Remembering Winnipeg and Gretzky’s last game with the LA Kings

For several years in the mid 90′s it seemed like the Kings were on a ‘Closing Down the Arena’ tour, as they made their final visits to old Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, the Capital Centre just outside Washington DC and several others.

However, it was their second-to-last skate around the ice at Winnipeg Arena in February 1996 that ended up meaning much more than what was originally intended. Coming at the end of a four game jaunt that went from Edmonton to Colorado then St. Louis, the Kings finally arrived in Manitoba on February 25th – having gone 0-2-1 on the trip. To say it was the worst of times wouldn’t be much of a stretch, as the Kings had only won one game in 12 tries during the month of February.

Before we get to the events that unfolded in the next 48 hours though, let’s take a quick look back at the beginning of the trip. I was on hand for the games in Canada and attended the Kings practices as well.

While the score in Edmonton was 7-2, these weren’t the Oilers of old. Ryan Smyth was in his rookie season and goalie Bill Ranford had just been traded to the Boston Bruins the month prior.

The Oilers’ seven goals that night came from seven different players – Zdeno Ciger, Mariusz Czerkawski, Greg de Vries, Donald Dufresne, Ralph Intranuovo, Todd Marchant and some guy named Doug Weight (one of the best American born players of his generation). On the receiving end of every one was Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey.

Down at the other end, Oilers netminder Curtis Joseph gave up goals to Vitali Yachmenev and, of course, Wayne Gretzky.

Rookie Sean O’Donnell was a minus-3 and Marty McSorley had two fights – one with Louie DeBrusk and another with Kelly Buchberger. Not to be outdone, the Kings’ Shane Churla racked up 17 penalty minutes and had his own scrap with Debrusk that night.

What many in Edmonton didn’t know at the time was that #99, who will forever be linked to both franchises, was playing his last game as a King in that building. More on that in a moment though.

Here’s some pictures from morning skate earlier that day:

Fresh ice, ready for morning skate to begin in Edmonton
Edmonton Oilers locker room prior to morning skate – February 1996

After the game, when the Kings headed out of town, I stayed in Canada – first attending a game in Calgary and then venturing to Brandon, for a little ‘scouting trip’ at a junior game.

There were more than 10 NHL draft picks between the two rosters that night, including five number one selections. The Wheat Kings featured captain Chris Dingman (Calgary), Mike Leclerc (Anaheim) and Wade Redden (NY Islanders) – as part of a group that went on to play in the Memorial Cup a few months later. The Tri-City Americans were led by Daymond Langkow (Tampa Bay) up front and Brian Boucher (Philadelphia) in net.

Tri-City Americans at Brandon Wheat Kings – Manitoba, Canada – February 1996

While I can’t recall the final score that night, here’s what I do remember – the drive from Winnipeg to Brandon was one of the flattest drives I’ve ever taken. All you could see for miles and miles in every direction was flat land, filled with white snow. Second, when arriving at the arena, it seemed like half the fans were standing outside in the freezing cold doing one of two things – either smoking cigarettes or eating ice cream they had just purchased from a vendor selling cones in the parking lot!

The highlight may have been the post-game meal at the nearby McDonalds though. For $3.99 you could get the ‘Hockey Hero Meal’ which included a McRib sized bun with three hamburger patties laid across it, fries, a drink…and, wait for it…an 18″ mini hockey stick! Can you say, deal of the century?

Upon arriving back in Winnipeg, that’s where the real fun began.

First up was the Kings morning skate, as pictured below. What ended up being significant about this practice was that nearly everybody was starting to pick up on the fact that Gretzky would soon be on the move. Word had already started to circulate that a deal with St. Louis was all but done. ESPN even reported that the Blues had asked the Kings to hold Gretzky out of the line-up vs. the Jets (he played).

Media was everywhere that day at practice. I had never seen anything like it before, nor have I since. For those who couldn’t get to Wayne for quotes that morning, Jari Kurri was their next favorite target, followed by McSorley. Here are some exclusive pictures from my private collection, of what turned out to be #99′s final pre-game skate with the team:

Wayne Gretzky at his final morning skate with the LA Kings – Winnipeg, Canada – February 26, 1996
Gretzky with Kurri – final morning skate – February 1996
American National Anthem prior to Wayne Gretzky’s final game with the LA Kings – February 1996

As for the game itself, the Kings scored three times on Winnipeg’s Nikolai Khabibulin – their biggest offensive output of the trip. McSorley assisted on all three goals, which were scored by Churla, Kurri and John Slaney. Kevin Stevens was also denied on a penalty shot late in the first period.

The late Barry Potomski had a really good fight that night with Denis Chasse (video can be seen here).

However, it wasn’t enough to stave off another defeat. The Jets countered with markers from Chad Kilger, Darrin Shannon and a pair of goals from Keith Tkachuk (another great American player).

Kilger had just arrived in Winnipeg via a trade with Anaheim two weeks earlier. That was the deal that sent Teemu Selanne to the Mighty Ducks.

There was one funny note about Tkachuk from that night against the Kings too. If you’ve ever visited the silent auction table at an NHL game, you know that most of the signed and/or game-used equipment goes for a hefty price. Well, that night, a pair of Tkachuk’s game-used (and autographed) hockey pants sold for the whopping price of $75.00. Amazing.

The 4-3 loss put the Kings two points behind Winnipeg for the final Western Conference playoff berth (LA never made it to the post-season) and pushed their winless streak on the road to 0-11-4.

Gretzky finished the night with one shot on goal, one assist and was a minus-2.

The next day, at a press conference back home in LA, in was announced that the greatest player to ever play the game had been traded to the St. Louis Blues for Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat and two first round draft picks (Peter Hogan in 1996 and Matt Zultek in 1997).

Later tonight the Kings will play in a different Winnipeg arena against a club that was relocated from Atlanta.

Fifteen years ago things sure were different.

The Mayor
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