EL SEGUNDO, CA — As they reminisce about their team, hockey fans generally remember the skilled, offensively gifted players, the star netminders, or the heavyweight enforcers.
They also remember players who are memorable for the wrong reasons. But rarely do they remember the guys in the trenches, the unsung heroes who do a lot of the dirty work, making things possible for the skilled players, but go mostly unnoticed.
The same applies to the Los Angeles Kings, as their fans easily remember stars like Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Marcel Dionne, Rogie Vachon and Rob Blake.
They also remember the players who were memorable for their sheer ineptitude, like Troy Crowder and Barry Potomski, among others.
Among the Kings defensemen who stood out for their solid play were Rob Blake, Paul Coffey, Steve Duchesne, Garry Galley, Mark Hardy, Charlie Huddy, Dave Lewis, Marty McSorley, Larry Murphy, Mattias Norstrom, Mathieu Schneider, Lubomir Visnovsky and Alexei Zhitnik.
On the negative side of the ledger, Kings fans also had to endure blue liners who soiled the ice, figuratively speaking, each time they set foot on it, such as Rob Cowie, Brent Thompson, Denis Tsygurov and Oleg Tverdovsky.
To those who I have just caused great pain by mentioning those players, my deepest apologies. Trust me, it was equally painful to write about them.
But the point is that the majority of players easily fade from memory—those who are not flashy, those who are not heavyweight enforcers, elite goaltenders or star defensemen. But they are the ones who do the dirty work to allow the more memorable players to be….memorable.
One Kings defenseman who is not among those whose names easily roll off one’s tongue is defenseman Gordon “Jay” Wells, who played nine seasons with the Kings from 1979-88.
Wells, who was back in Southern California as part of the Kings’ Hockeyfest ’10 event, held at the Toyota Sports Center on September 11, 2010, was a tough, physical, stay-at-home defenseman who definitely was not flashy.
Indeed, Wells, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (16th overall) in the 1979 National Hockey League draft, falls into the category of players who were always in the trenches and only scored the occasional goal.
Atlanta, Los Angeles Or Bust!
For the 6-1, 210-pound native of Paris, Ontario, joining the Kings was a dream come true, but not for the same reasons one generally heard from most first round draft picks.
“The sixteenth pick is what LA had that year,” said Wells. “Rumors were that I was going to be picked up thirteenth by Philadelphia, and all summer long, that was what my agent was telling me, that it was going to be Philadelphia, most likely. All summer long, I kept hoping to be picked up by either [the Atlanta Flames] or the Kings. Those were the two [teams] I wanted to go play for.”
“The reason for it was that I had another brother, three years older, who was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens,” added Wells. “He had a lot of scoring touch and he was a much better player than I was and he couldn’t crack [their already loaded] lineup. He got sent to the International League back then. He didn’t go and lost out on playing in the NHL, so I wanted to go to a team that was up-and-coming and would allow me to grow because I was just a defensive defenseman—handling the puck was—I could barely carry it in a pail.”
“I was so tickled that LA picked me up. When they drafted me, it was an exciting moment.”
Wells started that year with the Kings, along with Hardy, right wing Dean Hopkins and left wing Jean-Paul Kelly.
“The first ten games, I was up here,” Wells recalled. “They kept most of us in that draft…they kept four of us and I ended up lasting the first ten games and I was the last of the four to be sent to the minors. After two months down in the minors, I got called back up and ended up playing the last forty games.”
The hard-nosed blue liner was already a known commodity coming into the professional ranks.
“I go way back with Jay,” said Kings television color commentator Jim Fox. “I played against him in junior, so I knew all about him before I got here.”
“It’s just understanding and knowing what he’s going to bring to the team every night,” added Fox, who played ten seasons at right wing for the Kings from 1980-90 and is ranked eighth on their all-time scoring list. “I knew that was going to be the case and when I got here, he did exactly what I expected.”
Wells was also able to deliver the big hit and drop the gloves when necessary.
“[He was a] hard hitter,” said Kings radio color commentator Daryl Evans, who played for the Kings from 1981-85. “I think when you go back, at the time when I came up, Jay played some junior hockey before, so I was familiar with him.”
“I think you really have to admire and respect his ability to hit, and not only was he a good hitter, but he was a clean hitter, an open-ice hitter, he could hit you along the boards and he could back it up with his fists as well,” added Evans. “He was one of those guys who had that unique combination—he could back everything up that he did on the ice.”
“He was as tough a competitor, pound for pound, at that time, that I [had seen]. He could battle with the heavyweights and still maintain a strong and high level of hockey.”
Wells played in 43 games that rookie season and immediately found himself getting into a lot of tough scraps.
“It was an overwhelming experience, my first year,” he said. “All of a sudden, instead of fighting people my own age, now I’m fighting thirty-year-olds who are way smarter and way stronger. So it was overwhelming, but I gradually grew into my skin and found my way. It was a fun year.”
Early in his NHL career, Wells quickly established himself as a hitter and as the Kings’ enforcer, despite being a middleweight.
“I was proud of [my fighting ability],” said Wells. “There’s so many different roles a team has to have to be successful. I knew my talents. I wasn’t going to be a guy going end-to-end with the puck, so I was happy to be what I was, and that was an enforcer in a way, keeping people honest. I tried to play that same way my whole 18 years.”
Unlike a lot of NHL enforcers who would drop the gloves no matter what the situation was or go for a risky hit that could result in a penalty at the worst time, Wells knew how to pick his spots.
“I think an ability he also had was timing—when to do it without jeopardizing his team with bad penalties,” said Evans. “That was an asset that he had as well. He was a great teammate.”
Fox called it “honest toughness.”
“When you’re as tough as Jay was, you have to, at times, go out of your way to get your point across,” Fox explained. “But, at the same time, he just had this honesty about him. He had this respect about him from his teammates and the rest of the league.”
“It’s just all of the unsaid things he did, for instance, for a player like me who is, supposedly, one of the skilled guys,” Fox elaborated. “Back in the day, you needed the protection and help. Jay’s toughness keeps coming up, but we can’t forget that he was a solid, eat-up-minutes player. He wasn’t a sit-on-the-bench once a game, go on the ice and [get into a] scrap with someone [kind of player]. That goes back to what I was talking about earlier about honesty and respect. That’s the type of guy he was.”
Much More Than An Enforcer
As his career progressed, Wells grew into his position and became the Kings’ top shut-down defenseman, the blue liner who was always on the ice against the opposing team’s top line.
“After two or three years, I ended up getting the role of shutting down the better lines and it was a role I took lot of pride in,” Wells reminisced. “We weren’t successful all the time, but it was a challenge, and it was something that brought me to the game every day to try to figure out how to do it. I enjoyed that role an awful lot.”
“He was that type of player,” said Fox. “He was given that responsibility by the coaches he played for. He ate up minutes. He was probably our top-minute defenseman.”
“I think, in his core five or six years here with the Kings, he was eating up minutes all the time and in any situation,” added Fox. “It wasn’t unusual to have him on the second power play as a point man, so he could do it all. But he certainly kept the heads up for the other team out there.”
Indeed, within a few seasons, Wells was seeing time on the second power play unit, as he picked up his offense a bit.
He attributed much of that to the intimidation factor.
“I had some good years,” Wells recollected. “It really took [two or three years] of fighting to open up space for myself, to be able to learn how to handle the puck. If you give anybody time and space, they’re going to make a play. When I first came in, everybody would get on you so quickly that you didn’t have that time and space.”
“The more room I got out there by fighting, the more people didn’t pressure me quite as quickly, that allowed me to handle the puck more and improve my skills,” Wells added.
Making An Impact…In More Ways Than One
Wells may be most easily remembered for starting the Kings’ comeback in the Miracle on Manchester on April 10, 1982, when the Kings were looking way, way up at a 5-0 deficit to the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in Game 3 of their first round playoff series.
The Kings fought all the way back, earning a 6-5 overtime victory, one that is still considered to be the greatest comeback in Stanley Cup playoffs history.
The mighty Oilers, who were on the verge of a Stanley Cup dynasty, took that lead into the third period and were making it all look so easy against the hapless Kings.
But everything changed in the third period, and it all started with a big hit delivered by Wells on Oilers left wing Dave Semenko, who was one of the NHL’s most feared hitters and heavyweight enforcers.
Despite being just a lowly middleweight, Wells laid him out with a clean hit.
“[He was our] shut-down guy, or the guy to change the flow of a hockey game,” Evans noted. “i recall, going back to the series we played with Edmonton back in 1982, a couple of his big hits, standing up to guys like Dave Semenko. There’s not a lot of guys who could do that and have that ability. But Jay did have that.”
“I was just a young player, having just come up, watching a guy like that stand up to a guy like Dave Semenko,” Evans added.“When you look at him—the big checks on those guys, you have to admire guys like that.”
Wells not only delivered the momentum-changing hit, but he also got the Kings on the scoreboard in the third period…finally.
“Quite honestly, we were so down in the dumps after the first and second periods, after they got ahead of us by five goals and they were almost toying with us,” Wells lamented. “A lot of us really didn’t change our style, but I got lucky enough to make a big hit [on Semenko] and I was also lucky enough to score the first goal to start the comeback. It was amazing how it just cannonballed.”
“That goal, if Jay doesn’t score that goal, who knows how that game comes out,” said Evans. “That was a great goal.”
Wells’ big hit on Semenko and his goal shifted all the momentum to the Kings, who finished the comeback when Evans scored the game-winner at 2:35 of overtime on a slap shot off a face-off in the right circle, beating Oilers superstar goaltender Grant Fuhr over his right shoulder.
“We were in the dressing room between the second and third and were thinking ‘guys, let’s just go and play it out and see what happens.’” Wells explained. “Then, all of a sudden, it started cannonballing.”
“The momentum started coming to our side and, I wouldn’t say they panicked, but they questioned what they were doing there a little bit, and before you know it, we scored with seconds to go to tie it up, and then there was Daryl’s amazing shot off the face-off,” Wells added. “It was an amazing ride.”
The Kings went on to eliminate the Oilers in five games.
“To have a guy step up like that, and, a lot of times in the playoffs, it’s an unknown guy, I thought he played a big part in us beating Edmonton in that series,” said Evans.
“Edmonton and us, we had such a rivalry and a major hatred for each other, so whenever you could knock’em down a notch, it was well worth it, and that year, we did,” said Wells.
Wells’ success in Los Angeles was due to his work ethic.
“You have to continuously improve, year after year, no matter where you are,” Wells stressed. “I made myself more of a skilled player. I had to work hard to improve, day in and day out, and that’s what I tried to do.”
“He was a guy who kept himself in great shape, he did a good job of playing within the parameters of his game—he never tried to get outside of his game, and I think that’s what allowed him to play as many games as he did here in Los Angeles and in his career in the National Hockey League,” said Evans.
As solid a player as he became, Wells could not help the Kings become more successful in the post-season, but that was not his fault.
“I don’t think there was ever a year where we didn’t come in, as a team, thinking we were going to win the Stanley Cup,” he lamented. “That has to be your focus, that has to be your drive, that has to be your passion. Somewhere along the line, it seemed that, every year, that there would be something, either injuries or something [else] that took that dream away from us.”
“We didn’t do as well as we probably should have.” he added. “We had some great skilled players. But after winning the Cup with the New York Rangers, I realized that the process you have to go though is an amazing grind. It’s a mental challenge, and you really have to go through the process a little bit before you understand that, and the more you get into those situations, the better you become and the stronger you become.”
Those are words that the current crop of Kings should take to heart.
“The playoffs is a completely different game,” Wells emphasized. “I like the way, the last couple of years, the Kings have started to improve. The more they get into those situations, the better and the further they’re going to go.”
Time To Move On
When the 1988-89 season came around, Wells was excited about the opportunity to play with Gretzky, who had just been traded to the Kings.
But that was not in the cards.
It was tough [to lose that opportunity],” said Wells. “I was in a contract dispute with [then-Kings general manager and former Kings superstar goaltender] Rogie [Vachon], trying to sign a new contract. I went to training camp injured, with a hamstring pull, so there were a lot of things against me.”
Wells was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on September 29, 1988, in exchange for defenseman Doug Crossman.
“Sometimes you just have to move on, and, in this case, they elected to move me right at the end of training camp,” Wells explained. “It was very disappointing. I really wanted to spend my whole life in California. That’s really what my goal was. It wasn’t [money] that made it happen. It was personnel. It was time to move on.”
“It was a sad day and it was really hard to come back and play your first game against fellow teammates who you bled with or sweated with,” Wells elaborated. “It was very difficult, an emotional roller coaster.”
But moving on gave Wells an even greater opportunity…to win the Stanley Cup with the 1993-94 New York Rangers, who were led by the likes of Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Adam Graves and, last but certainly not least, Mark Messier.
“I was pretty blessed,” said Wells. “That was a pretty good team we had there. We had a team that was very, very experienced in New York and had been through that, with [Esa] Tikkanen, [Glenn] Anderson, Messier, [Kevin] Lowe [who all won the Stanley Cup with the Oilers]. Those guys were able to steer us.”
As a side note, Wells thought back to his time with the Kings, making a rather poignant comparison.
“Out here, we didn’t have that type of mentality,” he noted. “We were happy to get there, but we didn’t know how to perform.”
“It was an amazing ride that we were on, right from day one,” Wells added about winning the Stanley Cup with the Rangers. “[Head coach] Mike Keenan came in and put the vision in our minds and every week, we would revisit that dream or that vision and we never let it out of our sight. We had a heck of a season that year and, going into the playoffs, it was an emotional roller coaster from you’re going to win it all to the next game [when] we’re going to lose it all. Keeping that even keel, plugging ahead and keeping focused on the prize was a big key for all of us. It was an exciting moment.”
“Any time you get your name on the Stanley Cup, it’s a feat. You really have to be a lucky person. There’s so many great players like Marcel Dionne, who never got the opportunity. I was lucky to win one. The fifteen years I waited was well worth it.”
Today, Wells is hoping to earn a coaching or scouting position in the professional ranks.
“I’ve been coaching a little bit—every year, I’ve coached somewhere, but I’m trying to get back into the professional level, either as a scout or a coach,” he explained. “I was trying to get back into the [American Hockey League] or the ECHL, or anywhere in the professional level. Last time I coached [at the professional level] was at Manitoba two seasons ago with Scott Arniel [now the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets].”
“That re-kindled my passion to get back in it,” he elaborated. “Prior to that, I was just coaching around the local towns—Junior B and that kind of stuff, hockey in my neighborhood.”
“I’m hoping to get back into it some way, somehow. I’m just calling [around], talking to people as much as I can, e-mailing. Hopefully, there will be a job somewhere out there, waiting for me.”
The Game Is Better Today
At Hockeyfest ’10, Wells had memories of his time with the Kings come back to him in a flood. He also shared his thoughts about how the game has changed since he last laced up the skates on NHL ice.
“The guys are so big and strong now and so fast, so well-conditioned,” he said. “They’re so much further ahead, skill-wise, than we were back then. We had some skilled players, but I don’t think the conditioning of those players was at the same level.”
“The number of skilled players on a team back in the Eighties was way less than the number of skilled players now,” he added. “Now, everybody has to be skilled. Everybody has to play. Back when we played, there were five or six really skilled players, then another group of people, and then a bunch of fill-ins, so the game has changed an awful lot.”
Wells feels that the game has improved since his days in the NHL.
“The game has changed for the better because anytime you speed the game up and take away the violent brawls like what could go on in the Seventies and Eighties—it was a dangerous thing,” Wells explained. “Because of the size of the guys and the strength of the guys, there’s more injuries because of the hits, and I don’t know if there’s any way to stop it unless you rewrite the whole rule book.”
“As much as you want to, the head shots—there’s got to be a way of figuring out [how to deal with blows to the head], and I know the league’s trying real hard,” Wells elaborated.
“I still think it’s still the greatest game ever played. Hockey is just an awesome game to play and it’s awesome to watch. It takes a lot of talent be able to play. But it’s changed a lot.”
At Hockeyfest ’10, fans enjoyed hearing the stories Wells shared, along with those shared by former Kings defenseman Marty McSorley and former Kings superstar left wing (and current President, Hockey Operations) Luc Robitaille during a panel entitled, “The Life of a King.”
“Any time you can connect with your fans is a great thing,” said Wells. “Some were here who remembered the old days, but we’ve got to get focused on winning a championship here. It’s time for the Stanley Cup to come to LA.”
One can only hope the Kings organization takes those words to heart and very soon.
Raw Audio Interviews (edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
Daryl Evans (2:57)
Jim Fox (2:49)
Jay Wells (16:37)
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