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50 Forgotten Stories: Wing Instead of King?

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

"Don't hold your breath waiting for Edmonton to trade the rights to Wayne Gretzky's former Oiler linemate, Jari Kurri, to the Kings," cautioned Los Angeles Times columnist Allan Malamud in early May 1991.

Indeed, many believed that the Oilers would never again trade a superstar to the Kings -- not after sending Gretzky south to Los Angeles resulted in a national day of mourning in Canada.

"We were the last club [general manager Glen Sather] wanted to send Jari to," said LA general manager Rogie Vachon to the Times' Steve Springer.

Kurri, however, forced Sather's hand: The Edmonton property, who had played the previous season in Italy, threatened to return to HC Devils Milano for another year if he wasn't moved by May 31st. He also made it clear that a reunion with Gretzky was his top priority.

Sather conceded, "The only thing I could do was not trade him." But he didn't want to lose the seven-time 40-goal scorer, also considered to be among the best two-way forwards in the game, for nothing once again.

So an hour before the right winger's deadline, Sather traded his rights, along with Dave Brown and Corey Foster to Philadelphia for Craig Fisher, Scott Mellanby, and Craig Berube. The Flyers then re-routed the 31-year-old, along with Jeff Chychrun, for Steve Duchesne, Steve Kasper, and LA's 1991 fourth-round draft pick.

Kurri, however, almost became a Red Wing.

Before the trade, the Kings were allowed to negotiate a new contract with him. They agreed to a four-year, 3.75 million dollar pact.

But according to Sather, the "Wings offered more money than Los Angeles."

The Red Wings also refused to facilitate a three-team swap -- despite the possibility that Kurri might choose to return to Italy instead of play for Detroit.

"Fortunately for us," said Vachon, "[Sather] liked Philadelphia's offer better than Detroit's."

Today, Kurri admits that he would've worn the Winged Wheel, his desire to re-join Gretzky withstanding.

"When I left for Europe, I knew it had to be for one year. If I was longer than one year, I might have retired there. If I wanted to play high-level hockey, I had to come back to the NHL."

 

 

As for Vachon, he recalls that the dealing didn't end with just the Flyers.

"We had to pay a fee to get him out of Italy. He was under contract with [Milano].

"It was like a transfer fee. Like they do in soccer.

"If I remember correctly, the fee was $50,000."

The recent Hall of Fame inductee also confirms Sather's claim that the Kings offered their 1992 first-round draft pick and either Todd Elik or Bob Kudelski for the Finn's rights.

"I didn't want the draft choice, because I don't know how good it would be with Kurri there next season," observed Sather. "If they had given me both players, I'd have taken it." (Luecking, Dave. "Millen, Cut by 'Hawks, Looks for Job." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 2, 1991.)

 

Center of Attention

This is Kurri's proudest moment as a King, besides making the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals.

Of course, fans will always remember the revived Gretzky's 40 points in 24 games during that playoff run.

But another early-season revival was almost as important -- Kurri's 51 points in the first 31 games of 1992-93.

The right winger, who had struggled the previous year in his Hollywood debut, reported to this training camp fit as a fiddle. However, Gretzky didn't, as he was sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc.

Los Angeles had no obvious fill-in at center for "The Great One." They tried Tony Granato up the middle first. Then coach Barry Melrose turned to Gretzky's "right hand man" Kurri. That is, after Melrose's own right hand man, assistant coach Cap Raeder, saw the Finn win some faceoffs during practice:

"Cap came to me and said, 'Hey, Barry, let's try this guy.'

Melrose gushed to the Times' Lisa Dillman, "[Jari] had never played center. I asked him and right away he said, 'I'll try.' Most guys would have said, 'Get out of here, you're out of your mind.' "

However, not everybody took this experiment as seriously. Mark Messier couldn't help but laugh when his former teammate approached him at the faceoff dot during an exhibition game, howling, "Jari, you're no center!"

Nobody was laughing after the squad's Gretzky-less 20-8-3 start, spearheaded by Kurri's 51 points.

 

 

"I needed to have a good start to put everything behind me," declared Kurri, who also scored his 500th goal that October, the first European-trained skater to achieve that feat.

"There were those people who counted me out. Stuff went on. Personally, I wanted to prove I could still play this high level of hockey.

"It feels good."

For the typically quiet Finn, this counted as bragging. Not surprisingly, the boisterous Melrose turned it up a notch:

"I think he's more important to the L.A. Kings than Mario [Lemieux] is to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The way he plays, he kills penalties, he plays the power play. He takes all the big draws. He plays head to head against all the big lines.

"I wouldn't want to lose Jari Kurri. I think Pittsburgh would be better off without (Lemieux) than we would without Jari."

While the November Player of the Month couldn't maintain this torrid scoring pace for his entire comeback campaign, imagine where the Kings -- who played well under .500 hockey for the rest of season - would've finished without Kurri carrying them in Gretzky's absence?

These days, Kurri still isn't sure why he took so well to center. Remarkably, he doesn't remember playing the position seriously before then, expect for a few months in Milan.

"The hockey kind of changes for you when you play center ice: You have the puck all the time. You feel good when you have the puck all the time.

"Center has more responsibility in your own end," he notes, "but I did that [before at wing] anyway...playing both ends of hockey."

But after crediting linemates Luc Robitaille and Tomas Sandstrom for much of his success that season, Kurri admits, "I was definitely at the top of my game at the time there."

 

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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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