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NHL Centennial

Rutledge outplayed Sawchuk with expansion Kings

Rookie goaltender overshadowed future Hall of Famer in 1967-68

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

He was the "other" original goaltender for the Los Angeles Kings, plucked from the New York Rangers in the 1967 NHL Expansion Draft.

Wayne Rutledge was far lesser known than Terry Sawchuk, the No. 1 pick in that draft and the Kings' first player. Sawchuk, who with fellow veteran Johnny Bower had just helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to a stunning Stanley Cup victory against the Montreal Canadiens, went west as a four-time Cup winner with 100 shutouts (then a League record).

Rutledge, a native of Barrie, Ontario, who turned 26 during that first 1967-68 season, surprisingly would be more efficient in Los Angeles than the 38-year-old Sawchuk. He played 45 games to the future Hall of Famer's 36 and had a better goals-against average, 2.87 to 3.07.

Sawchuk had played 18 NHL seasons before landing with the Kings. Rutledge arrived in Los Angeles as a rookie, having played eight years of junior, senior and minor pro hockey.

He'd begun in juniors with Barrie, a Boston Bruins development squad, moved with the relocated team to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and then headed to Windsor, where he won the senior-league Allan Cup in 1963-64 en route to earning a pro contract with the Rangers and three stops in the minor pro Central Professional Hockey League: St. Paul, Minnesota and Omaha.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal on June 6, 1967, Rutledge, a giant of the day at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, was claimed by the Kings as Sawchuk's backup. He hadn't even signed a contract with Los Angeles when the Kings broke training camp in Guelph, Ontario; Rutledge was holding out for a $12,000 salary.

In David Dupuis' 1998 book, "Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World's Greatest Goalie," Rutledge recalled an expansion team that was a mess before its first faceoff.

"We practiced on an ice pad in Burbank, north of L.A., and in Long Beach," he said. "We were 20 guys in five cars and nobody knew where the [heck] we were going. The dressing rooms were like large washrooms with no seats. Between practices, the trainers had to dry our equipment on the patio in the sun. We often practiced in still-wet equipment. It was all very poorly organized."

Flamboyant owner Jack Kent Cooke's plan was for Sawchuk to lead the newest item in his toy box to the Stanley Cup. What Cooke hadn't planned on was for his aging goalie to show up at his Bel Air, California, mansion a few nights before the Oct. 14 season opener with one arm in a sling, his right elbow having been drilled by a shot in the final practice.

"You got 'em now, kid. They have to sign you now," Sawchuk told Rutledge within earshot of a stunned Cooke, everyone knowing full well that general manager Larry Regan hadn't come to terms with the backup.

Rutledge promptly signed for his $12,000, hours before helping the Kings win their first game 4-2 against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Long Beach Arena, one of two buildings they used as their home rink until the Forum opened Dec. 30.

He and the Kings defeated the Minnesota North Stars 5-3 the next night, then tied the Oakland Seals and St. Louis Blues on the road. Sawchuk finally made his Kings debut in their fifth game, a 5-3 road win against the Chicago Black Hawks (then two words), before absorbing Los Angeles' first loss, 4-2 at Toronto.

Video: Terry Sawchuk was four-time Vezina-winning goalie

Rutledge was back in goal on Oct. 26 and lost for the first time, 2-0 at Boston. Still, he was 2-1-2 in five appearances, with Sawchuk 1-1-0 in the other two games. 

"I don't know what it was," Rutledge said, quoted in Dupuis' book. "But the guys seemed to try harder when I was in net. I don't know if they relaxed in games with Terry behind them because they figured, 'Ah, we've got the best in net. If we [mess] up, he'll stop them,' or if the guys figured I needed more protection. But that seemed to be an early pattern."

Sawchuk started to break down physically midway through the season, suffering hamstring and eye injuries, among others. That he refused to wear decent equipment didn't help; he chose to stick with the flimsy gear he had worn to threads with the Detroit Red Wings.

Wearing no mask and contact lenses that he ground himself, Rutledge took on more work, appearing in nine more games than the legend he was signed to apprentice with, getting two shutouts, against the Blues and the Maple Leafs. He was on the bench for the Kings' ouster from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, begging coach Red Kelly in vain to relieve Sawchuk as the North Stars scored five goals on the veteran in eight minutes during a 9-4 home loss in Game 7 of the Quarterfinals.

With Sawchuk traded to Detroit on Oct. 10, 1968, Rutledge played two more seasons for the Kings, on decreasingly talented teams. He appeared in 17 games his second season, with Gerry Desjardins clearly No. 1, and 20 games in 1969-70, splitting the backup job with Denis DeJordy.

Rutledge slipped into the minors with Denver and Salt Lake of the Western Hockey League before joining the fledgling World Hockey Association, where he played six seasons for Houston. He won the Avco Cup with Houston in 1974, his first title since the Allan Cup.

Retirement took Rutledge to Huntsville, Ontario, north of Toronto, where he raised horses and went to work as a glazier at a glass company.

Sadly, neither he nor Sawchuk was alive in 2012 to see the Kings win the first of their two Stanley Cup championships (they won again in 2014). Sawchuk died in 1970 at age 40, of a bleeding liver and blood clots; Rutledge was 62 when he died of stomach cancer in 2004.

In 2000, Rutledge was inducted into the Barrie Sports Hall of Fame. He loved the painting that was commissioned for his hometown shrine to mark his career.

Rutledge was celebrated that night, and continues to be today in his hometown, as the goalie for Barrie in 1959-60, a charter member of the Kings and a goaltender who seized the opportunity whenever one came his way, even for a time overshadowing the great Terry Sawchuk.

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