As part of the LA Kings’ 50th Anniversary celebration, LAKings.com will have conversations with 50 former players as part of our special series 50 KINGS.
Our inaugural piece features a member of the inaugural Kings, forward Poul Popiel, who played in just one regular season game – and three playoff games -- with the team in 1967-68 in addition to spending time with the club’s minor league affiliate in Springfield.
Popiel, a defenseman who was the first player from Denmark to play in the League, suited up for some 700 pro hockey games, split between the NHL and the WHA, before hanging up his skates in the early 1980s.
He answered these questions from LAKings.com:
LAKings.com: Your time with the Kings at the NHL level was somewhat brief but you played more than 200 games overall at the NHL level. What do you remember the most about your NHL debut?
Popiel: I remember being in training camp and Jack Cooke, the owner, came in. We had a meeting in one of the conference rooms and he had a picture of the Stanley Cup and said, ‘This is what we’re going to win.’ That was the first introduction I had.
LAKings.com: Do you remember just being around Mr. Cooke very much?
Popiel: No not really, the only meeting we had was the very first of the year when training camp broke. That’s the only time I had any association in the room with him when we talked briefly. When I got up in the playoffs with LA I never saw him around. We would dress and get ready for the games but that was it. As a matter of fact, I was called up in the middle of the year also for a game because someone was hurt on the blue line, and they sent me right back after the game again. So I thought that maybe they had made up their mind. I always felt strong enough and mentally tough enough. It was just about trying to fill in somewhere and show that you could play at the NHL level.
LAKings.com: You were born in Denmark. At what point did you come to North America?
Popiel: I was nine years of age when I came over in 1951 in May.
LAKings.com: During those formative years in Denmark, had you played hockey or were you familiar with it in any way?
Popiel: No not a bit. The only thing I remember is going up the street near the high school, there was a pond there, and some kid had those screw on skates where you put your boot in them. I decided to try it and I remember sliding down over a little hill into the water. I was up to my knees in it and thought it was kind of tricky. Then we made the transition to come to Toronto. I didn’t know at the time, at nine years of age, but when I moved to Georgetown, outside of Toronto, that’s where I learned to play hockey. Playing on the river, skating and getting as much hockey as I could get. Also public skating and working at the rink as a rink rat for four or five years. Bryan Lewis, the referee, was also there. We were buddies in high school. He refereed junior lacrosse also around the same time I finished junior A hockey. Bryan goes to hockey and I go to the American League, so that’s how my career got started.
LAKings.com: What happened next?
Popiel: I really thought Detroit was giving me the shot and I played really well. The next year, because I had major knee surgery, it backed me up for a while but they still kept me for the year up there even though I spent a few weeks in Cleveland. Then I get called up for the playoffs and Chicago beat us out four games straight. That was kind of a fun round. As for LA, most of the guys I played with I enjoyed playing with, but I just didn’t get a good shot at it. That kind of ticked me off to this day. I felt like I was a qualified player at that particular point. Otherwise I wouldn’t be traded or drafted again by Vancouver. In Vancouver it started off the same way. They said ‘your size is against you’ and this and that. I played fairly well for a guy who has never played left wing in the NHL. I played there up until January and I had 10 goals, go figure. I scored 10 goals, so I don’t know what’s going on. This is just an opinion from my end.
LAKings.com: What was it like to be a part of an expansion team?
Popiel: I felt great about it but I just did not get a real shot at it. I felt I was qualified but there was the conflict of interest between Kelly, the coach, and Regan, the GM. I don’t think Kelly cared much about what I did. I went through a transition in training camp to start off and I had a pretty decent shot when I was in the minors at Hershey. I had a small blade on my stick and I couldn’t trap or carry the puck very well during training camp so that over saw everything that was going on with Red I guess. We never really had a discussion or sat down and talked like the guys do today, and next thing you know I was out the door. I can remember one incident when we had an exhibition game against Minnesota, in Winnipeg, and I sat the first period. Red wouldn’t play me. Then finally he decided to ‘put the kid out there’ and I end up getting four minors and a major because I was so ticked off for sitting on the bench. I wanted a shot at it and I was getting ready to sign a two-year-contract with Regan, but Kelly didn’t like it so he brings in the big guys -- I think I was drafted seventh. As it turned out, he wanted the better guys but as far as I can remember, the only guy that moved the puck was Bill White. And I thought I was pretty efficient at moving the biscuit but that didn’t mean a thing to him. Then I got sent back to Springfield and I have my year down there. We got knocked out of the playoffs, but as we get knocked out, I get the call up for the game against Minnesota in the playoffs. I remember the few games up there. We had a 3-2 lead, they end up winning the sixth game. So we go back to LA and they decide to put Terry Sawchuk in. I thought that he was the guy and has all this experience, so we should win the seventh game. We got blown out 9-5. Little did I know at the time, my son brought this up, I actually scored my first NHL goal in a semi-final Stanley Cup game. Go figure. It was a neat experience as it turned out. The second year I go back to training camp to play with them again and it was the same situation. Coach wasn’t too happy and I don’t know that the deal was, but I lasted about a month in Springfield. Then as you know I was traded one for one to Detroit.
LAKings.com: Did the LA Kings feel odd to you in any way being so far from Toronto?
Popiel: Not really, I felt fairly comfortable at the particular point in time. I spoke the language well and I was acclimated to the whole thing. The transition was wanting to play sports and I was very efficient at it. I ended up playing junior A lacrosse also, so it all fell in to place with getting adjusted to the culture and the people around you. I always had a good rapport with the teams I played on. It just felt right for me and being traded to LA, I thought ‘man this is going to be a good start.’ I was really looking forward to it but then the other side of it happened. I enjoyed it all. It’s just the transition of the whole thing. When you get in to hockey, it’s not as easy as it looks. A lot of kids don’t have that mental ability. For some reason, through my mom and dad, maybe my mother I guess, the mental toughness appeared and it just stayed with me. She always had this thought -- you can’t just stand around and you’ve got to go work somewhere. That was my kind of treadmill, to work and just put my head and brawn to it and hopefully something comes out of this thing. And I was fortunate to play 17 years professionally.
LAKings.com: For your 10 games you played at the NHL level with the Oilers was when Wayne Gretzky was breaking in. What do you remember about those days?
Popiel: He was different as far as players on the ice go today. When you play alongside the greats of Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and others, you learn a lot from watching them. My introduction to young Wayne came because I had two younger brothers who I thought were qualified to play pro level but didn’t get the shot at it -- they were playing in a junior B league in Toronto. I could remember coming in early and I see the kids before they play the game. One of my brothers told me ‘you have to watch this Wayne Gretzky on the ice’ he said. ‘He gets points and you may not see him on the ice but just pay attention to him.’ Well I watched the whole game and told the kids after I really wasn’t impressed at the time but asked how many points he got. Well he had three points that game so I guess I didn’t know how to scout. It turned out that when we went to Edmonton, I just got back from Innsbruck as a player coach there, so I decide to pop myself in to the community in Houston when the Apollos gave me a shot at playing. That team was the farm team for the Edmonton Oilers and so I got the call to go up to training camp with them up there. I had a great time doing it and spent the whole three weeks there in training camp. I was at 36 or 37 at that time and I think there were only two guys that were 30. The Oilers were very young. When I got called up for the 10 games I felt very comfortable being out of the NHL since ‘82. I remember practices with Wayne. He was a very smart puck handler and I can remember heading down three on ones, three one twos and two on ones with him. And with the experience I used to play it to a point where I could practice passes. He was pretty clever. He would get a little wider. He would stay a little further away from me so he tried to draw me to the wall and then would pass the puck above the stick.
LAKings.com: How did you do?
Popiel: I was fortunate enough that I could catch some of those passes, but he got wider and deeper in the corner and then it becomes a chess match. You wait and wait. Are you going to make the pass or come in? And I learned over the years playing defense that you don’t move when you have experience, you stay there and wait for the pass or play to come to the ice. And if you learn anything about defensemen, they’re supposed to be taught that the goal post on the ice is the track that he stays on from end to end. You don’t get stuck in the corner because the guy coming in can play the puck real well. And that’s how Wayne was. He would draw guys in around or behind the net and make his plays. He was a magician at it. I learned early that I was very fortunate to have that opportunity to play with him and see what he really did. He was clever and a very good hockey player.
LAKings.com: You eventually turned to coaching. Can you fast forward and update Kings fans on what you’ve done since you stopped playing and coaching.
Popiel: Over the years I got out and decided to work for an airline briefly in Houston, and my in-laws lived in St. Louis area, so I decided to move closer to home. My mom was still living in Toronto and her parents were up in this area, so I thought I’d come back up here closer to hockey. We had sold as a hockey club in Houston. I was prepared be a season ticket holder but they were not accepting at that point in time. So I decided to come back to St. Louis and immerse myself in a regular job like normal people do, which has been a transition itself. Then I started coaching. I know all sports well.
LAKings.com: Have you had a particular focus?
Popiel: I decided to work with the kids here. They have minor league hockey here up to age 15 or 16. So I coached that for six years and then proceeded to coach six years of high school hockey. Part of the reason I did that is my son was starting to elevate himself and become a decent player and made the high school all star team here in St. Louis. Later on I went in to a corporation making medical instruments and I’ve worked for them for 15 years. It’s worked out real well for me up to this point in time.