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50 Forgotten Stories: The Battle for Red Kelly

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

In honor of the franchise's 50th anniversary, this is the second in a series of 50 forgotten Kings stories. Going beyond the classic, well-worn tales, this series is for the die-hard fans…who thought they knew everything about their favorite team. 

The "Battle" for Red Kelly

Three months before the Los Angeles Kings' debut season began, Jack Kent Cooke declared his expansion team had already all but won the Western Division.

What made LA's owner so cocky? He had just purchased every player from the Springfield Indians, thought to be the American Hockey League's most-talented squad, to supplement his coming Expansion Draft haul.

"There are 15 players on the Springfield roster who either have an excellent chance to play in the NHL or unquestionably will play in the NHL," Cooke crowed. "My stenographer could run this club and win with it." (Maher, Charles. "Cooke Buys Springfield Team, Claims Title for Kings." Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1967.)

 

This braggadocio would be put to the test the very next day at the Expansion Draft. But instead of a stenographer, Cooke had penciled in the Maple Leafs' "Red" Kelly as the Kings' inaugural head coach. That is, until Toronto General Manager "Punch" Imlach erased the boisterous owner's plans.

In this Draft, when an established team lost a player to an expansion club, they were allowed to add an initially exposed skater back to their protected list. Kelly had not turned in his retirement papers on time, so he was still considered a Maple Leafs player. Cooke and Kelly were under the impression that Toronto would leave the veteran exposed for the entire Draft so Los Angeles could select him with their final pick.

But in the 10th round, the Maple Leafs put Kelly back on their protected list. "We're going to get something for him," asserted Imlach. "Or he doesn't go. We're not going to let him go for a peanut butter sandwich. If they offer nothing, they'll get nothing." (Maher, Charles. "Kings Lose 'Coach'; Kelly Withdrawn from Draft." Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1967.)

 

Imlach's asking price? The Kings' top expansion selection, Terry Sawchuk. Cooke had been robbed of his coach, and now, "Punch" was trying to hold him up for his starting goalie, who not so coincidentally had led Toronto to the 1967 Stanley Cup. Kelly was originally supposed to be LA's 18th-round pick.

The Kings were this close to having Jack Kent Cooke's stenographer as their very first head coach. Luckily, Imlach relented a couple days later, accepting Los Angeles's 15th-round pick Ken Block in exchange for Kelly.

To this day, the Hall of Fame center-defenseman isn't sure why the Maple Leafs GM held onto him so fiercely, "[Punch] had always lived up to his word with me. I thought he wouldn't do anything. I think he decided at the last minute to play a little trick on Jack Kent Cooke.

"Because of Jack Kent Cooke's reputation and everything...Punch figured he'd pull one on him, I guess."

As it turns out though, Cooke was almost right about his Kings (and Indians), as Springfield blue liners Bill White and Dale Rolfe helped drive Los Angeles within a point of the Western Division crown.

"We should've had first place," lamented Kelly a half-century later. "A referee called a goal back in the last few minutes of play up in Oakland. We tied the game instead of winning it."

 

Who Is Yasushin Tanaka?

Would you believe the biggest surprise of the Kings' very first training camp was Japanese forward Yasushin Tanaka?

"He's had more scoring chances than anybody and he's always in position around the net," observed Los Angeles General Manager Larry Regan. ("Leafs' Revolt Appears Ended." The Ottawa Journal, September 13, 1967.)

The 21-year-old, the first to be dispatched from Japan to pick up the finer points of North American hockey, impressed both Regan and Kelly with his skating and stickhandling. But the GM cautioned, "He hasn't hit anybody, but that aspect of the game is all new to him."

Tanaka wouldn't be long for LA's training camp, but a season later, he was still skating in North America, this time for the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks. "I'd really like to stay here another five years or more." (Hovelson, Jack. "Waterloo: Where East Meets West." Des Moines Register, January 19, 1969.)

There's no record, however, of Tanaka playing in North America beyond 1968-69. But he would represent Team Japan in both the 1972 and 1976 Winter Olympics, before retiring to manage a golf course in Hawaii.

 

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

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