Former Oilers and LA Kings Legend Jari Kurri: One of the Best of All-Time
January 18, 2017 5 Comments
Although the applause when he was introduced at center ice prior to the game against the Winnipeg Jets wasn’t exactly thunderous, it was apparent that he hasn’t been forgotten here in Los Angeles.
“I wasn’t sure that could happen because it was twenty years ago—the last time I was here,” he said. “It was a very nice, warm welcome.”
But after scoring 108 goals and adding 185 assists for 293 points in 331 regular season games with the Kings (21st on Kings all-time scoring list) and ten goals with ten assists for 20 points in 28 playoff games (ranked 25th on Kings all-time playoff scoring list), Kurri, who played five seasons with the Kings from 1991-92 to 1995-96, had little reason to worry.
Indeed, the 56-year-old native of Helsinki, Finland is often remembered for his glory days with the Edmonton Oilers, where he won five Stanley Cups. But Kurri was also remembered for all the times he took a feed from The Great One, Wayne Gretzky and unleashed his patented, wicked one-timer from his off wing—something the two perfected in Edmonton, but that was also deadly in Los Angeles.
“He had great hands, very good hockey instincts, a knack for getting open and Gretz would lay those passes over and he could one-time the puck with the best of’em,” said former Kings right wing Dave Taylor, one of Kurri’s teammates. “As a right hand shot, I don’t remember anyone better at that.”
Kurri spoke to the media after he was honored by the Kings prior to their game against the Jets and one of the first things he recalled was his return to the National Hockey League after playing for a year with Jokerit Helsinki in Finland.
“It was great to be united with Wayne again after being away for one year,” he said. “I knew that after a year in Europe, I needed to come back.”
“I wanted to come back to the NHL,” he added. “It was the number one choice for me to come back to play with Wayne in L.A. It wasn’t easy to get it done because [then-Oilers general manager] Glen Sather was tough on that—he didn’t want to see me back with Gretz. But I’m happy that he understood my situation. He wished me luck and said, ‘Jari, you deserve it. Let’s go.’”
“It took a long time to work to get the rights here. As I said, Glen Sather wasn’t too happy about seeing me play with Wayne again, but he kind of understood my wish was to be reunited with Wayne.”
Kurri ended up being part of a three-way deal between the Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers and the Kings. On May 30, 1991, the Flyers sent Scott Mellanby, Craig Berube and Craig Fisher to the Oilers, who sent right wing Dave Brown, defenseman Corey Foster and the rights to Kurri to the Flyers. That same day, Philadelphia then traded Kurri’s rights, along with defenseman Jeff Chychrun, to the Kings in exchange for defenseman Steve Duchesne, center Steve Kasper and a fourth round pick in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft.
“I was pumped up,” Kurri said about joining Gretzky and the Kings. “After one year in Europe, I knew that if I wanted to play high level hockey, I needed to come back after one year. Otherwise, I would’ve stayed in Europe. I’m happy it worked out. Other teams were interested, but L.A. was my number one choice.”
Once in Los Angeles, Kurri meshed well with his new team.
“Jari fit right in,” Taylor recalled. “I think he would fit in on any team. He was a great player. For all the goals he scored, he was probably as good defensively as he was offensively. I think that’s why he had so much success with Gretz because he’d always be the backchecker and the forechecker, and whenever there were any turnovers, he could get back and cover defensively.”
“Gretz was here and there were a lot of players who I played with before, so I was more focused on hockey,” Kurri noted. “I was very excited to get back to the NHL, back on a good team. They were building a good team and there was a chance to win something.”
Of course, Los Angeles had other amenities to offer.
“When you played in Edmonton in those years, and you came to play against the Kings, you always looked forward to it because you knew the weather is nice and there’s a good atmosphere here—lots of fun,” said Kurri. “The Forum was an unbelievable place to play in those days. Can’t beat that feeling.”
“The city was unbelievable,” added Kurri. “I wasn’t used to the traffic or the amount of people here. But you’re focused on hockey. You had a lot of nice days—sunny. But you didn’t get a tan, at all. You didn’t go to the beach. You went to the rink and home, rink and home, and the airport. That’s the way the life was in hockey, at the time.”
“I played almost six years here and the team we had—hockey was getting so big here. That [1992-93] journey—we were so close. That was really the highlight of my time here.”
Taylor noted that Kurri did it all.
“He was an outstanding two-way player,” Taylor emphasized. “I don’t know that you could say much more than that. He was the type of guy who would play the first minute of a period, the last minute of a period, if you were up a goal or down a goal. He would kill penalties and be on your first power play [unit]—he played in every situation. He was in great condition and he was strong, so he could play 20-plus minutes a game and be the same player in the third period as he was in the first.”
“He was really steady and very consistent in his play,” Taylor added. “He should’ve been a Selke candidate [while he was with the Kings]. I always thought he was. He was as good defensively as he was offensively, and he was one of the highest scoring European players ever.”
When he spoke with the media on January 14, Kurri was the same, mild-mannered, soft-spoken gentleman he was back in the day.
“He was a quiet, unassuming guy.” Taylor noted, “He showed up at the rink and did his job. Whenever there was a team function he’d go, but for the most part, he was just by himself. He’d spend time at home with his family. But he showed up to work every day and in my mind, he was one of the handful of best two-way players I’ve ever seen.”
Kurri was also ahead of his time, in terms of strength and conditioning.
“He was all business,” Taylor noted. “Very diligent. He came to practice, worked hard, did his off-ice work—he did a lot of explosive weightlifting work that wasn’t done much in North America, at the time. A lot of free weights. He worked on that every day and he did all that for explosive power. That’s why he had the career he had. He trained hard, worked on his skills. I mean, as soon as he came to North America, he was an impact player on those great Oilers teams and certainly, when he came to L.A., he added a lot to our group, as well.”
His strength and skating ability were very much apparent in how he played the game, even though he was not what you would call a very physical player.
“He didn’t take runs at people, but he was in all the hard areas, and he could skate so well,” Taylor recalled. “He could escape pressure. He could avoid hits and he could make a long pass to Gretz, catch up, and end up finishing the play.”
“Just a great, two-way player. He played a hard, but honest game. Certainly one of the best of all-time.”
Today, Kurri works with his hometown team, Jokerit in the KHL, after quitting Finland’s National Team three years ago. But being back in Los Angeles, Kurri marveled at the growth of hockey in Southern California since he left.
“Like today, you come to the game and look outside at the people wearing their jerseys,” he said. “The building is sold out here and they won two Stanley Cups—[the banners are] in the rafters. That’s pretty amazing for hockey in California. There are players in the NHL right now who grew up in California and Phoenix. That tells you how [far] hockey has come. You can see that it’s a global game…hockey is getting bigger. It’s crazy.”
One of Taylor’s most memorable, if not infamous, stories involving himself and Kurri came from Game 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Final against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when, with a little more than two minutes left in the third period, Taylor, all alone in front, missed a wide open, gaping net off a perfect pass from Kurri.
After the play, Kurri, stunned, skated by Taylor with that “how did you miss THAT?” look.
“That was Game 7 in Toronto,” Taylor said with a laugh. “He fed me a great pass, right in the slot, and I ended up missing the shot. We ended up winning the game, thank God, because we got another goal later on. Gretz scored that goal when he banked it on off the defenseman [Dave Ellett], so we ended up winning by a goal, anyway.”
“That would’ve given us a three-goal lead (6-3), and the game would’ve been over at that point,” Taylor added, still chuckling. “He froze everybody in the rink and fed it over to me. I was ready for it, but I just missed the shot. It was a good pass, but I missed it.”
“I think [Hall of Fame Voice of the Kings] Bob Miller said, ‘Dave Taylor’s going to regret missing that one if they come back,’ but fortunately, we won the game.”
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