March 27, 2008

Bruce McNall: Fun While It Lasted

Bruce McNall is forever a hockey legend, even if he is as infamous as he is famous.

McNall is of course the high roller who bought the Los Angeles Kings and then bought Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers, changing the game beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

McNall also had other influences on the game - in such areas as business and marketing applications, expansion cash infusions and salary inflation - but it was the Gretzky trade that is McNall's long lasting legacy.

He, of course, will also always be known for the collapse of his financial empire and his white collar crimes that landed him in prison.

I recently picked up Fun While it Lasted, Bruce McNall's autobiography, co-written by Michael D'Antonio. I picked up only because of its connection to hockey. I was hoping the book would cover hockey more. Instead it touches mostly upon what is already publicly well known.

Though most of us know of him strictly because of it, hockey is just a small part of McNall's story. Let's face it - we know nothing about him unless it involves the LA Kings, and maybe, just maybe, the Toronto Argonauts football team and the Honus Wagner baseball card he once owned. He also had his hand in some movies, such as Weekend At Bernie's.

McNall tells his story the way he sees it, or at least the way he wants us to see it. Let's face it, this book is partly a marketing campaign to paint himself back into the public's good graces, as well as a cash grab from an interested publisher. I don't know about the latter part, but the book comes up short on the first point.

McNall was more or less a self made billionaire, discovering a fascination with coin collecting as a boy. His prodigious knowledge of rare coins financed his way through college and into his own business. While he started out working for high-paying clients, he soon accumulated his own collection and saw his net worth skyrocket, although several outside sources accused McNall of smuggling.

Soon enough he would branch his business interests out to include such antiques as vases, urns, and you know, sports franchises.

McNall also got involved into financing firms, which is where he got in over his head. Soon enough he and business partner David Begelman ran up expenses faster than their net worth rose. They juggled banks and accountants hoping to land that elusive $200,000 deal that would clean their hands of all questionable activities.

Of course that deal never came, and the authorities did. Instead of continuing to be the most visible owner in hockey and a big time roller in business, coins and Hollywood, McNall was off to prison, losing pretty much everything on the way.

McNall's story is interesting, possibly fascinating, though this book does not really impress that upon the reader. I'm not quite sure what it is, but something is missing. In our celebrity and wealth pre-occupied world we live in, this book seems almost pedestrian.

Perhaps fellow book reviewer Budd Bailey said it best when he said "
Ultimately, a book like this often turns on whether the subject can generate sympathy from the reader. Here, McNall falls short."

Bailey is right. Perhaps McNall spends too much time bragging about his celebrity friendships and his "sickness" of wanting to be liked. That's great if you retain great friendships through the toughest of times, but wanting to be liked doesn't excuse taking $200 million.


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