. “Maybe they will.” But he insists he still harbors “paternal” feelings for the player he signed 10 years ago.
Gretzky doesn’t sound especially filial. As soon as he’d met Kings owner McNall, he phoned his real father, Walter Gretzky, in Brantford, Ont. “Wayne called me, very upset,” says the elder Gretzky, a telephone company worker. “He said, ‘I’ll never wear an Oilers sweater again.’ He then called Peter and said, ‘Okay, do it.’ He told him that he’d had enough, he wanted out.”
As for the image-bashing Pocklington attempted, “I think he panicked,” says Walter. “He never expected this backlash. I don’t think Peter realized what Wayne meant to Edmonton, but he’ll find out this winter.”
He may already have some inkling. Pocklington thinks 200 to 300 season tickets might have been canceled, and the Oilers have dropped their prices on some season tickets.
About those tears the Great One wept at the press conference: He says they were no less real than the 583 regular season goals he’s scored. “I started thinking,” he says, “about my friendship with [Oiler teammate] Mark Messier. The friendship has really been important to me. Mark used to say, ‘Gretz, learn to enjoy life; don’t be so serious.’ We were together all the time. Boy, I don’t know whether I was crying because I was losing him as a teammate or because I’ll have to play against him now.” Messier isn’t the only Oiler Gretzky will miss. “I owe them all a lot,” he says. “On the ice, those guys took care of me. Now they will probably be told to run me through the rink.”
There are positive sides to the change, of course. In L.A., Gretzky will get an instant raise of almost 20 percent in his $900,000 salary—the difference between the American and Canadian dollar. Now that he’s in a major market, the endorsement offers are rolling in faster, so his yearly outside income of about $1.5 million will probably soar as well. And, cruel barbs notwithstanding, it is true that Jones will find it easier to pursue her career living in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, rather than the remote Rockies.
Gretzky met Jones, who was raised in St. Louis, in 1981 on the set of the TV show Dance Fever, when Wayne was a judge and Janet a dancer. Jones, however, was dating Dick Van Patten’s son Nils, and Wayne was involved with singer Vickie Moss. Then last summer they ran into each other at a Lakers-Celtics game in L.A., and Gretzky asked her out. “I knew after the second time I saw her I wanted to marry her because our chemistry was so strong. We were so much in love. You know, careers are great,” he adds softly, “but if you’re not happy with your personal life, it doesn’t matter how much money you make.”
The Gretzkys’ lives, both expect, will become still richer with the arrival of their child. “We had the ultrasound yesterday and we saw video pictures of the baby,” gushes Janet. “The doctor said it had such long legs, it was sucking its toes.” In fact, Gretzky calls the baby the “deciding factor” in his move to L.A. “Let’s face it,” he says, “the child would be under a microscope living in Canada. In L.A. he’s just another child in the crowd. He will be under a lot less pressure if he wants to play hockey and he’s living here.”
Then he has a second thought. “If it’s a boy,” he adds, with a laugh, “I hope he becomes a baseball player.”
—By Jack Friedman, with Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles and Victoria Balfour in Edmonton