Kings trying to finish what McNall started

Bruce McNall, November 26, 1994. (QMI Agency)

Bruce McNall, November 26, 1994. (QMI Agency)

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:07 PM ET

LOS ANGELES - He used to be front and centre, big as life, making the biggest trade in hockey history, commandeering a charter plane packed with his hockey team and movie stars, chairman of the NHL's board of governors, a producer of Hollywood hits.

It all blew spectacularly apart for Bruce McNall.

Within a year of his Los Angeles Kings playing in the 1993 Stanley Cup final, McNall had defaulted on a $90-million loan and the revelations of how McNall's empire was a financial house of cards would see him wind up in prison.

He used to be front and centre, a big man with a big grin.

Thursday night at the Staples Center, when the Kings beat the Phoenix Coyotes to advance to within a game of their second Stanley Cup final, McNall was there. During a break in the action, the big screen over centre ice lit up with the faces of a bunch of Kings alumni in a suite: Luc Robitaille, Butch Goring and Russ Courtnall among others.

Sitting in one of the rows near the back was a big man with a big grin.

Bruce McNall is no longer front and centre, but he's still enjoying the playoff run by the Los Angeles Kings.

"It has been crazy. I don't know who can stop them," McNall told QMI Agency. "They are playing with so much fire. They have a lot of confidence and a super hot goalie. It all brings back memories."

McNall owned the Kings when they made their only trip to the final, winning a seven-game Western Conference championship against the Toronto Maple Leafs but then falling to the Montreal Canadiens, who became the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup.

McNall, 62, could look out over a packed Staples Center Thursday night and appreciate that he had a hand in creating a niche for hockey in southern California. Trading for Wayne Gretzky in 1988 was the biggest deal in hockey history and the presence of the game's biggest star -- in a town that was filled with stars -- allowed the Kings to shoulder their way to prominence.

McNall looks at the Kings and the Coyotes playing in this Western final and he can take credit for pushing hockey out of its traditional markets. He brought Gretzky south and Gretkzy's influence touched both cities.

When McNall owned the Kings and was chairman of the NHL board of governors, he was pushing for expansion. When he loaded up that charter plane to take the Kings to Toronto for Game 7 in 1993, it included personalities John Candy, Paul Anka and Goldie Hawn. But McNall also brought along Michael Eisner, the Disney honcho.

Packing the plane with his friends and associates as the Kings faced the biggest game in franchise history had some members of the organization rolling their eyes and shaking their heads.

But McNall credits that experience as one of the reasons Eisner wound up buying into the NHL and owning the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

"We were trying to get the interest in hockey nationwide, not just in Canada and on the East Coast," McNall said. "Wayne brought a lot of attention here and in Phoenix (after his playing career). There wouldn't be a team there without him. It showed hockey could work in those places. The effect was good."

As the Kings enjoyed their biggest moments in franchise history -- there could be new ones in the next few weeks -- McNall's empire was on the verge of imploding. There has been talk the Kings needed to win that Game 7 in 1993 and make it to the final because the revenue from the sale of tickets for the final already had been spent.

By May 1994, McNall's empire was crumbling and he had to sell the Kings. In December of that year, he pleaded guilty to defrauding several banks of $236 million. He was sentenced to 70 months in prison, which was reduced by 13 months for good behaviour. He served it in four institutions around the U.S. and got out in 2001.

"For me, the big thing was making the decision early on to take responsibility. Who did what and when did I know it, it didn't matter. I was still the boss. As the boss, I was the only one who could stop things. Taking responsibility was the thing to do and I think that's why I've been able to retain my allegiances over the years. I think that helped a lot when I came back. I was not a pariah because I stood up," he said.

"Being in prison was an opportunity to stop the train. It was like I was on a train and there was so much pressure, there was just the momentum of it all. The experience allowed me to stop that train and reconsider what was important."

He was visited by Gretzky and other players during his time in jail. He has maintained his relationship with players and with the Kings organization.

"I speak to Luc (Robitaille, the team's president of business operations) all the time. (Kings president) Tim Leiweke has been terrific, accommodating me at the games. They take care of me," he said.

McNall is still in the movie business. He brought to the screen The Fabulous Baker Boys, Mr. Mom, War Games and Weekend at Bernie's. He is now the co-chairman of A-Mark Entertainment (The Pool Boys was their most recent release) and is on the board of directors of procon.org, a non-profit public charity which "provides resources for critical thinking and to educate without bias."

And you can find him where he used to be, at Kings games, just not front and centre anymore.

"They're trying to finish off what we started," he said, "and I say that with a great sum of pride."

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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