When Todd McLellan – yes, that Todd McLellan, the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings – got a penalty for abuse of officials, I was more surprised than most.
McLellan, in typical fashion, took immediate responsibility after the game: “I earned it. I’m not happy that I put our team in that situation.”
It’s been a tough first-year for McLellan behind the Kings’ bench, the worst in the Western Conference, fan favourites leaving the team, and it all happening in front of a fan base that has become accustomed to winning.
So for Los Angeles hockey fans, the bench minor against McLellan could be looked at as just that, frustration, but for someone who has watched this coach for more than two decades, it meant much more and every Kings fan should be excited.
Let’s be real. The season is long over for the Kings and two points in a late February game are completely meaningless. But, if you didn’t know the situation and you saw McLellan’s reaction you might think the Kings were fighting for a playoff position. You would be half right, they are fighting.
An infraction against this coach is out of character. However, when you reflect on his track record, it was on point. It was a few brief seconds of hockey, but a reminder to his players, the organization, the fans (and me) that this is Todd McLellan and the best is yet to come.
McLellan and Me: The Backstory
McLellan was my first coach. I didn’t play for him; I covered the Swift Current Broncos for CJFB-TV in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, from 1998 to 2000. It was my first reporter job in one of the smallest markets in Canada, with a population just under 12,000, about as far away from Hollywood as you can get.
The first time I met McLellan, I was shooting video of the Broncos practice, and the whistle was blaring, McLellan was not impressed with what he was watching. He brought the players together in front of a whiteboard and explained the drill a few times. After the third or fourth time, he handed the clipboard to an assistant coach and skated in my direction. I was so nervous; the microphone was shaking in my hands. It was my first professional interview for my first story for my first newsroom.
As he approaches the look on his face changes, he stops in front of me and says, “you’re new.” The grimace he had seconds ago turned into a bit of a smile, he shakes my hand and says, “I’m Todd, welcome to Swift Current.”
Rebuilding a Hockey Town
McLellan was the general manager and head coach for the Broncos after Graham James. James left Swift Current in 1994 to start the Calgary Hitmen franchise. Two years later, Sheldon Kennedy accused James of sexually abusing him and another teammate while playing for the Broncos. The case received national and international attention and scrutiny to the Broncos organization.
McLellan already had a tragic connection to the team. In 1986, the Broncos team bus crashed, killing four players, two of them were McLellan’s close friends. But, nothing could’ve prepared the 29-year-old McLellan for the backlash of the James’ case. Although it had happened long before McLellan’s time, he was the one answering the questions from media, parents, players, partners, and fans. He had to rebuild, not a roster, but a community’s trust in its team.
The Broncos are the pride of southwest Saskatchewan – the team won the Memorial Cup in 1989, has a history of great players (Bryan Trottier, Joe Sakic, Tiger Williams), and their games are the meeting point for the community. But all of that didn’t matter; it was starting all over again with McLellan leading the way. For his efforts, he was named WHL Executive of the Year in 1997.
After winning WHL Coach of the Year in 2000, McLellan became head coach of the IHL’s Cleveland Lumberjacks, the farm team for the NHL’s latest expansion franchise, the Minnesota Wild. But, once again, it wasn’t the on-ice performance that grabbed the spotlight – the IHL folded. McLellan then became the coach of the Houston Aeros, one of six IHL teams that were absorbed by the AHL. Staying true to form, McLellan excelled in controversy as the Aeros won the Calder Cup in 2002-03.
Despite the success, he wasn’t landing an NHL job. Back then, I was working in a newsroom in Sudbury, Ontario. The Wolves were struggling. After a couple of mediocre seasons, they fired the coaching staff, and the young owner wanted to make a splash with a big hire who could turn the team around. He asked me if I knew anyone.
It was a long shot, but I called McLellan at his office in Houston, although it had been years since we talked he remembered me and started asking questions about my life, how did I end up in Sudbury, and did I know any players he should look at, etc. I made my case for him to consider coming to Sudbury. I half expected him to laugh, but he said, “I appreciate you thinking of me,” and then surprised me by asking why I would recommend him for the job. I told him he was the best coach I’ve ever been around, but also a great person off the ice. He sounded flattered and said, “I appreciate the kind words; I will think about it.”
Two years later, he was an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings, winning a Stanley Cup in 2007-08. He took the head coaching job in San Jose the following year, the Edmonton Oilers top job in 2015, and now he stands behind the Kings’ bench.
A Penalty of Passion
Not only has McLellan seen it all, but I’ve also watched him, see it all. For the referee to call a penalty on this man was a shock.
“Well, I would say in my fifteen years that could’ve been the first or the second one,” McLellan told the scrum of reporters following the game.
Abuse of Officials 39.1– A player, goalkeeper, Coach or non-playing person shall not challenge or dispute the rulings of an official before, during or after a game… A player, goalkeeper, Coach or non-playing person shall not display unsportsmanlike conduct including, but not limited to, obscene, profane or abusive language or gestures… “
Blah, blah, blah, it goes on. Hmm? A player or coach questioned the official? I’d say Rule 39 gets broken nearly every stoppage of play. However, this was more than your typical challenge of the official.
It happened during the Feb. 22 game against the Colorado Avalanche. The Kings were the home team, but they were wearing road whites for the 1990’s theme night, while the Avs were wearing their home team dark jerseys. In the third period of a 1-1 tie game, the Avs started playing like the home team – blatantly taking the last change.
At first, McLellan alerted the officials to what was going on. I’m sure he politely reminding them that the Kings are the home team despite wearing road whites. The second time, he was not so polite – he was livid.
“I’m (was) pretty damn frustrated with the way things were being handled at that point, so I’ll leave it at that,” McLellan spoke with caution about the penalty during his postgame media conference, to avoid a league fine, “I only want to get penalized once tonight, not twice.”
Again, we’ve all seen coaches get mad and argue with the refs, but rarely do we ever see someone go over the line and get a penalty.
“So, the line was a little bit shorter apparently tonight than in the past, but some of the younger officials, I’m still trying to figure them out,” McLellan cautiously explained.
We also saw McLellan’s line and it was clearly crossed, he saw his team being disrespected and wasn’t having it. The Kings easily killed off the penalty, barely letting the Avs over the blue line. When the two minutes expired and Martin Frk stepped back on the ice, the Staples Center gave a cheer, and so they should. The players sent a message loud and clear to McLellan and the fans – he stood up for us, and we have his back.
I’ve watched it play out repeatedly over McLellan’s career, from the prairies to Hollywood. This coach believes in his players and they repay him with an unmatched work ethic. While this season didn’t go as planned, it’s a sign that the Kings will be back, and soon.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.