Goaltending has historically been one of the weakest parts of the Los Angeles Kings. Current GM, Dean Lombardi, has often talked about the need to build a team from the net out. Hence, the organization’s current focus on developing goaltenders.
After Rogie Vachon left the team in ’78 it’s been a revolving door of netminders for most of the past 30 years, with a few exceptions. Since the Gretzky trade in ’88, Kelly Hrudey has been one of the lone bright spots in the crease. He’s the guy who fans point to when asked about the last time the Kings had a great goalie.
Hrudey played in LA for eight years, including a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993. These days he keeps up with the NHL through his work at the CBC in Canada. We sat down with him recently to look back at his career and a few other hockey related topics…
You grew up in Edmonton and the Oilers came to town as part of the WHA when you were fairly young. Was that your team growing up?
I certainly was a fan of the Oilers, but I was a die-hard fan of the Canadians and Leafs. The NHL was the real game to me. Although the WHA was important, as it allowed me to see many games in person, I thought the real stars were the guys in the NHL.
The Draft is always a special time in a player’s career. Yet, the Draft wasn’t the big deal back then that it is now. What memories do you have?
Well, we weren’t a sports family, so we didn’t know a lot about the draft. I was in my second year with Medicine Hat. I’d been told I might be drafted around the third round. Like you said, there was little fan-fare associated with the draft. If you were a first rounder, maybe you would go. But, I was home in Edmonton, playing ball hockey downstairs with my brother when Jimmy Devellano (Islanders scout) called and said I was drafted by the Islanders in the second round. I had no idea what to expect from that point forward. It was a short call, I remember that. He had other things to do. So, when we hung up I went back downstairs and finished playing ball hockey.
I was lucky enough to go to training camp the following season. I even played in an exhibition game at old Chicago Stadium. That was certainly a thrill for me at that point. But, what I remember most was the flight home. We flew commercial and I sat in the middle, between Mike Bossy and Brian Trottier. I don’t think I said one word the entire flight, I just listened.
Any other memories from that first camp?
I remember landing at LaGuardia the first time. a shuttle bus picked me up and it felt like we made 25 stops dropping other people off at their residences before I finally got to the Holiday Inn…I think it was in Hempstead. That night I was really intense, I knew I had to go take a physical for the Islanders the next day and didn’t know exactly what to expect.
I also remember thinking very early on in training camp that I had a lot of work to do to make it to the NHL. There was one play, where Tom Lysiak came down the wing and scored on me. It was so easy for him he didn’t even want to raise his hands and celebrate. It was more like he was embarrassed how easy it was. Things like that really showed me how far I had to go.
For Islander fans probably the greatest memory they have of you is the ’87 playoff game with four overtime periods. That game, the Easter Epic, has been called by some the greatest game 7 of all time. What memories do you have of that night?
Well, in the locker room between periods we were pretty loose. There wasn’t much talk about strategy. We were proud of the game we were playing and felt things were going well, even if the score was tied. We kept telling each other to relax, don’t get too excited. Be prepared for the first two minutes and the last two minutes of the period. I remember after Pat scored, I stood in the crease for what seemed like a few minutes in disbelief. I didn’t want to mentally let down for fear they might say the goal was disallowed or something. It was a good 5 seconds or so until it finally set in. Then, when I went into the dressing room – you know the goaltenders weren’t allowed to have water bottles back in ’87 – so when I took my gear off my toes just curled under from dehydration.
Any other memories of your time on the Island?
My fondest memory is probably when Bill Torrey told me I had made the NHL. When I was a kid playing ball hockey, watching Hockey Night in Canada and all the NHL games, I never would have dreamed I had what it would take to make it to the NHL.
The pivotal point in your career was the trade to LA. Can you talk about finding out you were headed to the West Coast?
Well, I have different feelings now than I did at the time, 20 years ago. I was disappointed to be traded to LA. I was like every player, I thought I was going to be drafted by a team, play there for 20 years, win championships and then retire…all with one team. Like Steve Yzerman did. It didn’t work out that way for me.
But LA was exciting. It felt more like my team. In New York I had my good friend Billy Smith. In LA I felt like it was my team though. And the city was fantastic! I feel the biggest growth period of my life were the 10 years in LA. I just loved the people. Believe it or not, it reminded me a lot of western Canada where the people are so laid back. It was a great time for me on and off the ice.
The Kings won the Smythe Division in ’91 with a very powerful team. How close was that group to going all the way?
I thought we were real close. We just didn’t know how to win. The Oilers had so much experience and they just knew how to win. Every time we ran into those guys, it just seemed like we didn’t have enough to beat them. Tom Webster coming on as our coach added a defensive element to our game. But, still, we just couldn’t beat Edmonton. I really believed if we could just beat those guys we would have won a championship. We’ll never know though.
In the first half of ’93 Wayne was hurt, yet the team played well without him…
We knew it would be a real challenge without him. You can ask players to rise up in a situation like that, but fact is you’re not as good of a team without Wayne. Everybody did pick up their game though and played to their highest level. That was very rewarding for the group. Unfortunately, soon after that was also when I went through the worst slump of my career.
You mentioned that at HockeyFest. How did you get though it?
It was late November, early December and I went on about a two month slide. It was the worst slump of my career. I made it through that dark period because of two people in my corner…and I tell them ‘thank you’ whenever I get a chance…Cap Raeder and Barry Melrose. I was able to play five more years in the league because of their support during that stretch.
Robb Stauber played pretty well that year. Was that adding pressure to what you were already going through?
Robb deserved to be in there. I remember when I knew I was going to be OK though. It was a game on January 28th. I played my best game in awhile. We lost to Calgary 2-1, but I felt like I was back. I had a few bad games down the stretch, but then there was a game where we beat Philly 3-1 in March. That’s when I knew I was going to be OK. I wasn’t 100%, but when we won I was real emotional in the locker room. I thanked all the guys for sticking with me because they could have easily given up on me.
But Robb had played so strong he deserved the action he was getting too.
When Stauber replaced you in the playoffs he won three in a row against Calgary. Did you start to worry, did it mess with your head at all after what you had been through that season?
Well we started the playoffs against Calgary. We were awesome in game one. Then, awful in game two. We lost game three, but neither team looked like world beaters. We were down 2-1 in the series. Robb played in game four and we won 2-1 to even the series. Barry stuck with Robb in games five and six; one them was like an 8-5 shootout. He won the series, so he got the start in game one against Vancouver…and rightfully so. We lost that first game. I think it was an afternoon game. Immediately following the game Barry called me into his office and told me I was going to start game two. Fortunately, we had a couple days off until game two so I had plenty of time to prepare for them.
I felt that was really when we got on track. To me that was the best series we ever played. Personally I felt that Vancouver was on the cusp of something at the time. And I guess I was right, they went to the Stanley Cup finals the next year. But at the time, that was a real test for us. The Toronto series was different. The intensity was the same, but our level of play started to drop. I think the travel was starting to get to us.
It’s easy for people to heap praise on Melrose now, but what were you thinking at the time he was announced as the new coach? Here was a team that was damn close the previous two years – including winning the Smythe – and they just hired a rookie head coach. Were you nervous about that hiring?
Well, I was established in LA by that point, so I wasn’t too worried. Of course, I wanted to make a good first impression on my new coach. But, I was lucky to have Cap Raeder. As time went on I think I endeared myself to Barry. The slump I mentioned took our relationship to the next level. I wish all players could have a guy like Barry around them. Like an Al Arbour. It’s such a good feeling when you go home after practice or a game and that’s your coach.
You’ve talked about the frank conversation Dean had with you during your time in San Jose. Talk about going to play for the Sharks.
I knew I was leaving LA that summer, but prior to July 1st I was unsure where I was going to end up. I hit it off with Dean right when I met him. I remember my agent calling me and saying the Sharks wanted to meet with me. The following Friday my wife Donna and I flew into SFO with our daughters. Dean and (assistant GM) Wayne Thomas were there at the airport when we landed. I knew at that moment I was signing with the Sharks. It was one thing that Dean was at the airport to pick us up. But more importantly, he had brought a bunch of Sharks memorabilia for my girls. To bring gifts for my kids, I knew that was the type of guy I wanted to play for.
The next day though when we actually had our meeting he asked me two questions that have always stayed with me. First question he asked was “Why do I want to sign a 35-year-old goalie who wants to be a broadcaster?” Then he asked me “Why did the Kings trade for Grant Fuhr when they had you?” They weren’t hurtful questions. He just spoke honestly and I had so much respect for him because of it.
That’s why later it didn’t bother me when he called me into his office and said, “Kelly you look scared to play.” He was right and I knew my career was about done.
Looking back on your career, you finished with 271 wins. Do you think about being so close to the magical 300 number?
No. Not at all. I don’t live that way. I did as best as I could and I loved playing the game of hockey. I wasn’t lackadaisical and got a ton out of my career. I approached every game the same way. I thought I was better than the other guy. That’s what I told myself when I looked down at the other end of the ice.
Let’s talk about the current team. Who is your favorite Kings player right now?
Dustin Brown. He’s a pure hockey player and as fierce of a competitor as you’ll ever find. Plus, I was real impressed with his speech at HockeyFest. At that age, to speak so clearly about that moment on the plane…and with no notes…very impressive.
From your perspective, who is the most underrated player in the game right now?
Duncan Keith in Chicago. Or coming into the season I might have said (Wojtek) Wolski of the Avs.
Here’s what I look for – we’re all mesmerized by talent…but, I look for elite thinkers. There are only five or six guys like this on each team. Kurri was like that on the Kings. He understood the game way more than most guys.
Then, how about when you were playing – who were some of the most underrated guys you played with?
Tim Watters, Charlie Huddy, Steve Konroyd, Pat Conacher, Todd Gill, Tony Granato. Those are guys that all competed every night and gave everything of their body. Todd Gill was a mediocre, skinny player but he was tough and communicated exceptionally well. Very underrated.
You mentioned valuing elite thinkers and then when listing underrated players most of those guys you rattled off have gone into coaching. Do you think there is a coincidence there?
Wow. I never thought about that. Hmm.
High / Low: Hrudey on Duty – get Kelly’s thoughts on the other teams in the West, plus which players he would take if starting his own NHL franchise
Interview with Robb Stauber – the man who battled Hrudey in net during the Kings ’92-93 season
Interview with Rob Blake – as he winds down his playing career, Blake stops by MayorsManor