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50 Forgotten Stories: Remembering Juha Widing

A look back on the career of the LA Kings first European star, and his untimely death at the age of 37

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

Bob Berry still hasn't forgotten the first time that he saw Juha Widing.

"My first memory was coming to training camp [in 1970].

"What you couldn't miss in the skating drills was his thick, beautiful, blond hair ... and his skating ability. In a half a stride, he was at full speed. He was at that time one of the best skaters in the league."

Former LA Kings Hall of Fame trainer Pete Demers remembers the centerman in much the same way.

"He was the most skilled skater the Kings ever had. Right up there with Paul Coffey," Demers said.

"He was in that category," agrees LA's original play-by-play voice Jiggs McDonald. "He could play in today's league, where speed is so essential, without any problem at all."

More than just swift, the 6'1" Widing (pronounced "Vee-ding") is one of just four Kings to lead the team in scoring in his first three full seasons with the club. You might have heard of the other three members of this exclusive group: Marcel Dionne, Wayne Gretzky and Anze Kopitar.

Yet, only one of these stars went through his entire career in Los Angeles with everybody saying his name wrong.

This goes back to February 28, 1970, when Larry Regan traded Ted Irvine to the New York Rangers for the 22-year-old Widing and Real Lemieux.

Rangers GM Emile Francis regretted parting with the Swedish import, who he had watched grow up. Francis had brought over the then-17-year-old in the mid-60s, along with the first European-trained skater to play in the NHL, Ulf Sterner.

"Widing just needs a chance to play. He is a skillful playmaker and will develop into a good one," noted Francis. "I hated to let him go, but we felt Irvine was the player we needed to win the division and the Stanley Cup." (Hafner, Dan. "Irving Traded to Rangers for Widing, Lemieux." Los Angeles Times, February 28, 1970.)

The cellar-dwelling Kings could afford their latest acquisition plenty of playing time. But then-owner Jack Kent Cooke, straining to make a strong impression in a non-traditional hockey market, believed he couldn't afford to call the Finnish-born Swede his proper name. So, Cooke, who dubbed Ken McDonald "Jiggs," Brian Kilrea "Killer," Eddie Joyal "The Jet," and so on, looked toward Widing's luxurious mane.

McDonald recalls, "In training camp [in 1970], once we knew he was going to make the hockey team, Mr. Cooke felt there should be a nickname.

"Mr. Cooke eventually felt like he should be 'Whitey Why-ding' because that fit together.

"I spent the afternoon at the library ... going over the Swedish dictionary, trying to come up with something that would go with 'Vee-ding.' And I thought I had a winner with 'Vite' (pronounced 'veet') Widing.

"'Vite' was basically the same thing [as 'Whitey']. 'Vite' in the Swedish was ... once you poured cast iron, it forms a little white topping. The guy was as blond as could be.

"Cooke was insisting on 'Whitey.' And I'm saying, 'In the Swedish language...'

"[Cooke replied,] 'Nobody will know that or even care.'"

So "Whitey Why-ding" was born.

If Widing was at all bothered by this anglicized misnomer, he never showed it.

Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Miller, who began broadcasting LA Kings games in 1973-74, recalls, "I always called him 'Whitey Why-ding.' I don't think I ever used his first name when I was doing the games.

"He never came up, and said, 'You know, my name is not "Why-ding," it's "Vee-ding" and "Yoo-ha."'"

In the locker room, most everybody just called him "Whitey." There, he was a much-beloved figure.

"He was one of my good friends on the team," remembers newly-minted Hall of Famer Rogie Vachon."

"He had an infectious smile. Always smiling," says McDonald wistfully. "Just a gem of a teammate."

"Great guy," concurs Demers. "Fun to be around."

Berry, who played with Widing for seven seasons in Los Angeles, considered him a best friend. "As a player in LA, I don't think I was closer to anyone."

Widing's sly sense of humor made him all the more popular with teammates. Once, during practice, Regan got on the swift Swede to skate faster.

"The skates," retorted Widing, "should not be ahead of the brain. Until I can think faster I won't skate faster." (Hafner, Dan. "Widing Making a Name for Himself on Kings' Buzz Line." Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1970.)

Berry spins a more off-color tale.

"He ran a hockey school in Sweden. He invited me to go there and be one of the instructors.

"[We finished up for the day, and] I said, 'Are we going to have a beer? What are we going to do?'

"He said, 'No, no, we're going to go first to the sauna. Then we'll go have a beer.'

"I didn't think anything of that.

"So I walk in [the sauna] -- and all the Swedes are there, male, female, the children, everybody -- and they all have their clothes off.

"It was just a different culture thing.

"But he got a big kick out of that. He told everybody, 'Oh, Bob was even afraid to go in there!'"

Outside the room, however, Widing wore a target on his back.

Berry recalls, "When he came into the league, the European players were sort of a target in the beginning. [The other players] thought they could take more advantage of them.

"But it never bothered him. If someone said to him, 'You stinkin' Swede, why don't you go home?' or something, he'd [tell them off].

"It was like being a rookie."

Widing also had to deal with the pressure of carrying a perennial loser like LA.

"You bloody well knew you weren't going to win, most nights," admitted Widing. "You had to make yourself go out there and play."

"I felt the pressure too. I was centering a line that had to score the goals if we were going to have a chance to win. If my line went two or three games without a goal we heard about it. We also heard the boos." (Hafner, Dan. "Kings' Old Man, Juha Widing, Enjoys the Pressure of Winning." Los Angeles Times, Nov 12, 1974.)

He discovered an early connection with Berry and Mike Byers.

Berry chuckles, "One of the reasons why I stayed in the league is because we used to do a lot of skating drills -- and both Mike Byers and Juha [were so fast] -- I would have to go as hard as I could.

"If I finished 10 yards behind them, they'd laugh at me. 'What's wrong with you? We'll give you a headstart the next time.'"

The one-time 36-goal scorer was nicknamed "Crease" in part because of his role on The Bee Line, "Most of my goals were scored right around the net."

Fortunes turned for "Whitey" and the Kings when Bob Pulford took the coaching reins in 1972. The Swede finally saw the postseason in 1973-74, and the next year, he was a cornerstone of the Kings' most successful regular season ever. He notched a robust 57 and 60 points during those respective campaigns (ranking second and fifth on the team).

By then, he was skating with Berry and Mike Corrigan on The Hot Line. But after LA acquired Dionne in the summer of 1975, Widing's productivity dropped, partly because he was now behind a genuine superstar and Butch Goring on the depth chart. He was traded to the Cleveland Barons the next season, and the 31-year-old retired from hockey in 1978.

Widing could afford to leave the sport on his own terms because he had invested well. "He bought a few apartment buildings in Torrance," remembers Demers. "He was quite an entrepreneur."

There was a flipside to this off-the-ice success though.

"He looked after himself. Maybe looked after himself a little too well in that he just didn't do anything," observes McDonald. "He was lethargic after his career. Didn't take care of himself or look after his conditioning."

"That's speculation," says Berry, before admitting, "It probably could be true."

The 37-year-old Widing suffered a fatal heart attack in 1984. He was survived by his wife Susie and two sons Jimmy and Mathew.

Demers recalls an ominous incident many years before Widing's untimely death. "One time, we were on the road. He called me about midnight. He was in his room. And he said, 'My heart is racing.'

"I said, 'Well, I'm going to call 911.' 'No, no, I'm okay, maybe you can just come up.' So, I went up to his room and checked his heart rate. It was well over 150.

"That's a really rapid heart rate. He was watching this horror show on TV, and I said, 'Maybe you ought to turn that off.'

"Soon as we turned it off, it settled right down. He didn't want to go to the hospital. He just said he was fine.

"I sat with him and he was fine. He never had any re-occurrence.

"We had him checked out by our doctors on the road. We had him checked out before we played that next game, that next day. It was fine. We had him checked out again when we went home."

Demers never observed any long-term concerns with Widing's health in Los Angeles, "No, not at all."

"That was my guy," says Berry, who choked up thinking about his old friend.

"The kind of guy you'd like showing up at your door to date your daughter," swears McDonald. "He was just an all-around good human being."

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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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