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50 Forgotten Stories: Almost Red, Lindros & Firsov?

A coach suiting up for the LA Kings, the blockbuster that never was, and attempting to break through the Iron Curtain

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

In 1968, the LA Kings best player might have been behind the bench.

Rookie Kings Head Coach Red Kelly had just come off his eighth Stanley Cup - his fourth as a Toronto Maple Leafs forward, after four as a Detroit Red Wings defenseman. He also managed a ninth-place Hart Trophy finish in his final playing season.

But Kelly was ready to retire for greener pastures, namely sunny Southern California and helming the expansion Kings. This, despite Toronto offering the 39-year-old a four-year contract to keep suiting up.

Kelly did suit up before the 1968 playoffs - but for the team that he was coaching.

According to Kings top defenseman Bill White, his coach still had it, "You thought he was still playing.

"Red was very good with his feet and the puck. Strong on his skates.

"He had a lot of smarts."

The coach was added to the squad's active list, making him eligible for a dramatic postseason return.

"I'll play only if the emergency is such that I can help the team," Kelly said. (Netland, Dwayne. "Kelly, 39, to Play Against Stars 'In Emergency.'" Star Tribune, April 4, 1968.)

There would be no such emergency. Los Angeles would drop a seven-game series to the Minnesota North Stars.

Now, Kelly reveals he was never close to coming back. "I was just coaching. If I wanted to play, I would've stayed in Toronto and played.

"I would work out in practice a little bit with [the Kings]. To help show different things."

But there's almost no doubt that the NHL100 selection could still play.

White confirms, "He had loads of experience. He had piles of Stanley Cups behind him.

"He could've played on that [Kings] team quite easily and could've been the best player."

The following training camp, Los Angeles owner Jack Kent Cooke held a skating contest to determine the fastest player on the team.

Kelly - the 41-year-old coach - turned out to be his squad's fastest man.

"Shucks," beamed Kelly, "maybe I don't look fast, but you never saw anybody skate away from me." (Rimstead, Paul. "At Camp with the Kings." Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1968.)

 

Landing Lindros?

Speaking of NHL100 greats, how close were the Kings to acquiring the rights to Eric Lindros, the consensus No. 1 pick of the 1991 NHL Entry Draft?

Steve Springer of the Los Angeles Times reported in June 1991 that a "potential deal had the Kings sending wing Luc Robitaille, goalie Robb Stauber, a future No. 1 pick and $1 million to the Nordiques for the rights to Lindros."

While acknowledging fellow NHL100'er Robitaille's scoring prowess, this package pales in comparison to what Quebec would eventually extract from Philadelphia for Lindros -- Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, $15 million, and the Flyers 1993 and 1994 first-round draft picks.

However, then-Los Angeles General Manager Rogie Vachon asserts today, "Absolutely not. We never pursued Eric."

 

Flirting with Firsov

Soviet legend Anatoly Firsov never had a chance to test his mettle against the NHL100, retiring a few months before the 1972 Summit Series.

But his reputation lives on.

"Firsov might have been the best hockey player I've ever seen," observed Marshall Johnston to NHL.com. Johnston boasts 35-plus years of NHL experience as general manager, director of player personnel, head coach, assistant coach, and player.

"Three things made him better than everyone else," Russian hockey historian Igor Kuperman said. "He invented the stick-to-skate-to-stick move … he had a lethal slap shot that bent goalies' knees … and he had amazing stickhandling skills."

The Kings, who owned Firsov's NHL negotiating rights in 1969, were rumored to have offered him $100,000 to go pro.

"Soviet hockey players do not sell themselves for money," the 28-year-old winger reportedly replied.

"We certainly didn't offer him any $100,000," swears then-Kings General Manager Larry Regan. "But we'd love to have him.

"He's the best in Europe and would be a terrific attraction in Los Angeles.

"In fact, he wanted to come over here and play a few years ago. But he would have had to defect." ("Soviet Hockey Player Spurns $100,000 Bid." Los Angeles Times, February 8, 1969.)

That's a fantastic claim by Regan - perhaps too fantastic.

"Nobody would ever think of that," guarantees Kuperman.

"He was an officer of the army. It was impossible that he would go anywhere.

"The first [Soviet] defection was 1989, Mogilny. That was like 20 years later."

Kuperman continues, "Firsov and players of that generation never [learned] English. KGB officers were always with the team when they were traveling abroad, especially to North America. [The players'] own interpreters had ties with the KGB. How would he know he [even got an offer]?"

"All those rumors, they're just rumors."

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Sheng Peng is a freelance hockey writer based out of Los Angeles, California. He covers the LA Kings and Ontario Reign for HockeyBuzz. His work has also appeared on VICE Sports, The Hockey News, and SB Nation's Jewels from the Crown.

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