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Catching Up With A Legend, Mike Donnelly

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

To hear Mike Donnelly recall the play that broke a 3-3 deadlock late in the third period in Game 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Final is to hear the recollection of a goal that for 37 seconds stood as the most important goal in the history of the franchise.

“I think I knocked Marty [McSorley] right over, I jumped so hard into his arms,” Donnelly said.

Well before there was 2014 Kings-Blackhawks, there was 1993 Kings-Maple Leafs. It is difficult to reference one playoff series without the context of the other. One series featured breathtaking end-to-end overtime action, the other featured Wayne Gretzky well aware that Toronto media had tugged on his cape. And while Gretzky potted a crucially important insurance goal shortly after Donnelly’s in the Kings’ 5-4 road win, the tiebreaking goal, which came when Donnelly buried a loose Alex Zhitnik attempt towards the net that had deflected off both Bob Rouse and Sylvain Lefebvre and directly into the stride of the 29-year-old Michigander, punctuated, as Lisa Dillman of the LA Times wrote that night, “an era spanning 17 coaches, five general managers, three owners and the single biggest trade in hockey history.

“I remember the whole play,” Donnelly recalled. “It was a quick turnover, and we jumped in the play. For a split second, we had a three-on-two. I don’t know if Alex saw me, but it looked like he was trying to get the puck to the net or to Tony going to the net, and it hit a skate and it deflected right on my blade, and I had half a net to shoot in. I wasn’t making a mistake there, I was burying it. It was on and off my stick so fast, but it was just a quick chance. And that’s the thing back then – there was so much skill on the ice, there were a lot of chances. It was fun. It was wide open, but it was physical. There was tight checking at times, but there were chances out there. For sure it was a lucky bounce on the way that the puck came to my stick. I have a big smile on my face when I think about that play. It was awesome.”

On Tuesday night, Mike Donnelly will be honored with a Legends Night at Staples Center. It will be a special night as he takes the ice with his family, which includes his three daughters, who never saw him play.

On some Legends Nights, the Kings honor those who, in the cases of Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake, Bob Pulford and Nick Nickson, are Hockey Hall of Fame inductees. And in other Legends Nights, such as the presentation three seasons ago honoring Ian Laperriere, role players earn a nod. Donnelly, who owned one of the best pure bursts of speed in the history of the team and scored 87 goals in 307 games with the Kings – including an impressive 28 at even strength in 1991-92 – used his natural ability highlighted by an NCAA-record 59-goal season with Michigan State in 1985-86 to build chemistry with Corey Millen and Tony Granato, who were also able to provide offense, fill a role, and operate at a high speed with Wayne Gretzky injured for roughly half of the 1992-93 season.

“I think it was a progression for me, just getting a little bit more ice time, getting acclimated to my teammates and having a specific role,” Donnelly recalled. “In each year it seemed like I was getting more ice time, and I remember it was like yesterday and we were in San Antonio, and there was an exhibition game, and we had a meeting, and Barry comes in and he goes, ‘Gretz is going to be out for a good part of the year.’ It was a big blow to the team, because we had a lot of depth and we were excited about the year, and we found out Gretz was out, and he had to make some changes to our lineup.”

“I think what happened with our line, with me, Corey and Tony, we were put into a role where we were kind of like a second line, so we got some PP time. That was new for me, because I never really got to be on the power play very often, and I understood with the amount of talent on our team, I understood. But what happened was, I saw our role increase as a line, and we had more ice time, and they slotted Jari [Kurri] into the first line, and he played center with Luc and Tomas Sandstrom, and then we kind of molded into a second line. Barry [Melrose], he came to us and said it was time for us to produce more. I think everybody, if you look at the forwards, as soon as you saw that Gretz was going to be out for a while, everyone took it on their own that we had to be a lot better. We didn’t have the best player in the world to rely on anymore in our lineup.”

Recently, Donnelly spoke about his playing and instructing tenure with the Kings, and how he has used his own background to help young prospects in the organization in a developmental role.

LA Kings Insider: What was the energy like inside Maple Leaf Gardens in 1993?

Mike Donnelly: That series, I know it’s on classic ESPN all the time, it was truly, with the back and forth and the momentum swings with both teams – Marty fighting Wendel Clark early in the series, Gretz taking a lot of heat in the Toronto papers, saying that he looks slow and he looked like he wasn’t the same guy, before Game 7. It’s very interesting – I’ll never forget this at the morning skate. Tony Granato goes, ‘Mel, did you read the paper?’ I go, ‘no, I didn’t read it.’ They were saying some negative things about Gretzky. He goes, ‘we’re going to win for sure now.’ The series was unbelievable, I mean back and forth. The coaches were barking at each other, there was a lot of emotion out there. I remember the first shift of the game, the puck got dumped into [Jamie] Macoun’s corner, and I wanted to run him through the glass because he had just been giving it to us the whole series, so I tried to hit him so hard that I accidentally hit Tony, and I split him open. Like, right underneath his nose I split him open for like 12 stitches. It was an accident, but I tried to run Macoun so hard that I accidentally hit Tony, and we got back to the bench and I just looked at him, and it was such a bad cut, and I’m like, ‘Tony, I’m so sorry I did that.’ He goes, ‘you didn’t do it!’ He was so driven, he wouldn’t even accept my apology. He just said, ‘you did not do it.’ And I know I did it. The series was just so emotional, and it was just so hard fought, and it was just battle after battle. We put everything we had out on the table, and we were fortunate to get through that series and win. It was unbelievable. … Like, if you’re going off Game 7, you could just feel the history when you stepped on the ice for Game 7. It was like, ‘wow, this building is so unbelievable, and we’re playing a huge game,’ and all the history in that building, it was unbelievable. It was a classic, for sure, and the whole series, and being in Toronto and Maple Leaf Gardens, as a kid watching Hockey Night in Canada, it was unbelievable, and that’s the only way I can describe it. Our team was resilient, and we had a lot of character in that room, and I think that made a big difference for us pulling through.

LAKI: How did you learn to really cultivate your speed as an advantage you had over other players at the NHL level?

MD: That’s a good question. I guess I had a gift of skating, so skating was always kind of easy to me. But I think once I started training in college and then after college started really taking the weightlifting seriously, it really made a difference in my skating. My legs felt a lot stronger. My first three steps were really fast, and once I started training, it even became faster. Ever since I was a kid, I was always an offensive guy. I was always able to score – scoring, I don’t know if it came easy to me, but I was always driven to score at a young age, and in college, still holding the record for most goals in one season at State, in the NCAA. When I look back at my career, it was just a struggle finding a role. ‘Was I good enough to be a defensive guy,’ or ‘was I good enough to be an offensive guy?,’ so I was kind of teetering back and forth. ‘Was I good enough to be in the top-six, or was I a third-line guy?’ When I broke in with the Kings, I was a checker. I played with Stevie Kasper, and I think Bobby Kudelski was on the right side when I first broke in with the Kings on a checking line. My speed was an asset, I could say that.

LAKI: In instructing and working with Kings prospects, do you often refer back to your own background to provide context, most specifically in crafting and developing your own role to cultivate professional success?

MD: Yeah, I do, I totally do, and I look at a couple different things. One would be, I look back at how I played in the American League for over 200 games, so I think that’s key, that I understand because I played in the American League, I know what it’s like to be down there, I know what it’s like to not achieve your goals and keep working. I think that’s the coaching part with me – I had a lot of struggles to try to make it to the NHL, and I think it’s made me a better teacher, made me better at development, because I understand what it’s like for guys to play in the American League. I rode the buses, and I had done all that, and I think it’s helped me become a better instructor and teacher. I take my experiences – good and bad – and try to help our kids get there quicker and be better, and even the guys we work with that have made it, to keep working with them. Don’t be satisfied if you’re in the four-role, or in the fourth line, or in and out of the lineup. We want those kids to climb up to another level – the Jordan Nolans and the Shores on the Kings. We want those guys to keep improving, and that’s one thing that I look back on in my career. Every summer I worked on my game, and it wasn’t just going for a skate. I did specific training to try to get better, and that’s what we bring to the table today with the Kings. We have a lot of experience with our development team, and it’s an awesome job, and it’s an exciting group to work with. … With the Kings winning the two Cups, we’ve solidified ourselves in the NHL as a legitimate organization, and I’m just so fortunate I’m part of the history and I get to still work with the team. I’m pretty lucky. The whole thing about this, my daughters never saw me play, so for them to on the ice with me on Tuesday night, that’s a home run for me. The way I look at it, I don’t know if it’s an ending. It’s definitely a great event for me, and it just means so much for me and my family.

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