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Gretzky talks horse racing, hockey and about divided loyalties

So you were probably wondering, where was Wayne Gretzky during all this? After all, the NHL's Western Conference final could have easily been played for the Wayne Gretzky trophy instead of the Clarence Campbell Bowl. It featured the Los Angeles Kings, the team Gretzky led to the 1993 Stanley Cup final and essentially put on the map, playing against the Phoenix Coyotes, the team he was associated with for close to a decade, first as the team's managing partner and eventually as its head coach.

What was Gretzky thinking? Who was he cheering for? Did he take any satisfaction from seeing some of the young players that joined the Coyotes organization under his watch - the Martin Hanzals, the Mikkel Boedkers - show some glimmers of their potential?

Instead, Gretzky chose to stay silent, watching from afar, not taking sides, especially as the Coyotes' ownership saga continues to percolate on, with no definitive end in sight.

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But on the morning after the Kings dispatched the Coyotes in five games, Gretzky surfaced to talk about horse racing, about hockey in southern California and about the possibility of witnessing yet another series where his loyalties could be divided.

The Kings will face either the New York Rangers or the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup final beginning next Wednesday, trying to win their first championship in franchise history.

In 1993, Gretzky's Kings came close, winning the first three rounds, all against Canadian-based teams (the Calgary Flames, the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs) before losing to the Montreal Canadiens in a five-game Stanley Cup final. The Kings were up by a game in the series and leading Game 2 at the Montreal Forum, when Canadiens' coach Jacques Demers called for a stick measurement against L.A. defenceman Marty McSorley that gave Montreal a late power play. With Patrick Roy on the bench for a sixth attacker, the Canadiens tied the game in regulation and won in overtime. The Kings never recovered from that devastating setback; lost the series; and soon after, lost the tentative toehold they'd established for the NHL in southern California during that dramatic playoff run.

Looking back on that time, Gretzky says now: "No disrespect to our team in '93, but we weren't the best team. The best team won the Stanley Cup. We weren't even the best team in the West that year, I didn't think. But we got a lot out of our great players like Kelly Hrudey, Rob Blake and Luc Robitaille and had guys like Pat Conacher and Tony Granato come up big for us.

"It was a fun ride because everybody believed in each other."

Gretzky remembers the seventh game of the semi-finals, in which the Kings eliminated the Maple Leafs as one of the seminal moments in his career, but says by the time they got to Montreal, they were "exhausted" by all the travel.

"If we'd won, maybe history would have been changed," he said. "It was tough to take, but ... every franchise has its lulls, even Edmonton and Calgary did for a while there; and Vancouver has had its share of ups and downs too. But they've been able to stabilize the franchise here and this is just great, what's happening now."

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Gretzky's SoCal playing adventure ended in February, 1996 when he was traded to the St. Louis Blues for Roman Vopat, Patrice Tardif, Craig Johnson and a first-round draft choice. Coach Barry Melrose had been fired the previous April; and eventually, Gretzky made his way to New York, where general manager Glen Sather was re-assembling all of his ex-Oilers in midtown Manhattan, which is where Gretzky finished out his playing career.

Sather is still running the show in New York and he and Gretzky occasionally cross paths. If the Rangers get to the final opposite the Kings, Gretzky says: "It's going to be a hard one for me. I think of it this way: 'I'm in a can't-lose situation.' I always root for Glen and Mark (Messier) is associated with the team too. I admire how hard the Kings play. If it gets to be a Rangers-Kings' final, I'll be a fan on the sidelines and may the best team win. If L.A. wins, it'll be great for hockey in this market and for the organization. If New York wins, I'll be happy for Glen and Mark.

"And don't count out Jersey either. I said before the playoffs began that any team with Marty Brodeur in goal has a chance. And I just think (Devils' assistant) Larry Robinson is like the English Jean Beliveau, always saying and doing the right thing."

Gretzky has watched the Kings play a lot this season, mostly on television, although he's been out at Staples Centre for three or four games and plans to attend Game 3 in person, his first appearance in the playoffs. His knowledge of the team borders on the encyclopedic. He begins a 17-minute conversation with a player-by-player breakdown of what everyone has contributed to the cause, and then shifts into Darryl Sutter's contributions as a coach and even references the structured system Sutter inherited from his predecessor, Terry Murray. To top it all off, he then talked about Bernie Nicholls' influence since catching on as an unofficial assistant coach, noting how the light-hearted Nicholls brings "a sense of relaxation to the team" and the knowledge that "it's not the end of the world if you have a bad game." It sounds as if Gretzky could immediately step in as an NHL player personnel director if that were his druthers; and that his fascination with the minutiae of hockey is still as great as ever.

Gretzky has been on the road a lot in these playoffs and he at the Kentucky Derby a few weeks back as a guest of Jerry Bruckheimer, the Hollywood film producer and uber hockey fan. Bruckheimer owns an estate in the area that also includes an indoor hockey rink and according to Gretzky, annually invites 14 to 18 guests the Derby festivities. As part of the weekend's activities, a handful of local teenage players join Bruckheimer's group for a three-on-three hockey game.

Typically, everybody is a handicapper and Gretzky has his own brief history there. He and former Kings' owner Bruce McNall were successful thoroughbred owners for a time (they won the Prix de l'arc de Triomphe with Saumarez and in 1990, won both the Arlington Million and the Japan Cup with Golden Pheasant). So Gretzky was there, on Derby weekend, touting a relative long shot named I'll Have Another. Gretzky liked him for two reasons. One, the owner, J. Paul Reddam, is from Windsor, Ont. and a member at the Sherwood Country Club, where Gretzky plays as well. The other is that I'll Have Another won the Santa Anita Derby, which historically is an important stepping stone for the Derby, according to Gretzky's intel.

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"So I kept telling people 'watch out for this horse' and 'put $50 on this horse," said Gretzky. "I know a little about (handicapping), but I'd be stretching it if I said I knew a lot."

But he knows a lot about hockey and calls the Kings' 12-2 run through the first three rounds a "great story" and suggests "they're not a fluke.

"If you were talking to people in September, it'd be no surprise. They've put together a team that could compete for the conference title. Unfortunately, when you go through the season, you always have challenges and hiccups along the way. But I believe if you do the homework for three to five years, as Dean (Lombardi, the team's GM) has done, then you have the ammunition to go out and make the moves you need to make.

"No team starts out in training camp and wins a championship with those same 20 players."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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