FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: In part three of a multi-part series of stories featuring the career experiences of the Los Angeles Kings’ long-time, now retired, athletic trainer Peter Demers, Frozen Royalty takes a close look at a few of Demers’ memories from his early years with the Kings, along with the evolution of how injuries are treated and how much the emphasis on strength and conditioning has changed over the years.
LOS ANGELES — Back in the 1970’s when Pete Demers began his 34-year career as the head athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Kings, a career that would see him work in 2,632 consecutive games, as previously reported (see LA Kings Retired Trainer Pete Demers Had To Be A Jack Of All Trades), Demers and assistant athletic trainer John Holmes did the work of the athletic trainers, the equipment managers, the strength and conditioning coaches and the massage therapists that National Hockey League teams have today.
Demers, who retired in 2006, has vivid memories of years past, and even remembers his first road trip with the Kings.
“We went to Pittsburgh on a five or six-game trip,” he reminisced. “That was just a small trip. We’d go on the road for 16 days. We had two or three of those a year.”
“We put everything in the bus,” he added. “We didn’t have a truck—now, a truck comes and picks the gear up. We got to the rink—we had three stick bags, but we were missing a whole bag of sticks. I’m the trainer, and I’m responsible—on my first road trip.”
The Kings did not lock up Demers in Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena overnight for that misstep, or anything like that, and over 34 years with the Kings, he has a ton of memories, although most do not come from games the Kings played.
“In our jobs, we don’t really focus, as a person might think, on games as they go,” said Demers. “That might be our thinking time. We might not remember as much about, say, the Miracle On Manchester, about the goal that [former Kings left wing and current radio color commentator] Daryl Evans scored. What sticks in my mind was that [former Kings and current Los Angeles Lakers owner] Jerry Buss had left the building when we were down. I have a memory of Daryl Evans dancing around the ice. Never saw anyone dance like that since until [former Kings center] Jeremy Roenick did it in Las Vegas [when the Kings faced the Colorado Avalanche in a pre-season game on September 24, 2005].”
Demers was referring to the greatest comeback in Stanley Cup playoff history when, on April 10, 1982, at the Forum in Inglewood, California [the Kings’ first permanent home arena], the Kings found themselves looking up at a 5-0 deficit after two periods against the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in game 3 of their first round playoff series. But the Kings came roaring back to score five straight goals in the third period and then win it in overtime, 6-5, on the goal by Evans—the Miracle on Manchester.
“We were down five goals,” Demers noted. “You know, sometimes we become cheerleaders on the bench, trying to get the guys going. You give’em a tap. Then we score two, and you start to get on the bandwagon a little bit. Then you score another goal, and you’re determined.”
“The game is 75 percent mental, and the rest is in your head—that’s an old saying,” Demers added. “You see that night after night. How many times do you see that, a team controlling the whole game, but you get down to the last two minutes, and their backs are against the wall. Why is that? The momentum turns the other way.”
“My most vivid memory of the Miracle on Manchester—I remember when Daryl Evans scored on that slap shot, just inside the circle, and him doing the spinning and the dancing, the pirouette. I remember all that, but the thing that sticks most with me is that [then-Kings owner] Jerry Buss left the building. Goes to show that it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
Today, the Montreal Canadiens are still the most storied franchise in hockey, with 24 Stanley Cup Championships to go along a ton of tradition. All that tradition and the mystique of the Canadiens is not lost on on visiting teams, including their trainers.
“I have other memories of walking into the Montreal Forum and seeing [the legendary] Jean Beliveau,” Demers beamed. “I was in Springfield then. We were playing the [Montreal] Voyageurs [of the American Hockey League]. I went into the Montreal Forum—we were going to play the next day, so we stored our gear in a little cubby hole there.”
“The Canadiens were on the ice, having their morning skate, and Jean Beliveau skated right by me, and I said, ‘boy, that’s Jean Beliveau,’ added Demers. “I can hardly talk about that now. The passion that we have, the love we have for our game.”
“I remember going to Montreal in later years [with the Kings], after Jean Beliveau had retired. I would go over there in the afternoon, to their locker room, and workout in their gym in the Montreal Forum. A couple of times when I went in there, Jean Beliveau was in there, working out. I didn’t have a lot of words with him, but I talked to him a little bit while he was working out. That was a good 10-15 years after I saw him that time.”
Demers pointed out that the Kings brought in several players who played for that storied franchise.
“We had a lot of players that came from Montreal,” said Demers.”Mr. Cooke [original Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke] wanted to get it now, and you can’t blame him. I guess that’s not the way you do it these days. We had a chance to get a lot of good players from days gone by, but it was still fun.”
“We had some of those players,” said Demers. Ralph Backstrom [who scored 57 goals and added 71 assists for 128 points in 172 regular season games with the Kings from 1970-71 to 1972-73]. He was the perfect example of how you would want a hockey player to be presented to the public. He was always well-groomed. Good player, great history, carried himself perfectly.”
Treatment Of Injuries Has Taken A Quantum Leap Forward
Beyond the vivid memories, there were always aches, sore knees, sprains, along with more serious injuries that Demers had to deal with, and, compared to the way injuries are treated today, some of the methods used back then seem a bit primitive.
“When I first started, we treated guys with a cold hose in the shower on their ankles,” Demers recalled. “Now we’d be more apt to put some electrodes on their ankles, along with an ice bag and some elevation.”
“There’s new stuff coming out constantly,” Demers added. “The Trunk Stability Program, with the big Swiss ball—that was a big breakthrough. There’s just so much more stuff. We never stop learning. We have our meetings in the summer, the trainers do. We meet for a week and go over all the new techniques.”
“On-ice emergency training has stepped up one hundred percent. We’re really prepared now for any situation. We have our doctors sitting right next to the bench in every city. not twenty rows up. We have a crash cart next to the bench, we have paramedics, rather than just an ambulance driver.”
Today, NHL players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, and by a fairly wide margin compared to when Demers began his career with the Kings. With all that added bulk and speed, the potential for injury seems to be much greater. But, in reality, maybe not.
“[The greater speed, size and strength of the players] has a lot to do with [injuries],” said Demers. “But, in our sport, the skates do give you some forgiveness because they slide.”
“In football [your feet] might be planted,” added Demers. “You look at football, they get shoulder and knee [problems] on a weekly basis. We get our strains, sprains and contusions. But with the growth of the players, the flexibility of having your skates on the ice instead of having your foot planted does give us some leeway.”
Despite that, being on skates did not help one former Kings forward back in the early 1980’s.
Former left wing Charlie Simmer, a member of the Kings’ famed Triple Crown Line with Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor, suffered a serious injury at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
On March 2, 1981, “…Simmer was chasing one of the Toronto players, and went to turn to go after the puck,” wrote the “Voice of the Kings,” Bob Miller, in his 2006 book, Bob Miller’s Tales From The Los Angeles Kings. “Toronto defenseman Borje Salming just nicked him, but spun him around. As Simmer put it, ‘I skated around my foot.’”
Simmer had suffered a spiral fracture of his right leg, as his body moved, but his skate remained planted firmly on the ice. But that would not be the only source of his pain that night.
“The St. John’s ambulance drivers that carried Charlie Simmer out of Maple Leaf Gardens [on a stretcher] dropped him,” Demers lamented. “They were a couple of old guys.”
That situation is not likely to occur again during an NHL game.
“It all comes back to it being a business now,” said Demers. “Our game has developed into such a business that we need this stuff to protect our investment.”
One thing that transcends the different eras in hockey is that it takes more than medical treatment or a good rehabilitation plan for a player to recover from an injury and get back into the lineup.
“I remember rehabilitating [former Kings superstar goaltender] Rogie Vachon [who played eight seasons with the Kings from 1971-72 to 1977-78, holds nearly all franchise records for goaltenders, and had his jersey number 30 retired by the team on February 14, 1985] with a weight boot that was strapped to his sneaker,” said Demers. “I think it’s the determination of the trainer and the player, both buying into ‘I’m going to get myself better.’”
“If you’re determined to rehabilitate yourself, and get back in the lineup in a reasonable amount of time—I’m not saying guys don’t want to get back in the lineup,” added Demers. “Everybody wants to get back in the lineup. But some guys don’t put as much into it as [other] people might.”
As it does on the ice, attitude plays a significant role in recovery from injury.
“We have a lot of tricks, now, that we use,” Demers noted. “But it’s the determination and the attitude of that player. [Former Kings head coach] Tom Webster wrote on the board once. We did a coaches clinic. He wrote, ‘TA.’ It was a bunch of junior coaches around Los Angeles. He said, ‘this isn’t what you think it is.’ It meant talent and attitude. [Those] are big factors in our game, and the attitude comes in both on the ice and off.”
“Although we’re blessed, and it’s wonderful to be able to walk into that room and to have all these thousands and thousands of dollars worth of weight equipment and modalities to treat all of our players—different lasers, everything you can imagine,” Demers added. “But it all comes back to heart. The player has to buy into that to have a great recovery.”
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