FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: After four consecutive seasons where the Los Angeles Kings were absolutely decimated by injuries, head athletic trainer Pete Demers suddenly found himself on the outside looking in, as he was “…retained in a lesser role,” following the 2005-06 season, a move that generated criticism aimed at the franchise. In part eleven of this series on Demers’ career with the Kings and in professional hockey, he talks about leaving the job he loved so much and the controversy surrounding his departure.
LOS ANGELES — After a career with the Los Angeles Kings that spanned 37 years, starting with three seasons with their former American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield prior to joining the big club in 1972, head athletic trainer Pete Demers left the club after the 2005-06 season. But that came right after four straight seasons when the Kings were absolutely ravaged by injuries (see Retired LA Kings Trainer Pete Demers Recalls Record-Breaking, Injury-Filled Seasons, 2001-02 to 2005-06).
In two of those seasons, the Kings set unofficial records for man-games lost to injury, with 536 in 2002-03, a record they eclipsed in 2003-04 when they lost 629 man-games.
Those seasons were sandwiched between years when they lost 211 man-games to injury in 2001-02, and 366 in 2005-06 (the National Hockey League did not play in 2004-05 due to a labor dispute).
That is an unfathomable, mind-blowing 1,742 man-games lost to injury in just four seasons.
Although the Kings made the playoffs in 2002, losing their first round series against the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, they would fail to qualify for the post-season party until 2009-10, four seasons after Demers left the organization.
With more injuries than anyone could possibly imagine on top of some very poor hockey during that period, there was a lot to complain about when it came to trying to figure out what was wrong with the Los Angeles Kings. Not surprisingly, general manager Dave Taylor was fired right after the 2005-06 season on April 18, 2006, and was replaced by Dean Lombardi just three days later.
As many general managers do when they join a new team, Lombardi made changes in the front office and in hockey operations, cleaning house almost completely. He brought in his own people, not only so that he would be working with people with whom he was comfortable and familiar, but also to change the attitude and philosophy throughout the franchise.
But the house cleaning began before Lombardi’s arrival. Indeed, it started with Taylor firing head coach Andy Murray on March 21, 2006.
The Kings also relieved interim head coach John Torchetti, assistant coaches Ray Bennett and Mark Hardy of their duties, along with goaltending consultant Andy Nowicki—all were fired with Taylor.
Vice President and Assistant General Manager Kevin Gilmore was re-assigned to other duties within the Anschutz Entertainment Group (the giant entertainment conglomerate that owns the Kings, Staples Center the Toyota Sports Center, LA Live, and much more). Director of Player Personnel Bill O’Flaherty, and a good portion of the scouting staff were fired.
Even John Wolf, the Assistant to the General Manager, and Video Coordinator Bill Gurney, were swept out of the Kings’ El Segundo offices.
Changes also extended to the training room as assistant athletic trainer Rick Burrill, rehabilitation trainer Robert Zolg, and equipment manager Peter Millar, were victims of that same broom.
As for Demers, he was retained, but “…in a lesser role.”
When you combine the thorough house cleaning with the terse announcement from the Kings about Demers being retained “..in a lesser role,” and if you look at all that while taking into consideration that the house cleaning came on the heels of losing 1,742 man-games to injury over the four previous seasons, one conclusion seems inescapable…
…that Demers was being blamed for those injury-laden seasons, and was demoted or fired as a result, which continues to be a widely held belief.
To be sure, the Kings’ ownership and front office wanted answers.
“We had a string of bad luck,” Demers lamented. “I was asked on the carpet, to come up with something. Tell us something explaining what’s going on here.”
But was Demers being blamed for all those injuries? As the old saying goes, timing is everything.
“It was all a timing issue,” said Demers. “I was winding down my career anyway, and for three or four years before that, I had been kind of on the edge of a stay-at-home job, to not [accompany the team on the road], and still be with the organization, be around on a daily basis, but not have that load on my shoulders.”
“We had been grooming [current head athletic trainer] Chris [Kingsley] to come in, so Dave Taylor and [Kings Governor] Tim Leiweke would tell me, over and over, ‘well, whenever you’re ready to do this,’” added Demers. “In January , I talked to Tim and I talked to Dave about the stay-at-home job. It was just a coincidence that we had all those man-games lost. It was pretty much planned that I was going to ease out and be the stay-at-home guy.”
“When the season ended, I talked to Tim, who was handling all my stuff. He gave me a three-year contract. I would be a stay-at-home guy, and have long-term involvement with the organization. After the three-year contract was up, they would figure out some kind of compensation that would make sense for both sides. They wanted to do that.”
But everything changed when Lombardi took over as general manager.
“Tim said to make [my] own blue print, how you want to have it,” Demers noted. “So I said, it would be nice not to travel, but I want to be around. So that’s the way he set it up, but that Dean would make the decision.”
Lombardi’s decision hit Demers harder than former Kings defenseman Rob Blake’s hit on former Edmonton Oilers winger Andrei Kovalenko in Edmonton on October 11, 1998, a devastating open-ice hit that knocked Kovalenko into the next province.
“What happened was that Dean felt that I had been there for so long, it would be better if I stepped aside completely,” Demers explained. “It was written in my letter that Dean would decide what my role would be [because Tim] had just hired Dean by that time. Afterwards, Dean brought me in and said that with our new staff, it’s better that you step aside now, so that’s what I did. My pay still came. I didn’t go to work or anything.”
Demers was hurt by the move.
“I was disappointed, sure,” said Demers. “I’m a King. It’s in my blood. You don’t do it for forty years and walk away from it.”
A year later, Demers got a surprise from Lombardi when he was back at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California, the Kings practice facility.
“In 2007, I went to the training center for [a Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society photo shoot], and Dean came down and said that he wanted to bring me back in,” said Demers. “So I went back in, and I worked on the bench for training camp, rookie camp and development camp, that kind of stuff.”
“It was a real happy day in my life when he said, ‘we want to bring you back in,’” added Demers.
As it turned out, Lombardi was thinking ahead.
“At first, hey, we all have feelings, and sure, I was disappointed,” Demers noted. “Maybe I didn’t agree with it, exactly, at the time. But I definitely agreed, after thinking it over, that it’s way, way better for the new staff to get their feet wet on their own. That’s what I would want for myself, and that’s what Dean wanted for them. I think he just wanted Chris to get comfortable for a year or so with the transition before he brought me back.”
“When you look back at Dean’s train of thought, you have to agree with it,” Demers added. “I think it was a good decision, because it would’ve been a little awkward for Chris. How’s the new trainer going to feel, even though we had the working arrangement that I had with [him] for years and years?”
Casting a shadow over the training room was not something Demers wanted to do.
“It’s not fair to those guys coming after me, having been there as long as I was,” said Demers. “Putting anybody in that position would have been awkward. They have to work with confidence, and with the relationship I had with all the support people, even though I would not infringe on [Kingsley’s] territory, which would not be the right thing to do, the perception would’ve been that I might have. I was in support of anybody new coming in. I gave them 100 percent support and any guidance that I could.”
“When [Kingsley] was in the minor leagues, I talked to him on a daily basis,” added Demers. “How would he feel when he’s making a decision, and I might be there? He might feel uneasy. I had a great relationship with our doctors, I had great relationship with all the different care providers we might have used. But then he’s coming in wearing the hat.”
“You can’t have two pilots flying the plane. You can only have one.”
Demers worked development camp, rookie camp and training camp for two years before calling it quits for good in 2008.
“I went back for that whole summer [in 2007], and then I went back to Nova Scotia [where he has a summer home] for a month,” said Demers. “The following year, I did the same thing. It was just too much. There were too many camps and stuff going on.”
“It was a commitment that I had to make, and maybe it didn’t agree with stuff I had going on, as far as the rest of my life goes, such as our place in Nova Scotia, my passion for fishing, and my retirement,” added Demers. “I just wanted to ease myself out.”
As stated earlier, many believed (and still believe) that Demers was being blamed for all those injury-laden seasons, and was demoted or fired as a result.
“I got a lot of, ‘sorry to hear you got fired,’” Demers recalled. “But I wasn’t fired. They don’t fire you when they give you a three-year contract, and tell you that they want you to have a stay-at-home role.”
But even if they were blaming him, Demers would not have taken that sitting down.
“They don’t give us any credit when they win, so don’t blame us when they lose,” Demers stressed. “I haven’t seen a trainer score a goal yet. But we definitely have an impact on the success of a team, when things go well, it’s a win-win for everybody.”
“We can’t control when a guy gets hit on the ice,” Demers added. “We can only control his rehab and how he responds. Every personality responds differently.”
Various factors contributed to the misconception that Demers was being blamed for all those injuries and was demoted or fired because of them. Although Demers declined to comment specifically on this particular issue, it is obvious that much of the confusion stemmed from the Kings’ poor handling of the situation, as they failed to provide further details.
To be fair, when key people who are not big stars leave their teams, most NHL franchises do the exact same thing as the Kings did in Demers’ case…they remain tight-lipped about it. But this time, because of Demers’ stature and the relationship he had built with fans, the Kings allowed speculation and conjecture to run rampant, as most message boards on Kings-related web sites had threads about Demers being demoted or fired, where the majority of comments were critical of the Kings, accusing them of making Demers a scapegoat.
“I would’ve loved to have taken that letter [from Leiweke] and put it on the front of Staples Center, or in the Los Angeles Times, and say ‘here, I wasn’t fired,’” said Demers.
Some five years later, Demers is enjoying his retirement, and is spending more time out on the water—one of his passions is fishing, and, on September 24, 2010, he caught what can only be considered a giant-sized whopper of a fish.
Demers was on a boat off of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia on that fateful day when he caught an Atlantic Bluefin Tuna weighing 600 pounds.
That’s quite a fish, no question about it. But Demers was just getting warmed up, as he caught another tuna that day, one that took about 90 minutes to land, and weighed an astounding 1,005 pounds.
“I have been fishing my whole life and this is my biggest fish ever,” said Demers. “There is life after hockey.”
Demers may be enjoying life away from the rink these days, but he cannot stay away completely. Indeed, he is still active with the Kings organization.
“Now I’m doing [Los Angeles Kings Alumni Association] stuff, through [President, Business Operations] Luc [Robitaille’s] office,” Demers explained. “I go to visit fans in the suites, we have charity celebrity/alumni games, I did two veteran’s event recently, golf tournament. We’re trying to build our alumni association. I take care of the alumni team, and I’m familiar with so many of the fans. We have such wonderful fans, it’s fun to go and do this stuff at Staples Center.”
“With the alumni, I participate in charity games, fundraising events, speaking to kids at schools—I can still be involved, but not have that commitment to be on duty,” Demers elaborated. “It scratches my itch. It’s so much fun to do, to be around, and I don’t have that daily commitment, knowing that I had to be on that bench, watching these guys skate.”
“I’m doing just what a retired guy in good standing would do. If didn’t leave there in good standing, I wouldn’t be in that situation.”
Demers was inducted into the Los Angeles Kings Hall of Fame on March 17, 1997, one of numerous honors and accolades he received during his tenure as the Kings head athletic trainer. But one honor is far more notable than the rest, but hardly anyone knows about it. In the final story in this series, Frozen Royalty will tell you about that honor, along with what Demers has been working on to make sure others coming after him are no longer honored in obscurity.
- 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
- Wayne Gretzky’s Arrival Changes Everything For LA Kings And Retired Trainer Pete Demers
- 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
- Honored In Obscurity: Los Angeles Kings Retired Athletic Trainer Pete Demers
- Frozen Royalty Audio: Interviews From The Pete Demers Series
CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada aired a short segment on Demers and his huge tuna (thanks to Aaron Brenner/KingsVision – LAKings.com for the video clip):
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This Demers series may be your finest work. Great to see a spotlight shined on someone who you can argue is more of a “King” than anyone other than Dave Taylor.
Great work again Gann !!!
I agree with the point about letting Kings fans being allowed to speculate on a subject that could’ve been easily handled without confusion. That seems to happen quite a bit with the Kings. DL sure hasn’t made it easy the last couple of years, but I do try to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I’m glad that he wasn’t fired, and although DL’s actions seemed harsh by asking him to completely step aside, I’m glad the outcome wasn’t bitter for Demers in the end. He should be treated as royalty by this organization, and I’m satisfied that the decision to retire wasn’t forced.
DL did mishandle how he dealt with Demers by giving him a lesser role, and not completely explaining his full intentions (whether it was really planned, or not), but Demers handled it with dignity, dedication, and a willingness to serve in any capacity, regardless of his own personal feelings.
Great stuff Gann.
Actually, Lombardi isn’t to blame for the confusion. That goes to their Communications department. They could’ve released a more detailed statement initially (this is what they should’ve done), or issued a clarification after the fact. They failed on both counts.