Spectacular downfall of a big-shot

Forget bungs, the scandal engulfing an American sporting hero is worth £149m. Phil Reeves reports from Los Angeles
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The Independent Online
America's lurid interest in the O J Simpson murder trial may have horrified many, but it will have brought relief to one individual. For Bruce McNall, the former owner of the Los Angeles Kings, it has diverted attention away from an episode that he would surely love to be buried and forgotten.

Over the last few months, McNall has been embroiled in a scandal that has shaken the world of ice hockey, and makes the sleazier practices of some British football managers look about as serious as smoking behind the bicycle sheds. The businessmen behind American sports usually do not do much by halves, and he is no exception - which is why he is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of defrauding banks of $236m (£149m).

McNall, a former chairman of the National Hockey League's board of governors, recently struck a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, pleading guilty to three charges of fraud and one of conspiracy. His fate will not be determined until July and, although his offences carry a maximum of 45 years in prison and a $1.75m fine, the general consensus among Kings' aficionados is that he will get less than nine years.

His fall is one of the more precipitous in sporting history. For several years McNall was the golden boy of ice hockey, an affable roly-poly millionaire who won acclaim for pulling off one of the sport's most impressive deals - the $15m purchase of the Canadian superstar, Wayne Gretzky, from the Edmonton Oilers in 1988.

Not only did he establish ice hockey on America's West Coast, he also helped take the team to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, to the considerable astonishment of the Kings' fans. A sport that was once regarded as a third cousin to baseball and American football began attracting Hollywood stars to its games.

McNall, 44, made his fortune through coin dealing, a skill which he acquired at an early age. The son of a university biochemistry professor, he was still in his teens when he managed to establish himself as a dealer in Beverly Hills.

By the age of 24, he had enough money to pay a record-breaking $420,000 for a 1,980-year-old Athenian decadrachma - a deal that was scoffed at in the coin-collecting world until he sold it for a $50,000 profit a week later. By the roaring 1980s, he was brokering hugely lucrative purchases on behalf of Herbert and Nelson Bunker Hunt, oil billionaires from Texas. He had made it.

But he found spending money even easier than making it. At the height of his success, he owned a collection of Rolls-Royces, had stakes in 50 thoroughbred horses, was financing movies (The Fabulous Baker Boys and Mr Mom), co-owned the Toronto Argonauts football team, and had five properties. Money, it seemed, was no object.

When he decided his team needed a better means of transport, he bought them a Boeing 727. And when he needed to butter up his bankers, he invited them along to the private dinner which he held before every Kings home game, so that they could rub shoulders with exotic Hollywood types like Goldie Hawn and the late John Candy, his close friend.

The legality of McNall's activities has been in question for some time. In 1993, he freely admitted to Vanity Fair magazine that many of the coins which he had sold to wealthy Californians were acquired by tomb-robbers in Turkey and Italy, and then illegally smuggled into the United States.

However, the collapse of his empire was brought about by more serious crimes. As California went into recession, McNall and several of his staff began concealing debts and overvaluing their assets in order to persuade banks to grant them loans. In the end, banks were defrauded of enough money to buy a Wayne Gretzky 10 times over.

Gretzky himself remained apart from the scandal, although they were involved in several joint business ventures. He recently reached an agreement with the trustees in McNall's bankruptcy case to buy out McNall's share of a 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card, which they had bought for $451,000. Gretzky is also reportedly seeking to sell his stake in a jersey which once belonged to the hockey legend Gordie Howe, and is now on display in his home.

Since the scandal broke, McNall's involvement with the Kings has virtually ended. Although still a consultant, he has sold a 72 per cent stake in the team to two telecommunications executives, Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joseph Cohen. The move will have pleased his creditors, but Kings fans have yet to see much benefit.

Last season, the Kings were the first team in 24 years to miss the play- offs one year after reaching the Stanley Cup finals. They also finished 22nd in the league, five points behind their local rivals, the Mighty Ducks, a new team set up by the Walt Disney Company. For the Kings and their fans, it must have been like being outrun by Bambi.