The Los Angeles Kings have had 13 captains since joining the NHL in 1967. Four are in the Hall of Fame and the team has retired three of their numbers.
Who had the biggest impact, was most memorable or made the greatest contribution? Who was the shortest serving captain? Can you name them all?
The 1980’s: A Miracle and some Struggle
Dave Lewis took over as captain in 1981 for two seasons after being traded to Los Angeles from the New York Islanders. The famous trade sent Butch Goring to Long Island just before New York won the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups.
Lewis was a very reliable defenseman who was great at moving the puck out of the team’s zone. He brought stability on the back end in his four seasons in LA.
Lewis led the Kings to one of the biggest upsets in NHL history in 1982 when the team defeated the heavily-favored Edmonton Oilers in five games in the first round. The third game became known as the Miracle on Manchester, the street name where the team played at the old Forum, after the Kings erased a 5-0 deficit to win 6-5 in overtime.
In an interview with the New Jersey Star-Ledger in 2012, Lewis recalled the big upset win. “We knocked the young and mighty Oilers off and our owner, Jerry Buss, rewarded everyone in the organization and their families with a trip to Hawaii,” he said.
Like many other Kings coaches, Lewis became an assistant coach in Detroit in the late 1990’s and was part of championship teams in 1997, 1998 and 2002. He took over as head coach of the Red Wings in 2002, leading the team to the President’s Trophy, most points overall, in 2003-04. He was an assistant coach with the Kings for the 2007-08 season.
Terry Ruskowski was obviously respected as a team leader as he captained four different teams, the only player in professional sports to do so. He was captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Black Hawks and Houston Aeros.
During his short stint with the Kings, Ruskowski was known as a fearless leader on the ice. Unfortunately, in his two seasons as captain from 1983 to 1985, the Kings were not very good. Los Angeles had a horrible 23-44-13 record during the 1983-84 season. The team failed to make the playoffs in his first season and lost in three straight to the Edmonton Oilers in his second .
Ruskowski became a coach of the Laredo Bucks in Texas in 2001 and found success there for a decade before taking over the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees in 2011.
Dave Taylor was the ultimate Los Angeles King. He played his entire career with the team and became general manager two years after retiring. He was part of the Kings’ Triple Crown playing alongside Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne and Charlie Simmer. The trio was given the nickname after each scored more than 100 points in the 1980 season. Taylor was a big but agile man who also took care of his defensive responsibilities.
He was named captain in 1985 and held the post for four seasons. After not making the post-season in 1986, the Kings improved a little in the regular season and made it to the playoffs for three straight years. The problem was that they faced strong Alberta teams, losing in the first round to Edmonton in 1987 and Calgary in 1988. There was one great series win in 1989 when newly acquired Wayne Gretzky helped the Kings get pass his former team before falling in a sweep to eventual Stanley Cup winner Calgary in the second round.
After letting Gretzky take over as captain, Taylor remained with the team until his retirement in 1994. In 17 seasons and 1111 career games, he recorded 431 goals and 1069 points and represented the Kings five times at the All-Star Game. Taylor was awarded the Bill Masterton and King Clancy awards in 1991 for his charity and community work. The Kings retired his #18 in 1995.
Taylor joined the administrative staff and was general manager from 1997 until 2006, during which time three key players responsible for the Kings’ two Stanley Cup Championships were drafted: Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and future captain Dustin Brown. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Taylor said Brown was a big kid with leadership potential. “We knew we had drafted a future team captain,” he said. Although he acknowledges his contribution to the team’s talent, Taylor said “Lombardi put together a sound, balanced team and the ownership has stepped up and done what is needed.”
Taylor joined the Dallas Stars organization as Director of Player Personnel in 2007 for three seasons before joining the St. Louis Blues in 2010 as Vice President of Hockey Operations.
The Gretzky Era
A year after his arrival, Gretzky was named captain and remained so until his trade to St. Louis in 1996. He brought his scoring prowess and winning experience from winning four Stanley Cups in Edmonton to Southern California. The team was competitive from 1988 to 1992 with solid regular season, only to lose in the first or second round to eventual Stanley Cup winners Calgary in 1989 and Edmonton in 1990.
It wasn’t until the spring of 1993 that Gretzky took the team on his back and led them to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time. In game seven of the third round against Toronto, Gretzky single-handledly won by scoring four points, including a hat trick, in what he considers one of his best played game ever. Unfortunately, the Kings went on to lose to Montreal in five games.
The Kings struggled the following three seasons, failing to make the playoffs. Gretzky was traded to St. Louis in 1996 and finally retired as a New York Ranger in 1999. He was quickly named to the Hockey Hall of Fame and saw his number 99 retired by the league and the Kings in 1999.
It’s obvious that Gretzky helped the game grow in the U.S., particularly in the Golden State. The game’s popularity went sky-high in the 1990’s and continues to this day as some of today’s NHL players were born in California, including Ducks forward Emerson Etem from Long Beach.
“I tell people this quite often,” Gretzky said in an interview for NHL.com in January 2014. “You can pick 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds [from California], put together a couple of teams, and they can go all through Canada and handle themselves extremely well. They can compete with the best of Canadian kids at 10 and 12.”
“More importantly there’s room for hockey here,” said Gretzky. “It’s something the kids want to do now. I think the proof of that is in how many kids [there are] now in junior hockey and college hockey, but in the National Hockey League. There’s a lot more kids that are from this area. Chris Chelios isn’t the only guy now from California.”
Gretzky broke many records during his career, some may never be surpassed, including 50 goals in 39 games. During an appearance on the Conan O’Brien show in January 2014, Gretzky said you never know who might break one of his records.
“Records are made to be broken,” Gretzky said. “When I grew up my idol was Gordie Howe, and he couldn’t have been any nicer, couldn’t have been any better. He was just a really good man. When I broke his records, he was always the first guy there.
“So if anybody ever breaks my records, I’ll be the first guy to shake his hand. The players are good today, there’s a lot of good players. Never’s a long time.”
Mario now covers the Los Angeles Kings and writes other hockey features. He is an experienced journalist who has covered sports and entertainment in daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and online, including thedigitalbits.com/columns/inside-cinema. He is also the co-creator of The Gaffoos, www.gaffoos.com