LOS ANGELES — Until 2006, when Dean Lombardi took over as their President/General Manager, the Los Angeles Kings’ history of trades was characterized by very few good trades and a ton of really bad ones, with a considerable number bordering on tragic.
One might even think that their first trade belongs on the “bad” side of the ledger.
That trade came on June 8, 1967, just two days after the 1967 National Hockey League Expansion Draft. But the Kings weren’t trading for a player. Instead, they were going after their first head coach.
Leonard “Red” Kelly, a twenty-year NHL veteran who won the Stanley Cup eight times—four each with the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, became the Kings first coach. But that didn’t happen until after Maple Leafs general manager Punch Imlach exacted a price from the Kings.
Here comes the bad trade, right?
As it turned out, Imlach and the Maple Leafs didn’t get a whole lot in return for the now 89-year old native of Simcoe, Ontario. In the trade, Toronto acquired left shot defenseman Ken Block from the Kings, who they selected in the expansion draft from the New York Rangers.
Block ended up playing just one game in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks in the 1970-71 season, while Kelly coached the Kings in their first two seasons and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the Players category in 1969.
Kelly was in Los Angeles where he was introduced as one of the NHL’s top 100 players of all time at the NHL 100 event at the Microsoft Theatre on January 26. He recalled the challenges of working for eccentric Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke.
“I came out and I thought coaching here—the organization was new,” he reminisced. “It was just starting, so we had to work to make it a team. That’s what we tried to do. When we had the last game here and we got beat in the second year in that playoff [by the Minnesota North Stars], Jack Kent Cooke had the beer and champagne ready for a celebration. Well, [Cooke had it all taken] away, so the players didn’t get anything. I had to quickly organize a thing at my house with my wife.”
“We had the whole gang at our house because I thought, ‘I know we lost. We felt bad about that,” he added. “But hey! There’s next year. We wanted to leave that team with the feeling that they could be better the next year. We didn’t want to just shun them. That’s what it looked like to me, as a former player.”
Kelly also remembered how hard it was to build interest in the Kings and the NHL in Southern California, at the time.
“You know what Jack Kent Cooke said: 650,000 Canadians came out here, but they did so because they didn’t like hockey,” he recalled. “But you know, the crowds came. They saw that the guys were really trying. That’s why I was so proud of them. I knew they gave me 125 percent. We were playing the Montreal Canadiens, a team with six first team all-stars. Our guys had to give 125 percent. Hopefully, the Canadians would only give 75 percent, on occasion, and that happened once in awhile.”
Just before the midway point of the 1968-69 season, Kelly informed Cooke that he would not be staying with the Kings once his contract expired. That became yet another example of how difficult it was to work for Cooke.
“I was hoping to build out here, but I told Jack Kent Cooke at Christmas time that I wasn’t coming back at the end of my contract because my wife was going to have a nervous breakdown here. That’s why I had to leave.”
As it turned out, Kelly’s wife, Andra, hated living in the Los Angeles area because of the traffic and because her husband was on the road so much.
“Jack tried to talk me into staying, but when he found out I had sold my home already, he said ‘don’t tell anybody.’ But then, at the end of the season, he announced it as if he’d fired me.”
Then there was the time Kelly was called into Cooke’s office after the team had lost eight straight games from December 25, 1967 to January 7, 1968.
“Jack Kent Cooke was quite an owner,” said Kelly. “He was pretty sharp, in a lot of ways. We lost eight games in a row and I had to sit for about two-and-a-half hours in his office and he was talking about the football coaches he dealt with and what were we doing. I said that we tried this and we tried that. I was worn out for trying [different ideas].”
“I ended up sending my guys home on a Sunday night,” added Kelly. “I told them, ‘I don’t want to see you until Wednesday night.’ They asked, ‘who are we playing Wednesday night?’ The St. Louis Blues (on January 11, 1967). We ended up tied (2-2), but we broke our losing streak.”
In 2014, when the Kings won their second Stanley Cup Championship, Kelly was cheering them on during their playoff run and when assistant general manager Rob Blake brought hockey’s Holy Grail to their shared hometown of Simcoe, Ontario, Kelly got to celebrate, too.
“The team is doing well and that’s great,” he said. “When they came to Simcoe with the Cup, in the parade, I rode with them. Some of the players and coaches are from up there. Rob Blake is from about two roads over from us, and his Dad used to fix the tractors and everything from our farm, so we know them very well, and [Rob] was a great player.”
“L.A. was a different city back in 1967,” he added. “I thought there were some great fans here. I wished that we could’ve done better when we were here. I’m certainly glad that that’s what’s happened now.”
“We were part of the very beginning. We were all rooting for the Kings. ‘Please do well!’ I played in Toronto and Detroit. I won four Stanley Cups in Detroit and four more in Toronto. I coached in Pittsburgh and I coached here. I like to see them play good hockey and deserve to win. They’ve been playing really well here in Los Angeles.”
LEAD PHOTO: Former Los Angeles Kings head coach Red Kelly. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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