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50 Kings - Don Kozak

by Mike Tenay / Los Angeles Kings

Don Kozak's six seasons with the LA Kings (1972-73 thru 1977-78) are fondly remembered for his spirited play that lit a fire under his teammates and the Forum fans. Kozak still holds the NHL record for fastest goal from the start of a Stanley Cup playoff game (6 seconds vs. Boston Bruins on April 17, 1977). To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Kings, I recently chatted with one of the team's most popular players of the franchise's first decade.

Let's go back to your first day with the LA Kings organization, the 1972 amateur draft, where you were drafted in the first round (#20 overall). What were your thoughts about being selected by Los Angeles?

KOZAK: My coach Brian Shaw (Edmonton Oil Kings) told me Chicago was interested in me, but they ended up taking one of my teammates Phil Russell at 13th. Shaw told me LA would take me if I was available at the 20th pick. I always remember seeing (Kings scout and eventual GM) George Maguire at a lot of our games. I was excited to be picked by the Kings, but didn't know a lot about the team. Back then, you didn't have ESPN. While I didn't know a lot about the players, I was excited for the opportunity to play in the NHL, without maybe going straight to the minors. It was a very exciting time.

When you were drafted by the Kings, did you foresee the immediate jump to the NHL or did you think you might start your pro career in the minors?

KOZAK: In the back of your mind you hope to make it straight to the NHL without playing in the minors. Sometimes you might be better off getting that minor league experience. I just went to camp and did whatever I had to do to earn a spot in the lineup. That was my mindset ... whatever cards fall, they fall. Things will work out in the end, that's just how I looked at it.

You were drafted by the WHA's Quebec franchise also in 1972. Did you have any negotiations with the Nordiques?

KOZAK: No, I never really talked to them. As a kid you always dream of playing in the National Hockey League. That was THE place to play. I didn't have any interest of playing in the WHA, just being in the NHL.

In 1999, you were named greatest right wing in Edmonton Oil Kings history. That's a pretty cool honor and achievement.

KOZAK: That really was neat. We went to the Memorial Cup two years in a row. We had a great team those two years. In my last year, five guys eventually ended up playing in the NHL. Tom Bladon, Phil Russell, Darcy Rota and Doug Soetart. We had a lot of talent on that team and were favored by the scouts to win the Memorial Cup that year, but we fell a little short. We were even allowed to pick up one player and we picked up goalie John Davidson, who we knocked out of the playoffs with Calgary. I remember we played against Peterborough in the first game and Bob Gainey (on the left hand against my right wing) and he stuck like glue. They played under coach Roger Nielson and they were tight checking. Playing junior was wide open hockey, now I'm trying to swat away these guys to get away from them. It was different playing against them. We had never experienced anything like that.

How did you choose Edmonton for juniors?

KOZAK: I had to make the choice to either go to the University of Denver or stay in the Western Canada Hockey League and my last two years in Edmonton were a great experience with a great franchise.

The Kings organization, when you were drafted, had the reputation of trading draft picks for established veterans. Owner Jack Kent Cooke's philosophy set the franchise back several years. What do you remember about Cooke, especially in light of being a rare #1 pick for the team?

KOZAK: We really didn't see much of him. I remember one negotiation where I fired my agent and negotiated for myself and dealt with Mr. Cooke on the phone. It was quite an experience and he was quite the character. He was one of a kind. A real salesman who could sell you anything.

Prior to your first season with the Kings (1972-73), captain Bob Pulford retired to take over as coach. How did you get along with Pulford and his disciplined defense-first system?

KOZAK: That was a big adjustment for me. Pully treated me well. He was a great coach, but it was really different because I wasn't known as a defensive hockey player in juniors. I was known more as a goal scorer. 55 goals one year and a 60 goal season one year. Pulford was real defensive minded and I had to learn how to play defense. It takes a little away from your offensive game. You have to concentrate more in your end and you can't cheat up the ice. We really weren't taught how to play defensive hockey in Edmonton, we were an offensive team. I had to basically start over and learn to play defense and become a better hockey player.

One of Jack Kent Cooke's moves that couldn't be questioned was trading five players to Montreal for goalie Rogie Vachon. Did Rogie in goal add confidence to the team?

KOZAK: Definitely. You knew if you were off that game or missed your assignment, Rogie was going to stop that puck for you. He came up with the big saves and got the team fired up. We were a defensive team with great goaltending. That's what it took for us to be successful. We knew that we always could depend upon him. He was my roommate.  Rogie was such a competitor. In practice he would challenge you all the time. If you scored on him he would get so upset. He wanted to stop every puck ... even in practice. We knew we were in every game with Rogie in the nets.

Speaking of goalies, is it true that when you started in organized hockey that you played in goal?

KOZAK: (Laughing) After one game, I said,  "I've had enough of this."  We got shell shocked like 20 to nothing. First kid started and something happened to him. I said, "I'll go in goal. Oh my god, maybe this ain't the position I want to play." My brother (Wally) was a goalie, I guess that's how I got started there. He played back in the days with Cliff Koroll and Keith Magnuson (both future stars with Chicago Blackhawks), in Saskatoon. As a kid you always want to play goalie on the streets and have fun, but it's a little different when you put on the pads and play the real deal.

There were still a lot of old school guys on that team like Ralph Backstrom, Harry Howell and Terry Harper. How did you fit in with the established vets?

KOZAK: Harry Howell was nothing but a class guy. A real gentleman. He was a Hall of Famer and he treated you with respect. Terry Harper didn't say too much and wasn't flashy, but he came from the six team NHL and always did his job on the ice. The team always came first with him. Ralph was a Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens and brought leadership to the team. All three were class guys with great leadership.

You had an immediate impact as a rookie with your physical play. Judging by your penalty minutes as a junior in Edmonton, it was a role you were used to. But what's it like to bring that style to the NHL as a rookie?

KOZAK: When you first come up to the big leagues you want to do whatever you have to do to survive. You're all man, you're all big and you're all strong. In juniors, I was more of a goal scorer. A lot of those penalties in juniors were misconducts also (laughing).  In juniors, I really wasn't a physical player. When I was drafted, I remember Bob Pulford said, "We're looking for Don Kozak to be physical", and it took me by surprise because I really wasn't a physical player. Even in training camp my first year I fought Greg Boddy (Vancouver) twice. I just wanted to be there .. do whatever I have to do. I just went out and did it. That's how that came about. I just got a reputation for playing that way.

As a rookie your were involved in a fight with Eddie "The Entertainer" Shack (a former King) with quite a reputation. In fact, Shack's game was a lot like yours.

KOZAK: I remember as a kid watching Toronto and they would say "Clear the track, here comes Shack." He played limited minutes, but he would get out there with that energy. A guy that would go down the wing and fly. He could make end to end rushes. A lot of these guys that you watched you idolized ... your heroes. I don't remember how it happened but we got into it. I said, "Oh my god, I'm in a fight with Eddie Shack."

How about the similarities between you and Shack?

KOZAK: That's true. I had the long hair flying. My stick would be in the air. I thought I was a pretty good forechecker. Get in and make things happen. I got the nickname "Krazy Kozak" because I started flying around the ice trying to make things happen. The fans even started a fan club. It was like Eddie Shack in a way.

You're right. The Kings fans adopted you early on. There was a perceptible buzz when you would hit the ice. How much did their response play in to your style of play?

KOZAK: I just knew that was my job. We'd come back home after a long road trip back East and I knew I had to get things started. I'd get a charge out of it, because I'd get the fans going. Shake up my teammates. It was exciting for me because it would get the fans yelling and screaming. It charged me up and charged up my teammates. The fans gave me that excitement. I liked to play off the fans a lot to get me going.

What was it like playing at The Forum in that era? Most of the fans today equate the Kings to Staples Center, but The Forum was a happening place at times in the '70s for Kings games.

KOZAK: Absolutely. Next to Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens and Montreal's Forum, because of tradition, The Forum was THE place to play. Jack Kent Cooke built the stadium to make it look like back in the Roman days. We had a great following. When big teams came to town, we sold out every game. We had our regular 8-9-10,000 when the average teams came to town. The fans were really loud. They always were behind you. It was a great place to play. I remember the playoffs (after the '75-'76 season) when we played Boston and we were back for the sixth game, they wouldn't even let the national anthem play. There was a six minute standing ovation. I never heard anything like that in my life. They talk about Chicago Stadium and other rinks about how loud it is, but that night it was crazy. It was so loud it was unbelievable. In LA there's so many things to do. They love a winner. If you're not winning, they're not going to come out and support you. But if you put on a good show and you're competitive, they'll support you. They started to come out and support us because they knew we'd give them a show and try to send them home happy every night. If I had to do it over again, I'd love to be drafted by the Kings again. It was a great place to play.

There was always the media perception of players in Southern California not being able to concentrate on playing hockey. Did you feel that the weather and the beaches were a distraction?

KOZAK: No, I felt it wasn't a distraction. We were professionals. You know what your job is. When game time comes you're ready to play. A lot of stories got started about guys on the golf course and beach, but that never happened with us. But it was better than 30 degrees below and freezing.

1973-74 you really played like you were getting comfortable with the league, team and surroundings. 20 goal mark was something players looked at as an achievement. You did it in your second year. Confidence booster?

KOZAK: Definitely. 20 goals was a milestone. I always knew I could score goals. When you get 20, you feel you can get to the next level, maybe get to 30 goals. It lets you know you are up here with these other guys. I remember getting a hat trick the last game against Vancouver to get to the 20 goals. It's definitely a confidence builder. Naturally you want to win and when you are scoring goals it's the icing on the cake.

'73-'74 was announcer Bob Miller's first season with the Kings. Sure was the start to a remarkable career.

KOZAK: Bob's one of a kind. I remember when he first came to the Kings from the Wisconsin Badgers. Just a class act and true professional. A great guy that's been with the Kings all these years. Doesn't get any better than that for Bob.

1974-75 was the year that the fans really embraced the Kings in my opinion. 105 points the most ever. Rogie on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Kings actually out drew the Lakers (12,620 average to 11,568) in attendance.

KOZAK: Wow. I didn't even realize that. That's amazing to me. Lakers owned the city along with the Dodgers.

The Toronto playoff series that year was a disaster. NHL had a best of three first round setup. Kings lost 3-2 in overtime and 2-1 after winning game one. Coach Pulford later admitted he cried in the tunnel after that game three loss.

KOZAK: That's true. Pully being an old Maple Leaf, I'm sure he wanted to beat them. Two out of three anything can happen.  The writing was on the wall for us to get to the next round. I think we would have played Pittsburgh and really had the opportunity to advance. We had one of the best records in hockey that year. We played great hockey that year. Defensively we were a stalwart. We all took the loss hard, but especially Pully after playing all those years in Toronto. It was sad. We should have won that series, but things happen.

1975-76 was memorable for the postseason. But getting there was unique. Terry Harper and Dan Maloney traded for Marcel Dionne came as a surprise. Did the team feel that you were changing the defensive first mentality that made the Kings a success in exchange for a superstar scorer?

KOZAK: No, there really wasn't. There was a reason for that trade. After the Toronto loss, management felt they needed more scoring and Marcel would bring that to us. We lost two great players and leaders in Maloney and Harper, but made up for it with Marcel.  We needed the goal scorer to get to the next level and it was a good deal for everybody ... for Detroit, for us and naturally it worked out great for Marcel.

You mentioned the Boston playoff series earlier. In that memorable game 6, Butch Goring beats the Bruins' goalie Gerry Cheevers to send it back to Boston. What are your memories of playing with Butch Goring?

KOZAK: Butchie was great. A real character. He hustled all the time. He was electrifying. Amazing to watch sometimes. He was a character off the ice too and a great teammate.

1976-77 was a big roster turnover. Good finish to the season. I remember the trade for Dave "The Hammer" Schultz from Philadelphia. Didn't he play on your line that season?

KOZAK: Yes he did on occasion. You felt like you could do a few more things, because you felt like he was backing you up. You had a little more security with him out there.

Postseason that year you eliminated Atlanta again and had a rematch with Boston. You were down 3-0 in the series to the Bruins. Take us back to April 17, 1977. You were on the ice to start game 4 at The Forum.

KOZAK: Down 3 games we had nothing to lose. You take it one period at a time, one shift at a time and one game at a time.  Game started and the puck went over to (Bruins defenseman) Brad Park. He passed it across to (Mike) Milbury and I rushed in. I got it and went in on a breakaway. I beat Cheevers and scored. I didn't even realize until after the game that it was the fastest goal at the start of a game in Stanley Cup history. I always said it's something I can tell my grandkids.

I always thought that was a case of you doing what you did best. There was an explosion :06 into the game at The Forum. The crowd and team both fired up because of your goal.

KOZAK: It got me fired up more. After that I went after Terry O'Reilly. Just caused a little commotion out there. I was fired up. Everybody was fired up. We won that game and the next one, but lost the sixth one.  It was an exciting time.  People always, even the guys at work, joke about it. So it's great to still have that record. I cherish that.

Tell me about your post hockey life.

KOZAK: A friend got me into the car business and I've been in it for 30 plus years. I'm the sales manager at Mark Christopher Auto Center, the largest volume dealership for GM products in Southern California. We are in Ontario.  We have four brands: Cadillac, Buick, GMC and Chevy. I've been blessed with a beautiful wife Marsha and two great kids. My son Zachary went to Lake Forest College in Chicago. He played D-3 hockey there and now he's going to Notre Dame to get his masters in business. My daughter Alexandra graduated from Arizona State and she's thinking of going into law school. It was tough after hockey deciding what you want to do with your future. As a little kid I started skating at age 3, started playing hockey and always dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League. One day it's over and it's like ... Wow, what am I going to do now to fulfill myself the rest of my life? Fortunately I've been very successful in the car business. I live in Laguna Hills, a great area and just enjoying life.

Give us your thoughts on the Kings two Stanley Cup wins and the 50th anniversary season.

KOZAK: It was fantastic that they won two Stanley Cups. It was great for California, for hockey and for LA. It put LA on the map for hockey. As for the 50th, I went to the 30th anniversary at The Forum and it was great. It's unbelievable, 50 years of hockey in Southern California!
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