EL SEGUNDO, CA — It seems that every hockey team, regardless of level, has at least one player who is their unsung hero, one who gives everything he or she has for the team, on the ice and off.
Most of the time, unsung heroes aren’t the highly-skilled, flashy types. They perform their duties quietly, under the radar and out of the spotlight, drawing virtually no attention to themselves. But even though they generally don’t get the attention that the top players get, they play very important roles for their teams.
In recent years, forward Trevor Lewis has been the Los Angeles Kings’ perennial unsung hero, winning that team award for seven years in a row (he shared the award twice) before left wing Kyle Clifford won the 2018-19 award.
Looking back to the Gretzky Era, one need look no further than defenseman Tim Watters, who played six seasons for the Kings from 1988-89 through the 1993-94 season.
Watters was not the mobile, offensive defenseman that we see a lot of in today’s National Hockey League. Indeed, Watters’ best offensive numbers with the Kings came in 1988-89, when he scored three goals and added 18 assists for 21 points in 76 regular season games. Rather, Watters was a stay-at-home, shutdown defenseman, and even though he was not a big, physical player and despite the fact that skating was not his strong suit, he was still an effective blue liner.
“What I remember, and I think it fits Tim perfectly, is that he was crafty,” said Kings television color commentator Jim Fox. “He understood his limitations and he played to his strengths. Tim was one of the smartest players in those areas because he probably didn’t get around the ice all that well. But under the rules at that time, he was able to be very effective because he knew how to use his stick, he got in the way—he was a pain in the butt.”
“He just always seemed to disrupt things for the other team,” added Fox. “But that was Tim understanding his limitations. He played that to a tee and that’s why he stayed around for so long. He was an effective, shutdown guy.”
“He was a little bit of a pest, I guess you would say. But his stick work was incredible. He would be in the box nine time a game now. But he played to his strengths within the rules, at the time.”
Fox recalled an injury Watters suffered that epitomized the kind of player he was.
“I remember one specific time, in the 1993 playoffs, he got a puck in the mouth,” Fox noted. “He was all cut up, both inside and outside of his mouth. Not that any other player wouldn’t, but he played in every game and didn’t blink an eye, even though I know he had substantial damage, and when it’s in that area, it doesn’t heal quickly, so you’re stuck with that the whole playoffs.”
“I think it happened in the Toronto series, or at least, he was struggling with it during the Toronto series, because his lips, teeth and face were really screwed up,” Fox added.
In a March 2019 interview with Frozen Royalty, Watters reminisced about his 13-year NHL career, which began with the original Winnipeg Jets. But he more closely identifies with his time with the Kings.
“Winnipeg was a nice place to start my career and my family,” he said. “But coming to L.A. was a whole new experience for myself and my family. It was something we really enjoyed and it was the first year of the black and silver jerseys. There was a lot of excitement around the game at that time. Being part of that was a very special memory.”
“There were so many special memories, he added. “There were so many good people who were fun to be around. That was pretty cool. The friends we got to know through the hockey club made our time here so wonderful. It’s all about the people who were around.”
Watters also joined the Kings at a time when the addition of Wayne Gretzky changed everything for the franchise, pretty much overnight.
“It was a very exciting time and quite the ride to be on with the Kings,” he noted. “Just seeing that transformation—I played against L.A. for seven years when I was with Winnipeg and to be part of the transition to what the game is now here is just so cool. I really appreciated my time here. It was fun.”
“It was great because L.A. has really good, hard core fans,” he added. “There’s no better fan base in the NHL than the true Kings fans. They’re been here through thick and thin. The events and time we spent with the fans made it so cool for us. It made my family’s time here in L.A. so special.”
Watters also pointed to three young players who made his time with the Kings that much more fun and rewarding.
“For me, it was a really fun time because we had three young defensemen—Rob Blake, Darryl Sydor, and Alexei Zhitnik,” he recalled. “They logged a lot of ice time and to come in and help solidify that defensive corps and to watch and help them develop—that was a role I really liked. You could see those guys developed into something special.”
The 1992-93 season was one for the ages for the Kings, as they went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history. Watters was a part of that, but almost wasn’t, as he began the season with the Phoenix Roadrunners of the now-defunct International Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, at the time.
Watters’ fortunes changed when the Kings, who started that season on a 20-8-3 run, began a long, downward slide. At that point, general manager Nick Beverley decided to shake things up with a huge trade, acquiring forwards Jimmy Carson, Marc Potvin and Gary Shuchuk from the Detroit Red Wings for superstar defenseman Paul Coffey and forwards Sylvain Couturier and Jim Hiller, on January 29, 1993.
“I was more of a player/assistant coach in Phoenix,” Watters explained. “But when the Paul Coffey trade happened, that’s when I got called back up. That turned into another year-and-a-half with the Kings for me. That was a fun time to be back here.”
Even after Watters’ return, things didn’t turn around immediately.
“It wasn’t a real quick turn around,” he observed. “We still had some growing pains, I’ll call it. But ten, maybe 15 games before the playoffs—we fought to get that last spot in the playoffs and from there, everything just seemed to come together. It was special to see how the team came together on that run through the playoffs.”
“Timing is everything,” said Watters. “We just came together. We had some really tough times during the regular season and when you see light at the end of the tunnel and things are starting to turn around, it’s like a snowball effect. Everybody’s confidence grew and one thing led to another. We just took off, at that point.”
“At that point in the season, we were a different team and the other teams weren’t expecting that,” added Watters. “Also, what I remember about that team was that everyone got along so well. It was like we were going to war for one another. We battled for one another. You didn’t want to let your teammates down. That makes for a really solid hockey club.”
As most everyone who was a part of the Kings’ 1992-93 playoff run will tell you, the conference final against Toronto was a playoff series for the ages.
“That was a fun one,” Watters reminisced. “A lot of bumps and bruises came out of that series against Toronto. That’s what makes playoff hockey so special. It’s a war out there. You have to put your work boots on, play hard and be ready to work hard.”
In the end, the bruised and battered Kings were no match for a well-rested Montreal Canadiens team that won the 1993 Stanley Cup Final in five games, led by superstar goaltender Patrick Roy.
To be sure, the Kings got close to winning the Stanley Cup in 1993. But as the old saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
“Whether we did or we didn’t [have anything left in the tank after the Toronto series], there’s no excuse,” Watters emphasized. “We did put a lot of miles on in those previous series, between Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. There was a lot of extra miles, but there was a lot of adrenaline running, too.”
“We might’ve been a little short in the gas tank,” Watters added. “But there’s no excuse. You can’t use that in the playoffs.”
Despite the disappointment of coming so close but not being able to hoist the Stanley Cup, getting to the Stanley Cup Final was still a great accomplishment.
“That’s was a very special moment that we dreamed of, as kids,” Watters noted. “But you still have to be prepared for the task at hand. You have to be focused and ready to play. There’s no question that it was a dream come true.”
After leaving the game to get into commercial real estate in Phoenix, Watters returns to the Los Angeles area occasionally and he continues to follow the Kings. He took great pride in the franchise winning its first Stanley Cup Championship in 2012, 19 years after Watters and his teammates got so very close.
“I think it was so exciting for the franchise to win the Cup and when they won it again in 2014—those are special moments for any sports franchise,” he said. “To see L.A. break the ice and get it done—it was a special moment for me, too. I’m an L.A. Kings fan because I played for them.”
Watters also expressed confidence that his former team will get back to the top of the mountain.
“The organization has done all the right things,” he noted. “The NHL is a very competitive league. You need the right building blocks in place and the team has done that. They’ve done the right things and they’ll continue to do that to get the team back to where it needs to be.”
“Every team has these challenges because of the salary cap and that’s why it’s so important to have the right pieces in place,” he added. “The good organizations find ways to rebuild quickly and I have the utmost confidence that the Kings will be able to do that. They’ve done it in the past and they will continue to do it in the future.”
LEAD PHOTO: Former Los Angeles Kings defenseman Tim Watters, shown here during the Kings 2019 Fantasy Camp at Staples Center in Los Angeles on March 16, 2019. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net
SECOND PHOTO: 1988-1989: Defenseman Tim Watters of the Los Angeles Kings. Photo: Mike Powell/Allsport via Getty Images.
THIRD PHOTO: Watters (right) covering one of the participants during the Kings 2019 Fantasy Camp at Staples Center in Los Angeles on March 16, 2019. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net
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