Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Fallen King

Although the Bruce McNall's autobiography came out in 2003, it's been good summer reading especially given the state of the NHL today.

Reading it you're first blown away by how McNall was able to go years on end playing one bank loan off against another; all of this done well before his purchase of the Los Angeles Kings. OK, so he wasn't caught, tried and convicted until even more years passed and he fooled many others but it goes to show just how little the NHL digs into owners' backgrounds. The other owners even ended up making McNall chairman of the board of governors! It was during this time that McNall looked at the NBA as the model to follow which led to a failed attempt to get David Stern to replace Gil Stein before settling on Gary Bettman from the NBA offices.

Anyway, you can read the book (Fun While It Lasted) for yourselves for all the details on not just McNall's NHL life, but some hockey-related nuggets are well worth repeating here. McNall was no hockey neophyte. He was a fan well before he purchased the team and often used to scoop the best seats off scalpers during the days of the Triple Crown Line.

The Wayne Gretzky trade at the time and even later people question exactly how much influence the Wayner had on engineering it. Now it really was something McNall planted in the mind of Edmonton Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington yet Gretzky did meet with McNall a few times well prior to the trade. McNall also openly to #99 himself had told him he wanted to trade for him.

Just prior to the trade going down, McNall told Wayne that if he really rather move to his childhood team, the Detroit Red Wings, the Kings would setp aside and let Wayne go there. That apparently was when Wayne made up his mind to trust McNall would have his interests at stake over the backstabbing that Wayne felt Peter Puck did to Gretzky's reputation.

When McNall and Wayne got together to negotiate a contract, Wayne said, "Just pay me what you think I'm worth." McNall figuring Gretzky was equal to the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson as far as the local sports market went offered Wayne the same $3 million a year Magic was earning. Wayne considered that too much and eventually McNall asked Wayne to write down a number he was comfortable earning. Wayne wrote down $1 million but McNall ended up making that $2 million a year which made him the highest paid NHLer at the time. McNall also guaranteed from then on that Gretzky would always be the highest paid player in the league so Wayne's contract would increase if another player's new deal was higher than his.

McNall also takes us behind the doors of league meetings with the most hilariously weird factoid to come out of that was Gil Stein's poetry. The NHL commissioner between the reigns of John Zeigler and Gary Bettman, Stein was mainly known as a sort of do-nothing commish. This passage sort of sums up what planet Stein was on:
"At every league meeting he [Stein] rose before the final gavel and recited an epic-length poem that recounted every thing we had accomplished with plenty of humor."

I guess you had to be there or maybe someone has recorded those Homeric poems on their Victorola for posterity.

Hockey-wise Maple Leaf fans recall the whole fuss over Wayne Gretzky high sticking Doug Gilmour in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals and not getting suspended. What is forgotten in all this are two significant previous incidents. In the '92/93 regular season Gilmour broke Gretzky's right wing linemate Tomas Sandstrom's arm with a slash. Then in Game 1 of the series, Marty McSorley put a well-placed elbow to Gilmour's jaw as retribution. The funny thing is after McNall mentions all this, he doesn't even mention the Game 6 incident between the Wayner and Dougie.

Lastly, when McNall's bail is set by a kind judge at a very low $100,000, ex-Kings' GM (and all-time great Kings goalie) Rogie Vachon posted bail in the form of his vacation home given McNall was so massively cash-poor he couldn't cover the bail amount.

The purchase of the Toronto Argonauts is also great food for the sports fan's plate. Those freaked out by the Buffalo Bills push to get regular seasons games played in T.O. and the possibility of the NFL moving in on the CFL Argos' market should know McNall had a similar idea. His purchase of the Argos was with an eye towards putting an NFL team in Toronto although it was kept very hush hush at the time.

Their signing of the college football star Raghib "the Rocket" Ismail made a big splash but wasn't revealed at the time was a secret arrangement that McNall made with the NFL Raiders' owner Al Davis. McNall figured they'd release Ismail after two years in the CFL looking at him only as a short-term fix to get the Argos into the Grey Cup and boost the value of the team. So the Raiders drafted Ismail realziing they wqere not going to sign him anyway comforatble in the knowledge that McNall would let him jump to the Raiders in two years' time.

Also, Ismail, although a pretty good player at the CFL level was a disaster as a PR guy. He was uncomfortable in front of the media and fans so endorsement deals and promo appearances were few and far between for the supposed star of the Argos.

All in all, the book comes across as a cautionary tale as it does go right into his jail term, years after being convicted on bank fraud charges among other things. From a sports perspective, though, McNall is so upfront about what goes on behind the scenes in not only the sports of hockey and football but also horse racing that this really is a must-read for anyone interested in that side of the business.