Who could have imagined it? Who could have foreseen, 20 or 30 years ago, what is now playing out in Las Vegas — a place where the only rink near The Strip used to be reserved for the down-market spectacle Nudes On Ice? Hockey has become the hippest attraction in a town that redefines the whole notion of a non-traditional market, thanks to an expansion team that was purchased for the heretofore unheard-of price of half a billion American dollars and may be on the way to winning a Stanley Cup in its inaugural season.
And it’s not just the Golden Knights. Across the great sunbelt stretch of America that once seemed like the place the National Hockey League had gone to die, there is relative prosperity. Sure, the Florida Panthers aren’t exactly thriving, and the Arizona Coyotes will likely forever be a basket case, but most everyone else is healthy. Seattle gets its franchise next — that one’s going for $650 million. And don’t forget that, in Scottsdale, one of the best young players in the game was introduced to hockey by a father who got turned on to the sport when Wayne Gretzky was sold to the Los Angeles Kings. Auston Matthews never saw a backyard rink, and he would have grown up as a golfer or baseball player or a tennis player but for the bold vision of one of the most important figures in the history of hockey.
No one saw this coming, not even Gary Bettman in his most blue-sky moments. No one.
Except, well, maybe that one guy. That brilliant, audacious owner who brought Gretzky to Los Angeles; who set the league on its current course and hired its current commissioner; and who, more than anyone, was the architect of what the NHL has become in the 21st Century. That someone whose plaque surely should be hanging in the “Builders” section of the Hockey Hall of Fame, whose legacy in the game should be beyond reproach.
Except he was also a crook.
And that is where the story gets a little complicated.
Bruce McNall looks very much the same, eerily the same, as he did three decades ago, diminished but instantly recognizable. His hair has thinned a bit, golf shirts and sports jackets have replaced the expensive suits, and he doesn’t move very quickly, but there’s still the omnipresent smile, still the giggly laugh, the open, almost childlike manner that was really where it all started — the charm. Bruce McNall could charm, and he still can. He is an expert in ancient coins, he has produced movies and owned racehorses and the world’s rarest baseball card and, of course, professional sports franchises, but the first line of his CV ought to read: “Has the ability to make people believe that there’s a fun and fabulous and lucrative ride about to take place, and that if they don’t come along with him, it will be very much their loss.”
On a game night at the Staples Center, in the heart of the city’s LA Live entertainment complex, old-school fans of the Kings recognize him as he walks into the building. They shake his hand, and thank him for his contributions to their favourite team. No, it’s not like it once was, when movie stars fought for seats in the Forum Club close to McNall’s head table, but he still clearly enjoys the recognition, and it doesn’t just come from the fans.
A Kings’ fantasy camp is in progress this week, so there are a bunch of former players hanging around. They convene for drinks in a private box and start swapping stories about the good old days — the days when it was nothing special to see Sylvester Stallone or Ronald Reagan sitting behind the glass; when players were treated like, well, kings. McNall loved hockey, and players loved being in his employ, so when he arrives in the box, it is like Old Home Week, and immediately the story swapping begins.
Remember the time he staged a dinner for Luc Robitaille, Jimmy Carson and Steve Duchesne at the celebrity hangout Spago to try to drum up a little publicity for the team pre-Gretzky? The event managed to attract a few movie stars, but when the players got out of their limousine, the paparazzi put down their cameras because they had no idea who the young men were.
Remember the time Bruce flew Bernie Nicholls home in his helicopter? They were playing in a golf tournament down the coast near San Diego, and Nicholls had to get back to L.A. for his kid’s birthday party. “We flew right up the coast, just like in the movies; right through downtown,” Nicholls remembers. “I was living in an area called Friendly Hills Estates. Bruce had the pilot bring the helicopter down right in the cul-de-sac in front of my driveway. He kicked me out fast because I don’t think you’re actually allowed to do that. And then he took off.”
Remember what was actually the first NHL game in Las Vegas? After the Gretzky trade, the Kings barnstormed through the pre-season to make some extra cash. If you look at the stops now, it’s like the trail of a hockey Johnny Appleseed — franchises later popped up in a bunch of the places they visited. “We played in every city that ended up with an NHL team,” Luc Robitaille says. “We were part of something special where we developed new ground. Every night was an event. It was pretty neat.”
Following a game in Phoenix, they moved on to Caesars Palace, where a temporary rink was constructed in the back parking lot. The temperature climbed past 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and only dropped to 85 by game time — and this was before the modern ice-making technologies that have allowed outdoor games to go off without a hitch. Plus, thousands upon thousands of insects were attracted by the lights. “There were grasshoppers frozen right into the ice,” legendary Kings play-by-play man Bob Miller remembers. “The players were skating over grasshoppers all night.”
But Gretzky was such an attraction, his name in lights on the famous Caesars marquee, that 13,000 fans sold the place out, the largest gate in the history of the NHL to that point.
Yes, those were the days.
Even before McNall came along, the NHL in the late 1980s was enjoying a period of relative tranquility and prosperity following the tumultuous times that began with the great expansion of 1967, the most dramatic growth spurt in the history of North American professional sport. More expansion teams had followed in the ’70s, along with a competing league, the World Hockey Association, which pushed salaries higher and took the game into ever more far-flung outposts. In time the remains of the WHA were absorbed by the NHL — including Gretzky and his WHA team, the Edmonton Oilers — and a cozy relationship between the league president, John Ziegler, the head of the players’ union, Alan Eagleson, and the owners guaranteed labour peace. Everyone took a deep breath and made some money.
But there were exceptions. In Edmonton, Peter Pocklington’s problems with his non-hockey businesses caused him to quietly consider cashing out on his greatest asset, even if it meant becoming a pariah in his hometown. And in Los Angeles, the last western remnant of the Class of ’67, the Los Angeles Kings, still struggled to be noticed in a market dominated by the Lakers, the Dodgers, the Angels, the Rams, and college football and basketball.
The Kings were owned by Dr. Jerry Buss, who had acquired the franchise in 1979 when he also bought the Lakers and the Forum from Jack Kent Cooke, a former Toronto radio mogul who had long expressed frustration about the possibility of ever selling hockey in Southern California. Buss was no hockey fan. He had three great passions: basketball, women and gambling, not necessarily in that order. The Kings were effectively a throw-in on the deal, the money-losing sprig of parsley that came along with the sandwich.
In the early 1980s, Buss began to notice a jolly, baby-faced fellow hanging around on hockey nights at the Forum, apparently one of the team’s most devoted fans. Buss was also a coin collector, and he’d heard of the former whiz kid from Arcadia who had gone to college at 16, wound up at Oxford, and then turned his hobby and expertise into a significant fortune by convincing wealthy folks to put their money into antiquities. Since the actual value of ancient coins was ephemeral — essentially, whatever someone would pay for them — McNall and his storytelling abilities were essential to the process. He’d push a Roman coin into a potential investor’s hand while asking them to imagine that Cleopatra might have once held it, and he’d close the deal. The value was in the idea of the coin as much as the coin itself — a principle that McNall would soon apply in a very different context.
Not that all of the stories McNall told about the coins, or about himself, were true.
“Bruce tends to exaggerate a little bit,” his friend, the filmmaker Nick Cassavetes says. “Bruce loves to tell a good story. Like many storytellers, when accuracy and interest come into conflict, he opts for interest.”
According to McNall, Buss also tapped him for the odd loan, when gambling losses caused a case of the shorts. Settling one of those debts gave McNall his first piece of the Kings in 1986. By 1988, he owned the team outright. “I was losing a lot of money with it,” Buss said in an interview for the book Gretzky’s Tears in 2009 (he died in 2013). “Bruce was there. He wanted it. It just kind of started to fall into place.”
Take a took at the NHL map in 1986. Twenty-one teams, with only Los Angeles west of St. Louis on the American side of the border. No presence in the sunbelt. Nothing across vast stretches of the United States.
Take a look at that same map now.
Of course, all of McNall’s vision and chutzpah and hustle wouldn’t have added up to all that much had he not pulled off the most destiny-altering trade in professional sports since the Boston Red Sox sent Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. “If Gretzky played his entire career in Edmonton it wouldn’t have happened that way,” says Howard Baldwin, a close friend and sometime business partner of McNall’s, who was one of the founders of the WHA and at times owned various NHL teams, including the Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins. “On some level Bruce understood what it would mean to have Wayne play in Los Angeles. That’s part of his vision, that he made that trade understanding or believing … that you could do something with Wayne here that you couldn’t have ever done with him in a traditional hockey market.”
The events of August 1988 have been well documented: Pocklington needed cash. He was willing to sell Gretzky to get it. Gretzky was more than happy to move to Los Angeles.
It was just five months after McNall had bought the final piece of the Kings. He had access to the money — he was by then convincing bankers of the value of his antiquities and his race horses and his sports franchises and memorabilia the same way he’d worked the coin business — and he understood that the only way to get noticed in a town full of stars was to buy the best hockey player in the world. It didn’t matter if people knew nothing about the game; if they had completely failed to notice Gretzky and his teammates redefining the sport, rewriting the record books, and winning a string of Stanley Cups in Edmonton. It was the idea of Gretzky that mattered, the idea of the best. That’s what would finally put hockey on the Hollywood map.
You know what happened next: A nation in shock and mourning. The teary farewell press conference. The star-studded welcome in California. Everything changed.
What is less well remembered — and certainly less commemorated because it still makes some people in the sport uncomfortable — is how the Gretzky trade and the ensuing success of the Kings propelled McNall to the top of the National Hockey League. He wasn’t quite handed the keys, but it was pretty damned close. “Bruce was really one of the first, if not the first owner, that came in with flair and charisma and the ability to stimulate excitement and growth,” says Baldwin. “Everybody felt, maybe that will rub off on the rest of the markets. And [the other owners] were — I don’t know how to put it. ‘Seduced’ isn’t the right word because everybody knew what Bruce was doing. But he had a great ability to sell and excite. A guy like [Chicago Blackhawks’ owner] Bill Wirtz, who had been the chairman of the board, for his time was extraordinary. I mean the Wirtz family are an iconic family. But it was time to move on from that, to something new and fresh that would make the league grow and explode like it did in L.A.”
McNall remembers the owners’ meeting in 1992 when Wirtz stepped down and he was named the chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors. “I was 41 years old, and the other owners were older folks, but I guess as a result of what was happening because of the Gretzky deal, they thought that maybe I had some magic touch or something — or maybe there was a desire for something new, something to take hockey from where it had been to some new reaches. I had several owners come to me and say, ‘You know you should be chairman,’ but I said no … It was Bill [Wirtz] who finally said, ‘I think it’s time for a change.’ So they take a vote and they elect me chairman. It was a great honour but it was a little odd for somebody as young as I was and as new as I was in the league. I hadn’t been there that long…
“But they bought into the concept. Maybe some owners did it simply because they were interested in the expansion franchise fees — I mean that’s possible. Maybe some thought that we would attract a major television deal. I don’t know exactly what the motives were necessarily, but I think deep down it’s because most of those owners were hockey fans themselves. And, like anything you are involved with, it’s great to share it with as many people as you can find. I think that’s what happened. I think everybody got on the board believing we can make hockey a big deal around the country … I don’t think that any of the [other] owners believed that we’d ever be competitive with the NBA or football. But I thought we could.”
One of McNall’s early tasks as chairman was to hire the NHL’s first commissioner. He had been there for the ouster of Ziegler (who the owners fired for his handling of a 10-day players’ strike and the contract it produced for the NHLPA under its new executive director, Bob Goodenow), and he was up to his neck in the messy business surrounding Ziegler’s interim successor, Gil Stein, who was controversially nominated for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame as an apparent golden handshake.
With that settled, it was time to hire an executive who could execute and enhance sunbelt expansion, land a lucrative national television contract, and eventually force the players to accept a salary cap — in essence, to enact McNall’s vision for the league. The natural place to look was the National Basketball Association, which was then regarded as the cutting edge of modern sports marketing, with its commissioner David Stern considered the leading light in North American professional sport. McNall originally targeted one of Stern’s vice-presidents, Russ Granik, but Stern fought to keep him. Instead he hired another young vice-president with no hockey pedigree (McNall actually believed that was an asset), but who was steeped in the NBA’s modern business practices: Gary Bettman.
Their first great triumph as chairman and commissioner was bringing two expansion franchises into the fold for $50-million each (which allowed every other NHL owner to go to his bankers and claim that was the baseline value of his team). It wasn’t just the money, though. It was the identity of the new owners. Michael Eisner bought the Anaheim Mighty Ducks on behalf of Disney Wayne Huizenga, who had made his fortune with the Blockbuster Video rentals chain, and who also owned the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League, bought what would become the Florida Panthers, the second franchise in the Sunshine State, following the arrival of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992.
Eisner and Huizenga weren’t just rich hobbyists. They were movers and shakers whose influence extended far beyond the world of sport. If they were willing to invest in hockey as the game of the future, there must be something to it.
Because the Mighty Ducks would be located in Anaheim, what was arguably Kings’ territory, McNall was allowed to pocket half of the franchise fee. He sent that money immediately to one of the banks that was breathing down his neck. That was the flip side to the beautiful illusion McNall had so brilliantly constructed: On the outside he was still the man with the Midas touch, living his dream, showing everyone else the way. Behind the scenes, even as the Kings were rolling to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, even as he was flying from game to game in a private jet full of movie stars — by all accounts one of the greatest running parties in the history of the world — he knew what was coming. Maybe a big score could still save him. Maybe Sony would buy the whole shooting match, or he’d get that arena complex built out at Hollywood Park. But maybe not. And either way he knew that all of that debt — much of it built on lies, loans paying off other loans, bankers bamboozled then covering their own butts because if he went down, they’d go down with him — that wasn’t going anywhere.
It was unsustainable. It was illegal. He was going to jail. But he kept right on smiling.
“I had every man’s dream,” McNall says. “I was in ancient coins. It was my favorite thing, and then going from that to the Hollywood dream of being in the movie business, and race horses. I went from being a nerd kid from Arcadia to being a celebrity. And what guy doesn’t want to own a sports franchise? There’s only about a hundred of us [at the time]. So that club is a pretty small club. My story is reaching a dream that others only dare to dream about and showing that it was possible. And also sort of a cautionary tale of how once you get to that level, you’ve got to be careful.”
It all fell apart.
There was the story in Vanity Fair where McNall admitted to smuggling ancient artifacts into the United States. That was a red flag. People started digging deeper — including the feds. The biography, the prodigy stuff, Oxford? A lot of it was made up, or at least embellished. The fortune? More of a Hollywood false front.
“He had a charisma about him,” says Jim Bates, who covered McNall for the Los Angeles Times. “People always liked him, he’s a very likeable guy. That was probably part of his undoing — his charm. He told a great story. The problem was that sometimes it wasn’t true … It happens all the time. People want to believe that a guy is fabulously wealthy. They see the limousines, they see the trappings of it, they see the private jet, they see the home. They want to believe that it’s all real. And a lot of times, it’s not.”
McNall bristles at the term “house of cards,” because even after it all came down, there was something tangible remaining, including Gretzky and the Kings. But the underpinnings of his empire were fraudulent, built on loans secured with collateral that either didn’t exist or wasn’t nearly as valuable as McNall claimed. (One story involves a dead race horse.) Books were cooked to cover his tracks.
And in some cases the banks — or at least flesh-and-blood bankers — were complicit. They believed the stories, too. “One of the chief bankers was very much an insider — was always at the games and was part of Bruce’s world,” Bates says. “Bruce was very good at doing that with people. He brought them into his world and courted them and they were star-struck around the people that he knew. If you’re a banker, you’re sort of seduced into that world, you might have looked the other way.”
If there’s a reason, beyond his affable nature, why so many of McNall’s friends remained loyal to him, why there was so little schadenfreude around his demise, it’s because his primary victims were financial institutions that elicited minimal sympathy. In the extreme version, some even see McNall as a bit of a victim. “Who got hustled?” Cassavetes asks “Those bankers didn’t do five years in jail. They didn’t do hard time. Bruce came from a nice family. He’s not a criminal. And he did real hard time. He never said a word about it. He got punished for a lot of peoples’ sins … He made so many people a lot of money and kept his mouth shut when so many people could have gone to jail for exactly what Bruce was doing.”
In December 1994, McNall pleaded guilty to two counts of bank fraud and single counts of conspiracy and wire fraud, admitting that he had bilked his bankers out of $236 million. Without the plea bargain, he faced a maximum 45 years in prison. At his sentencing hearing, he delivered a lengthy and profuse apology in court before being told that he would be spending 70 months in jail and must pay back $5 million to the banks he had swindled. His first home behind bars, a minimum security facility in Lompoc, Calif., was a relative country club. McNall managed the prison softball team, and when his Hollywood and sports friends visited, as they often did, he would make a show of taking orders for fast food — whatever they wanted — and then having it delivered by the guards, some of whom were augmenting their income with the memorabilia and autograph opportunities McNall and his guests provided.
Those in charge of the institution eventually tired of McNall’s act. They stuck him in solitary, and eventually moved him to much tougher prisons far away from the L.A. set, in Indiana (where he was on the same cell block as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh) and Michigan. Robitaille and Rob Blake visited him during that last stop, and came away shaken by what they saw. “It was different,” Robitaille says. “He was really locked up. It was exactly like the worst prison you see in the movies. When we saw how nervous he was, it made us nervous … I saw a different side of Bruce there, where it was him as a person, where he wasn’t selling and wasn’t happy go lucky. When you see a person at their lowest and you see their true self, you almost appreciate them better. Those are times that I cherish. He’s got a good heart and he did a lot of things wrong but there is a side to him that is very endearing.”
McNall found a way to endure. “Bruce can be whatever he needs to be at the moment,” Cassavetes says. “I think that’s the most distinctive characteristic of him. He is willing to not only fudge the truth, but take on any kind of personality he needs to, not only to survive but to thrive. I think that’s exactly what happened to him in jail. Jail’s not hard. You go in and shut your mouth, keep your head down and hope your number doesn’t come up.”
He was releasead in 2001 after his sentence was reduced by 13 months for good behaviour. McNall emerged divorced (his ex-wife famously held a yard sale in their upscale neighbourhood to rid herself of his belongings), humbled, owing millions of dollars in restitution, and finding himself conveniently erased from the history of the NHL. Sure, they’d always talk about The Trade, but any discussion of his larger role in the league’s direction was just a little too embarrassing.
Waiting for him on the outside were many friends who remained loyal, including Eisner, who helped him land a book deal, and Gretzky, who postponed his jersey retirement ceremony in Los Angeles until McNall could be there.
They are making a mini-series about Bruce McNall. Of course they are. Because Bruce McNall is, if nothing else, a character from fiction. Baldwin is one of the producers, and Cassavetes (whose credits include The Notebook, John Q., and the adapted screenplay for Blow) is writing the treatment.
At his house high in the Hollywood Hills, where legend has it some of those Molly’s Game poker nights took place, Cassavetes lays out his pitch: “We have a couple of pretty famous actors who want to play this part,” he says. “If you think about Bruce’s life, it’s many things. He did it during the ’80s, which was an age of excess, and we forget how beautiful that time was. So it’s kind of a celebration of the ’80s. Bruce’s story is jaw-dropping — the audacity he had and the good fortune and the care he took of all the people around him and how much they loved him. I always like to say that Bruce: You can take him to see the Queen, you can take him to meet a gangster, and he’s perfectly comfortable in any spot. And not only that, no matter where you take him, he’s always the most goddamned popular guy in the room. I love him. He’s one of my dearest friends. When it’s all said and done, he’s going to go down as one of the greats. He really is … As much of an embellisher as he is, I have never heard him tell me a lie in his life. He don’t lie. Does he have a lot of larceny in his soul? Maybe. But you know how they talk about honour among thieves? It’s definitely true about him.”
McNall has a wealthy patron these days, for whom he does deals, though the specifics are vague. Obviously, it’s not like the old days. But he’s getting by, and if the mini-series indeed comes to fruition, he’s about get famous once again.
But what he most cares about, according to Cassavetes, is being recognized for his contribution to hockey, by way of election to the Hall of Fame. Robitaille, who is on the Hall of Fame selection committee, becomes guarded when the topic is raised. “Do I think Bruce should be in the Hall of Fane? It’s definitely not up to me but I think when you get into the Hall of Fame, you’ve got to take everything into consideration,” he says. “He has done a tremendous amount of great work for the league, but you have to weigh the good and the bad and see where it ends up. I don’t think anybody is ready for it yet but you never know in the future. I have a feeling at some point there is going to be a debate about that, but I’m not sure that anybody is ready for it just yet.”
But then he essentially makes McNall’s case: “I don’t think anyone has done more than Bruce in a short amount of time to develop the game of hockey. In the short amount of time that he had a say and had an impact, it’s truly amazing what he did. No one has done more to put it on the map in the U.S. He got Wayne Gretzky at his prime. No one ever thought that would happen. And he made hockey cool. He literally changed the game.”
When McNall is asked about the Hall of Fame, he is careful not to oversell. As always, he knows his audience. He knows that in hockey, selection to the Hall is hardly straightforward — it is a secretive backroom process, where favourites are rewarded and old scores are settled. He’s still got friends in the game, and he certainly has enemies. And he knows that even acknowledging his existence is going to make some hockey people who were very much along for the ride extremely uncomfortable.
“What I did wrong was not hockey-related. So maybe you could separate the two issues,” he says. “You could go either way. If nothing else had happened in my life, I’m sure I probably would have been in the Hall of Fame. But when you do have a mistake like that and it’s such a public mistake, I’m not so sure that everyone would embrace the idea. Probably not. And I’m okay that way. But I’m very grateful that the people that are around are willing to consider it.
“It would sure be an interesting debate.”
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