His journey to the NHL wasn’t an easy one either. Originally drafted by the Islanders in 1992, he only played parts of two seasons there before signing with the Ottawa Senators as a free agent in 1997. The following summer he hooked up with the New York Rangers, hoping that would be his ticket back to the NHL, only to see his dreams dashed again.
In 2001 he bolted to Europe, in what he calls one of the toughest decisions of his life.
“I led the AHL in scoring but kinda got stuck on the Rangers farm team,” said Derek Armstrong. “I wanted to take a shot because I always believed in my heart I could be a regular NHL player. I just didn’t get the chance, so I took off for Europe and gave it a go over there.”
Lucky for him, while he was there Armstrong caught the eye of former Kings coach Andy Murray.
“Andy used to coach over in the Swiss League. So, he had scouted the area. He must have tracked me down and made the recommendation to the Kings.”
The teams Armstrong played for in LA could be referred to as some of the lean years. They didn’t have a roster full of big names like they have now.
“It was a process,” said the Ottawa native. “Hopefully, I helped create an identity around here where guys came to work everyday. There were some tough years, but that’s what I tried to pride myself in. I enjoyed every minute of it too.”
Off the ice, Armstrong recalls fondly several fun things he was asked to be part of while with the Kings, like going on the Carson Daly show, the Price is Right and even throwing out the first pitch at a Dodgers game.
“I got to do some cool stuff,” Armstrong said while reminiscing. “But, watching kids like (Dustin) Brown and (Anze) Kopitar and those guys grow up – I knew them as kids when they were 18, 19, 20 years old. They’ve sure come a long way as pros. They’re all dynamite hockey players. But, they’re also good human beings and I think that’s the most important thing and why they had such a good run in the playoffs.”
Having played 477 regular season games without a single trip to the playoffs though is still something that eats away at Armstrong.
“That was definitely tough,” he admitted. “There were a couple of times when I was with the Kings and I might have had an opportunity to go somewhere else at the deadline. But, I chose to stay. I sacrificed a little bit. But, I don’t regret my decision. Obviously, you want to play in Stanley Cup playoff games. But, it didn’t work out in my career. Obviously, you think about that. But it wasn’t in the cards.”
Regardless of the outcome, the 39-year old former center knows he left it all on the ice.
“I just came out every day and tried to work as hard as I could. I wasn’t the highest skilled player or the fastest player. But, it’s a lesson for all people to learn. If you dream, try to dream big and put as much work into it as you can.”
Earlier this summer, Armstrong watched the Kings slice their way through the Stanley Cup playoffs with a definite rooting interest.
“I watched their games every night during the playoffs,” he said with a big smile. “I’d sit in my basement with my Kings jersey on and watch the games. My wife thought I was a little bit nuts. But, I was proud of those guys. They did something really special here. And they won the Cup as a team, that was the best part of it. You could just tell they were a close knit team and they all get along. They looked like they were never going to lose in the playoffs. They just had that swaggar. They were so well coached and everyone bought into their roles and there was no complaining. That’s what makes great team and that’s why they ended up winning the Cup.”
With his playing days clearly behind him, Armstong has now turned his attention to coaching. Beginning this season, he’ll be behind the bench for a new CHL team – the Denver Cutthroats.
“I retired two years ago and I was coaching a junior team in Boulder (Colorado). Our owner John Hayes lived up there and his dream was to own a professional hockey team. So, he approched us about starting up a hockey team and we have an affiliation with the Avalanche. We’re also going to do a lot with the youth hockey in Colorado. That’s one of our owners’ big things, to give back to the game of hockey.”
Just like his playing days, Armstrong promises to give it 100% and just see where it takes him. But, truth be told, he already has his eyes set on something down the line.
“I want to get back to the NHL eventually,” he said. “It’s definitly my dream to come back here and win a Stanley Cup. I didn’t get to do it as a player. So, I’d like to do it as a coach.”
We wrapped up our interview with a MayorsManor favorite, a little game of Word Assocation…
Ziggy Palffy – Highly skilled
Eric Belanger – Fast skater
Alexander Frolov – Best cornerman I ever played with.
Jason Allison – Not the greatest skater, but boy could he pass.
Adam Deadmarsh – Blood and sweat
Ian Laperriere – As character as they get.
Anze Kopitar – Smooth to watch.
Andy Murray – Demanding, but he was a good coach for me.
Dave Taylor – Amazing hockey player and I liked him as a GM. He built the foundation here in LA.
Mike Cammalleri – Best one-timer since Hull and Robitaille.
Mattias Norstrom – Heart and soul guy.
Felix Potvin – Unorthodox style, but an amazing man. I learned a lot from the Cat.
With a smile on his face and perhaps a glow in his heart, Armstrong summed things up this way, “The Kings were always good to me and I’ll be a King at heart for the rest of my life.”
Interview with Andy Murray – includes Word Association
Interview with Eric Belanger – what it meant to play in LA
Interview with Ian Laperriere - honest comments about his feelings for former teammates