It was 1979, I was an 8-year-old kid attending my first Los Angeles Kings game at the Fabulous Forum.
When I saw Marcel Dionne standing on the ice with his teammates during warm-ups, I didn’t think he was an actual player. He was short and stocky and I had not seen him skate yet. He looked tiny beside Jerry Korab. My older brother lied and said he was the Zamboni driver, but they let him skate with the team occasionally.
I remember thinking how cool it was of the team, letting the little, thick guy play with the big boys.
Then the game was about to start and there he was, about to challenge for the puck on the opening faceoff.
“They let him play in games, too?” I asked.
Eventually, I figured it out. I watched Dionne dart in and out of traffic, avoiding punishment from the bigger players.
It turns out they let Dionne play in 1,348 regular-season games, where he tallied 731 goals and 1,040 assists in his NHL career. In 12 years with the Kings, he played in 921 games, scored 550 goals and dished out 757 assists.
Dionne as a Red Wing
Dionne was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round (second overall) of the 1971 NHL Amateur Draft behind No. 1 overall pick Guy Lafleur, who was selected by the Montreal Canadiens and went on to become a Hall of Famer – like Dionne.
Dionne grew up playing ice hockey in Drummondville, Quebec for the Drummondville Rangers before going to the highly-regarded Ontario Hockey Association to bolster his resume, not to mention his game.
He played three seasons for the St. Catharines Black Hawks of the OHA, capturing scoring titles in the 1969-70 (55 goals, 77 assists) and 1970-71 (62 goals, 81 assists) seasons. He also had a record 122 points in 43 playoff games with St. Catharines.
Dionne was drafted out of St. Catharines, and immediately made an impact on the big league club. As a rookie with the Red Wings, he had 28 goals and 49 assists for a 77-point season. His best season in Detroit was his last. The 5-foot-8 Dionne left the Red Wings with a bang, tallying 47 goals and 74 assists (121 points) during the 1974-75 season.
But the Red Wings at the time were a losing team and Dionne was open to being traded to a contender. Instead, the Red Wings sent him to the Kings.
Maybe the Kings were not what the rising star had in mind, but that’s where he went, swapped for Dan Maloney, Terry Harper and a second-round draft pick.
Dionne joined a Kings team entering its ninth season in the NHL.
Dionne Becomes King
The Kings were gaining traction at the time. The team had star goaltender Rogie Vachon and a tough defense in front of him. They needed scoring, and Dionne provided it. In his first season with the Kings, he scored 40 goals and 54 assists while getting acclimated to a new team with a different system.
He turned it up a notch during the 1976-77 season, tallying 53 goals and 69 assists. It marked the first of his six 50-goal seasons. He scored a career-high 59 goals for the Kings during the 1978-79 season, and had the most points in a season (137) in his career in the next, tallying 53 goals and a career-high 84 assists.
Despite a lack of playoff success, Dionne’s accomplishments are seemingly endless. He played in eight all-star games from 1975 to 1985. He had 30 or more goals and 50 or more assists in a season 14 times.
Dionne is in amazing company as one of seven players in the NHL’s 700-goal club. He skates beside Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Brett Hull, Phil Esposito and Mike Gartner.
The Drummondville native won the Art Ross Trophy (NHL scoring leader) for the 1979-80 season, the Ted Lindsay Award (presented annually to the ‘Most Outstanding Player’ in the NHL by the Players’ Association) for the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons, and the Lady Byng Trophy (sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high level of ability) for the 1974-75 and 1976-77 seasons. He later won the Lester Patrick Trophy (service to hockey in the United States) in 2005-06.
Dionne scored two goals in 23 seconds and added two assists when the Kings beat the Edmonton Oilers 5-4 on March 18, 1985. He also shadowed Wayne Gretzky that game and held him to without a goal. Dionne is tied for sixth, with Bobby Hull, for most hat tricks in a career with 28. Gretzky is the all-time leader with 50.
After edging a young Gretzky to win the 1979-80 scoring title with 137 points, Kings owner Jerry Buss signed Dionne to a six-year, $3.6-million contract, the most expensive ever in professional hockey at the time.
Triple Crown Line
The first seasons I remember of the Kings were those of the Triple Crown Line. Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer became an offensive force. I remember Dionne as a playmaking center who did not waste his stride. He was free-wheeling on the ice, yet every move seemed to have a purpose and most of his moves seemed to lead to scoring chances. I remember Taylor as a grinder and opportunist, and Simmer as a left-handed sharpshooter who could also hold his own in the corner and had a brilliant touch around the net.
“You can give Davy the puck and he’ll carry it. He stopped me from having to do too many things. If I’m not playing with a good goal scorer, I’m trying to do it all myself.” (From: “These Three Kings are Unbeatable,” – Sports Illustrated – Nov. 12, 1979).
The trio’s productivity hit full force during the 1980-81 season. Dionne had 135 points, Taylor 112 and Simmer 105. All three made the All-Star team and the Kings had one of their better seasons of the Dionne Era, going 43-24-13 (99 points) and finishing second in the Norris Division. But the Kings lost to the New York Rangers three games to one in the first round of the playoffs and it was back to the drawing board.
“We felt we could win there if there was patience, but they would keep making bad deals and giving good choices away.”Marcel Dionne (from ‘Outstanding in Obscurity,’ LA Times, 6/9/1993)
Despite the excitement and production of the Triple Crown Line, the Kings weren’t consistently good in those days. The team didn’t play much defense, but they scored a lot. The physical players went for the crunching hip check even if it wasn’t the smart play, and they would fight out of either frustration or strategy. It made for some entertaining 7-5 and 8-6 losses.
Dionne lit up the scoreboard, Jay Wells body checked and brawled, and the Kings would lose. For the 7,000 to 8,000 or so of us who would show up regularly to games, it was both wildly entertaining and disappointing.
Miracle on Manchester
The Kings were a dismal 24-41-15 during the 1981-82 regular season and finished fourth in the Smythe Division, good enough for a ticket to face the No. 1 Oilers in a best-of-five series in the first round of the playoffs. Injuries and ineffectiveness whenever the Triple Crown Line left the ice made it a rough regular season. But the Kings had enough going for them to be dangerous, and they had a surprise for Gretzky and the Oilers.
The Kings stunned the Oilers in Edmonton in Game 1. Dionne had two goals and an assist in a wild 10-8 victory. But it looked like a return to normalcy when Edmonton won Game 2 in overtime, 3-2. The series was tied 1-1 heading to Los Angeles.
The first two periods of the Miracle on Manchester on April 10, 1982, were dismal for Kings fans. I sat in the nosebleeds, disappointed about the 5-0 Oilers lead going into the third period and solemnly hoping for just a little excitement before going home. Many fans left the building, but we were still hoping to get our money’s worth, maybe avoid the humiliation of a shutout. Maybe Dionne will do something awesome. Maybe Wells will hip check Paul Coffey into the third row.
Dionne assisted on the Kings’ first goal early in the third period by Wells to make it 5-1. My reaction was like, “Well hey, what do you know? It’s a Kings’ goal.”
Simmer’s goal made it 5-3 and fans really started cheering and looking at each other funny. My feeling was that it was pretty cool, but knew I was getting my hopes up.
Mark Hardy scored with 3:01 left in regulation to make it 5-4. The Forum was shaking. The noise from the crowd was deafening. As the final seconds of regulation ticked off, Steve Bozek scored off a rebound to tie the score 5-5 with five seconds left. If any fans still in attendance were not all-in before that goal, they were now.
In overtime, rookie Doug Smith won a faceoff, got the puck to rookie Daryl Evans, and Evans blasted the puck just under the crossbar. It was a tremendous shot, and a wild celebration ensued. The Forum was rocking and I’d never done so many fist pumps in my life. It was hard to believe. The Kings won the series, but the euphoria didn’t last long. They fell to the Vancouver Canucks in the second round.
When the Kings made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history in 1993, Dionne was already a businessman. In a strange Dionne family twist, Los Angeles’ opponent in the Final was the Canadiens. Marcel’s brother, Gilbert, 19 years younger than Marcel, played for the Habs. While Gilbert never had the individual success that Marcel enjoyed, he did manage to capture a Stanley Cup title at the expense of the Kings with Marcel in attendance. Gilbert had 12 points in 20 playoff games in the Canadiens’ 1993 Cup run.
Gilbert had his moments in the NHL, including scoring on Grant Fuhr in the Stanley Cup Final. But he never found the consistency to remain in the NHL long-term.
Gilbert was, however, a minor league superstar of sorts. He had four fruitful seasons with the IHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones and two with the AHL’s Carolina Monarchs, including tallying 101 points in 55 games for Carolina during the 1995-96 season.
After racking up 550 goals and 757 assists for 1,307 points in 12 years for the Kings, Dionne ended his career with two-plus seasons with the Rangers after being traded with Jeff Crossman and a third-round draft pick for Bobby Carpenter and Tom Laidlaw. In his best season with the Rangers, Dionne tallied 31 goals and 34 assists in 67 games during the 1987-88 season.
But playoff success still wasn’t in the cards. Dionne finished his career with 731 goals and 1,040 assists for 1,771 points. His 1,771 points put him in sixth place all-time in the NHL. He is fifth all-time with 731 goals and 11th all-time with 1,040 assists.
He surpassed 100 points in a season eight times, including seven with the Kings. Dionne is largely considered the greatest King of all-time and one of the greatest ever to play the game without winning a Stanley Cup title. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992.
He was quick, low to the ice, tough to move off the puck and obviously had a knack for scoring goals.
Dionne credits work ethic as the main reason for his prolonged success. “Gordie Howe was once asked about someone, and Howe said, ‘Let’s see what he does after five years.’ That’s what I’m proudest of,” Dionne said. “Being consistent. Every game I come out, I’m prepared for. Even when I was losing for years, I was prepared.” (from “Work Ethic is Finally Paying Off for Dionne,” New York Times, Feb. 21, 1985)
Dionne’s No. 16 was retired by the Kings in 1990. He had his own postage stamp in Canada in 2004. He is also part of a statue with Kings greats that was unveiled outside the Staples Center (the Kings’ current home) in 2016.
After his playing days, Dionne applied a similar work ethic to business after his playing days were over. He has a restaurant (Blue Line Diner) and sports memorabilia store in the same building in Niagara Falls, where he happily resides as a living NHL legend.