May 29, 2012
Kings' first coach remembers good and bad
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
It didn't begin or end the way it was supposed to, but most of the time Red Kelly loved being the first coach of the Los Angeles Kings -- loved his first coaching job, loved the team, hated the travel, and hated that his wife couldn't stand living in Los Angeles.
Kelly was reminiscing Tuesday about the good and bad old days from the Forest Hill home where on Wednesday night he will sit in front of his television and watch the team he helped start try to win their first Stanley Cup.
"Yeah, I'm cheering for them," said Kelly, 84 and in pretty good health "for an old guy."
"When you're there at the beginning, you have a feel for it. I'd like them to win. But I think they're in tough against the (New Jersey) Devils."
There were still months to go in Kelly's last NHL season as a player -- months before the Maple Leafs would win their final Stanley Cup -- when the telephone rang at his home. It was Larry Regan, the general manager of the brand new Kings franchise, on the line.
"How would you like to be the first coach of the Kings?" Regan asked.
Kelly was interested from the beginning but had to talk to Punch Imlach, the Leafs coach and general manager, about it. In the back of his mind, he knew he was ready for retirement and a new challenge.
"Punch told me I had his blessing, that if I wanted to coach I could go," Kelly said. "But still, he offered me a four-year contract to stay in Toronto. I had already played 20 years in the league. I told Punch I couldn't sign that, I was ready to retire. He said 'No problem.'
"But it turned out to be a problem. The Leafs wouldn't let me go to the Kings. It was kind of crazy."
Imlach played hard ball with the Kings and forced a trade with Los Angeles, sending one of their expansion picks, Ken Block, to Toronto in exchange for Kelly's contract.
"That wasn't what he said. I guess it was a ploy by Punch to get something for me."
That was the confusing beginning. The end wasn't much more clear.
Midway through Kelly's second season coaching the Kings, he sat down with eccentric owner Jack Kent Cooke. He told Cooke he would not be renewing his contract to remain as Kings coach. It turned out, much as Kelly had no problems with the coaching job, "my wife was having sort of a nervous breakdown in Los Angeles. She hated the traffic and we were on the road so much, being one of only two West Coast teams. We had to get out of there."
When Kelly met with Cooke at Christmas, the owner said he understood. He asked Kelly to keep his situation quiet.
"He told me not to tell anyone, and he said he would keep it all a secret. We sold our house quietly, didn't even put up a sign. No one knew what was going on. Mr. Cooke tried to talk me into staying and after keeping this quiet for months, when the season ended, Cooke surprised me and announced he had fired me. I would never have done that. I kept my part of the bargain. It wasn't what was supposed to happen but at that point I didn't care. We were just happy to be getting out of there and getting to the cottage."
Those two years in L.A., though, have never left Kelly. You never forget your first team as a coach, especially the way he went straight from winning the Cup as a player to running the Kings. That first Kings group, picked "by everyone for last place" finished one point out of first in the expansion West Division.
"That team was something," Kelly said. "We had Bill White and Dale Rolfe on defence, Terry Sawchuk in goal ... that team gave me everything they had, 125%. We were tied 4-4 in our last game of the season and we scored a goal late that should have got us first place. But they called it off for a guy being in the crease. I watched it afterwards -- it was a good goal. It should have counted."
Kelly talked like it was yesterday, the late goal 44 years ago from the Kings' maiden season.
"You have to understand how different times were," said Kelly. "I went in there with high expectations. I thought we were going to build something and I wanted to be part of that. But there are things you don't count on. We never had our own rink until February that first year. We played in Long Beach, an hour away. It seems we were always travelling, in and around Los Angeles, or on the road. The NHL had 12 teams, but only two on the West Coast. We were always on the road. We played an even schedule and we went .500 with the original six teams. No one, except maybe California, ever had a schedule like we had before.
"But the team, they gave me everything they had. I was very proud of that team."
They were led by Eddie (The Jet) Joyal, Cowboy Bill Flett, Chris Jericho's dad, Ted Irvine, and long before there was Mario, the Kings had Real Lemieux.
"We should have beat Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. We had them on the ropes. We had Game 7 at home. But Sawchuk didn't have a good night. He let in a bad one. That was it, for us. That was Terry's last game as a King. He got traded after that, I think because of that game. I don't know if we would have beaten St. Louis (in the next round). They had Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante in goal and they rotated them every game. Those guys were still pretty good at that time."
When the Kings go home for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final -- their first championship series game in 19 years and only the third in the franchise's rather wonky history -- they have invited their first captain, Bob Wall, back for the game. But they haven't invited their first coach, and Kelly is just fine with that.
He is hopeful of a Kings victory in the final, but thinks they're in tough with the Devils.
"Of course, I'm pulling for them," said Kelly. "I was there. It meant something to me. I've won my share (eight Cups in all, with Toronto and Detroit). It'd be nice for them to get one.
"The thing is, L.A.'s got a chance. They're in the finals. You get your foot in the door, you got to take advantage of it."
Kelly knows all too well. He was part of that Toronto team of 1967 that won the Cup then started the longest drought in hockey, alongside the Kings and the St. Louis Blues. It's been 45 years since the Leafs last won. The Kings and Blues have never won.
"Toronto is long overdue for a Cup," said Kelly. "It's different than Los Angeles. That's one of the original six teams. I'd like to see the Kings win. But I'd rather see the Leafs do it."