Wayne Gretzky’s Arrival Changes Everything For LA Kings And Retired Trainer Pete Demers
March 13, 2011 19 Comments
FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: Retired Los Angeles Kings head athletic trainer Pete Demers has seen more than most after a 41-year career in professional hockey that includes 37 years in the Los Angeles Kings’ organization, three with their minor league affiliate in Springfield, and 34 with the Kings. During the vast majority of those years, Demers had to suffer, along with everyone else, from a lot of mediocre, or worse, hockey. But everything changed, almost overnight, on August 9, 1988, when Wayne Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles to stay. Part six of a series.
LOS ANGELES — During his career with the Los Angeles Kings, retired head athletic trainer Pete Demers toiled long hours, starting early in the morning, and often working into the wee hours of the following morning.
Demers spent 34 years with the franchise, and for the vast majority of his career, the team had little success.
“Over the years, it has been frustrating and disheartening, whatever you want to call it,” said Demers. “Every guy who walks though [the dressing room] door puts his heart and soul into it, and then it doesn’t happen, whether we just didn’t have the talent, some stuff was missing, who knows.”
“I probably had the record for seeing more bad hockey than anybody in the history of the league,” Demers joked.
But little did he, or anyone else, for that matter, know that a big, big change was coming in the summer of 1988.
Indeed, just months after Bruce McNall became the sole owner of the Kings on March 23, 1988, having purchased 100 percent of the franchise from Jerry Buss, who owned the Kings, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Forum in Inglewood (where both teams played until Staples Center opened in the Fall of 1999), the Kings’ fortunes changed overnight.
On August 9, 1988, McNall engineered a trade with the Edmonton Oilers that brought the greatest player ever to play the game, Wayne Gretzky, to the Kings.
The Kings sent forwards Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas, a first round pick in the 1991 National Hockey League Entry Draft, a first round pick in the 1993 draft and cash, estimated at $15 million, to the Oilers, in exchange for Gretzky, forward Mike Krushelnyski, and right wing/defenseman Marty McSorley.
After an emotional press conference in Edmonton earlier that day, Gretzky flew to Los Angeles, where he faced a huge throng of local print and broadcast media at another press conference.
Demers was there, too.
“I went to the hotel with [his wife], Marilyn, to see the press conference,” said Demers, who worked 2,632 consecutive games with the Kings before retiring in 2006.
What Demers witnessed that evening was the beginning of an entirely new era for the Kings, one that would move them out of darkness and into the brightest of bright lights.
To be sure, the Kings immediately became one of the most popular teams in the league. With Gretzky in the fold, their season ticket base skyrocketed almost overnight, and they immediately became the hottest ticket in town with every game a sellout, drawing celebrities and politicians, in addition to the hard core hockey fans they had always drawn.
A little over a month after the trade, the Kings opened their first training camp with The Great One on the roster.
“I remember when he came to training camp,” said Demers. “He came in with a slice on his finger. I put a band-aid on him, and I said, ‘that’s Wayne Gretzky, and I just put a band-aid on his finger.’ Who can say that?”
“That’s still a very emotional thing for me to think about, even after a 41-year career in pro hockey,” added Demers, who also worked three years with the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Kings, along with stints with the Rhode Island Reds of the AHL and the Columbus Checkers of the International Hockey League, prior to coming to Los Angeles.
“He’s only had a handful of trainers with different teams. He played here for eight years. I was very lucky to see him play.”
Gretzky was one of the first players to move away from the traditional wooden hockey sticks, switching to aluminum when he arrived in Los Angeles.
“He was just in the transition of using those new Easton aluminum sticks,” Demers reminisced. “Most players trying these sticks put the blades on themselves. But we did it for him. [Later], we got Easton to do that.”
“That was a big thing—he used four sticks every game,” said Demers. “I taped all his sticks, too. He taped his stick, but then we’d tape his stick also. He might tape his stick, but, in between, the tape might rip. We’d tape his stick and powder it.”
“He used black, sticky friction tape,” added Demers. “We call it Gordie Howe Tape in our game. It’s the old [cloth-type] electrical tape. Very sticky. It had a soft feeling to it, and Gretzky was very soft on the puck.”
One night, taking care of The Great One’s sticks almost caused serious injury.
“You had to heat the blade up to stick it into the shaft,” Demers explained. “One night, I had to go in and change his blade for him. The sticks he had, he didn’t like, and the game was going on. So I looked over to the other trainer and said, ‘watch for me, I’m going in.’”
“I went underneath the stands and back to the locker room,” Demers elaborated. “I heated up his stick, and then I put the torch down, and I’m putting the blade inside the shaft. My pants caught on fire.”
“The washer was going, so I grabbed a wet towel out of the washer. I had polyester pants, and they started to burn like nothing. I put them out with the wet towel, but I burned the hair on my legs a little bit.”
Demers was very, very lucky that he was not seriously hurt. But his luck quickly ran out.
“Then, someone ran in yelling, ‘Pete! Pete! Pete!’ Someone was hurt on the ice,” he said. “I ran out with half my pants ripped up the side.”
That certainly was not the kind of show the Kings wanted to put on that night.
Potential injury and wardrobe problems aside, Gretzky was poetry and wizardry on ice.
“To watch him play, you could stand right here and look out to the backyard [about 10-15 feet away], and only you could see that between that table, that chair, and that tree, there’s a tiny spot,” said Demers. “Only you see it. But he saw it, too, and that’s where he put the puck.”
“So many times, I’ve been on the bench, and saw him take a shot that went right through three guys, and between the post and the goalie’s pad,” added Demers. “How’d he do that? The guys two guys down couldn’t see it. Only I could see it because I was on the same sight line that he was. I’ve seen that happen over and over again. He could do that, and soft. You could hardly hear the puck.”
Add genius to the list as well.
“How many times has he put the puck over the back of the net, off the back of the goalie, or from behind the net, off a guy’s shin pad, and into the net? How did he do that? He knew exactly what he was doing,” Demers stressed.
“I could never figure out why they didn’t get him on it, but nine times out of ten, when he crossed the blue line, he’d stop and do a turn,” Demers added. “A lot of times he would do that, and they still couldn’t get him. I think they were afraid to go to him because he’d give you the howdy-do, and then you’re up in the second row.”
Demers also had a front row seat to Gretzky’s off-ice “performances.”
“It was unbelievable,” Demers reminisced. “We could pull up to a hotel at high noon in the past, and there wouldn’t be anybody there. [But with Gretzky], you could pull up to a hotel at 4:00 in the morning, and there would be 25 autograph seekers waiting for him.”
“He was so good, too, with signing stuff, and everybody comes to us,” Demers added. “I really found it hard, even in my retirement, to say no. I’ve had to say no now, I can’t get stuff anymore. But everybody wants something. ‘You’re my favorite trainer. Can you get me Wayne’s stick or Wayne’s autograph?’”
“But he was so good. We’d get stuff and put it out on a table, and he’d sign it. Day after day, he’d do that.”
To be sure, The Great One understood that as the best player ever to play the game, he was also hockey’s greatest ambassador, and had responsibilities that went far beyond the rink.
“Look at the flexibility he had in his life to be able to stick handle around all the obstacles he had with media, fans, and still playing the game,” Demers noted. “When the puck is dropped, you have to tune everything out. I’m trying to play my game on the ice. I can’t worry about a post-game interview, or what might happen later. I have to be focused on right now, what I’m doing. He was able to do that.”
“He was spread very thin, with interviews and the like,” Demers added. “He had some kind of aura about him where he could tune things out. But he was always aware of his surroundings. He might not make eye contact, but he could see—maybe you can look at some old interviews. Maybe he’d be signing a stick, but he’d be looking around. He had a way of tuning it out.”
Gretzky: Lost And Found
The way the 1992-93 season began, it looked like the Kings might not even make the playoffs, as Gretzky came into training camp with a career-threatening back injury, a herniated thoracic disc.
Demers remembers that the Kings were scrambling to figure out what to do without their captain and the best player of all-time.
“There was a lot of pow-wowing going on,” said Demers. “We were up at Lake Arrowhead. We’re care providers, and the thing we think about the most is the athlete, and I’m not taking [anything] away from anyone. It’s just goes to show you the different mentality of different people. Bruce McNall was there, our owner, the most personable guy you’d ever want to meet. My thoughts are all on Wayne, and his recovery, what we’re going to do. [But] management’s thoughts were on, ‘we’ve got to get another guy.’”
“Being a care provider, that wasn’t my main focus,” added Demers. “Why aren’t we worrying about Wayne? Why are we worrying about another player? But my job is different from their job. Their job is to get that product, that ingredient that we need, and my job is to care for the guy.”
That Gretzky’s injury was career-threatening was an understatement. In fact, doctors thought Gretzky’s career was indeed, over.
“I did not [believe that Gretzky would recover],” Demers noted. “In fact, Dr. Robert Watkins, the most renowned back surgeon of the era, he published that in a book.”
“I think it might even show that the disc shrunk up,” Demers added. “He talked about it, saying that it was pretty unusual for it to shrink up.”
Indeed, behind closed doors, the thought was that Gretzky would never play hockey again. But, miraculously, the disc shrunk, and he recovered from the injury. He returned to the lineup in January, 1993, after missing 39 regular season games that year. He went on to score 16 goals and contribute 49 assists for 65 points in 45 games, helping lift the Kings into the playoffs, where he put the team on his back, leading them with 15 goals and 25 assists for forty points in 24 games.
Lost and found, indeed.
Conventional wisdom back then was that there was an unwritten rule in the NHL that the big stars were off-limits in terms of the physical play.
Just don’t tell Wayne Gretzky that, as he took a pounding throughout his career.
“People who play the game are getting bigger, faster, and stronger,” Gretzky told Rick Sadowski, former beat writer covering the Kings for the Los Angeles Daily News, and, before that, the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. “Hitting from behind is a serious situation.”
“We can’t afford to lose a Mario Lemieux or a Brett Hull,” Gretzky is quoted as saying in Sadowski’s 1993 book, Los Angeles Kings: Hockeywood. “I hope this [injury] shows people there is a lot of hitting from behind. To me, this injury is not from one hit. It’s the culmination of getting pounded night after night.”
Demers saw the results of all that pounding, and not just on Gretzky.
“Wear and tear…if you line all these guys up now who have played, you’ll see the ailments they have,” he said. “They’re all at the hip surgeon, the knee replacement guy, their fingers are all bent, their toes are somewhere else from the skates. The wear and tear is cumulative, as are the concussions.”
Whether it was the herniated thoracic disc from years of getting pounded on, or just the every-day injuries hockey players suffer, Gretzky displayed a level of toughness that few ever gave him credit for.
“He’d keep his injuries low-key,” said Demers. “But he got banged up. He got space. They used to give him a lot of space, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t banged up. I remember him having a sore knee. We were trying to get it along, but he had other priorities.”
“He’s very low-key on his injuries,” added Demers. “He could have an injury that was nagging, and he wouldn’t even tell us about it. If an injury was threatening to keep him out, then he’d say, ‘OK, let’s go, we’re going to do this.’”
“He didn’t like ice. Too cold for him, but boy, could he play hockey.”
But Gretzky’s toughness made Demers’ job that much more difficult.
“If all your players were like Gretzky, it would be hard to treat them because treatment wasn’t a priority of his,” Demers explained. “He played through that stuff. Other guys can’t play through it. He was tough. He got banged up, but maybe he had more space than other guys did.”
As Demers alluded to earlier, Gretzky was so good, opposing defenders were often afraid he would fake them into oblivion. That gave him more space than most had to maneuver. But that does not mean he didn’t get hit.
“I remember when Dave Taylor hit him up in Edmonton,” Demers recalled. “But there might be something to this, that they were afraid to make that commitment to go at him, and there’s kind of a rule in our game that you don’t hit the little guys. Then again, if you can slow those little guys down, put a little fear into their heads, make’em hear foot steps, they might get rid of the puck a little quicker.”
“But Gretzky wasn’t going to be intimidated,” Demers added. “He’d take a pounding. He wore a flak jacket. We designed a lot of rib protection for him, with the armor thing. A guy came to our meeting with a baseball bat, and he tried this vest on that he had. He said to hit him with it. I didn’t put it on, but they were hitting him with it, so we bought that for Gretzky.”
So Close, Yet So Far
Gretzky and the Kings gave their long-suffering fans their only real shot at a Stanley Cup championship in 1992-93. It would be Demers’ only solid chance to get his name on the Stanley Cup, as well.
After getting past the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks, the Kings won a brutal seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Campbell Conference Finals before losing in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.
“The [deeper] you go [in the playoffs], the more excitement there is,” said Demers. “Just the momentum that you had. When you [keep] advancing in the playoffs, you say, ‘hey, we can do this.’”
Even though he knew the responsibilities and duties of his job, like the rest of the team, going that deep into the playoffs was uncharted territory for Demers.
“It was very exciting, because from day one, all through training camp, that’s what you’re striving for,” added Demers. “It’s just that we were new at it. It’s unfortunate how it unraveled. Everybody blames Marty [McSorley’s] stick, but you’ve got to score goals to win. Maybe that was a factor, psychologically, but look at the games after that.”
Indeed, after McSorley’s now-infamous illegal stick (the curve of his blade was illegal) late in Game 2 at Montreal (Canadiens won, 3-2 in overtime), the Kings dropped two more heartbreaking overtime losses, before collapsing once and for all in Game 5, 4-1.
“You start at training camp, year after year, trying to build to that moment in the Finals,” Demers lamented. “It’s pretty discouraging when things don’t work out. We were so close, we just couldn’t get it done.”
Demers explained that during the playoffs, there is even more work for the trainers to do.
“You’re providing extra care,” he noted. “Right off the bat, you’re providing care, and we always provide extra care, but you just do more during the playoffs, and that would be bringing players back in in the afternoon, or maybe at night, for that extra treatment, whether it would help them or not, psychologically. We’ve always felt that if one treatment a day was good, two or three might be [better]. Maybe it wasn’t, but, psychologically, it could help prepare that player to know that this was a very important time for him.”
“We would bring players in the hotel at night,” he added. “We’d go to their rooms in the hotel. We’d do that anyway [during the season], but we would ramp that up, where we would have times for our massage guy to work on someone, or we’d treat players—we’d bring our modalities back to the hotel, our muscle stimulators, or our hot pack machines, if we wanted to do hot and cold treatments on a knee, or something.”
“We don’t miss a step, we’d just have a truck bring in our gear. We’d bring all the video stuff in for the coaches, we’d bring our tables and our different stuff that we might need to provide that care for the players to the hotel.”
The Kings certainly came close to winning the Stanley Cup back in 1993, but were unable to reach the Promised Land. As stated earlier, that would be as close as Demers would ever get to getting his name engraved on that most treasured of all trophies in professional team sports. But he was able to work for a championship team on the international stage—the subject of Part seven of this series.
- Retired Athletic Trainer Pete Demers Goes From Stick Boy To 34 Years With Los Angeles Kings
- LA Kings Retired Trainer Pete Demers Had To Be A Jack Of All Trades
- LA Kings Trainer Emeritus Pete Demers On The Evolution of Treatment, Strength And Conditioning
- Retired LA Kings Trainer Pete Demers Dealt With A Cast Of Characters Right From The Start
- LA Kings Retired Trainer Pete Demers Dealt With Much More Than Injuries To Players
- LA Kings Retired Trainer Pete Demers Was Honored To Serve On International Stage
- Los Angeles Kings Retired Head Athletic Trainer Pete Demers Is A King For Life
- From Blimp Rides To Breaking Televisions To Waxed Doughnuts, LA Kings Trainer Emeritus Pete Demers Has Seen It All
- Retired LA Kings Trainer Pete Demers Recalls Record-Breaking, Injury-Filled Seasons, 2001-02 to 2005-06
- LA Kings Retired Athletic Trainer Pete Demers Looks Back At Controversy Surrounding His 2006 Departure
- Honored In Obscurity: Los Angeles Kings Retired Athletic Trainer Pete Demers
- Frozen Royalty Audio: Interviews From The Pete Demers Series
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