Kilrea was once the king of Kings
The glory days have finally arrived for the Los Angeles Kings, but let’s take you all the way back to the opening game in franchise history, a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers at the Long Beach Arena on Oct. 14, 1967.
Long before the appearances of Rogie Vachon, the Triple Crown Line and the Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky eras, a 32-year-old named Brian Kilrea found himself in the right place at the right time.
Kilrea was set up by linemates Lowell MacDonald and Ted Irvin and beat Philadelphia goaltender Doug Favell to score the Kings’ first ever goal. Kilrea later added an assist and an emptynet goal to preserve the franchise’s first win, cementing his place in the colourful (the original squad sported those gaudy purple and yellow uniforms) history of the organization.
“Sure, it brings back memories,” Kilrea said Wednesday from his Ottawa 67’s office, where his tenure as coach and/or general manager lasted 33 years before his retirement as GM last year. “It’s the one record that Wayne Gretzky couldn’t break.”
Self-deprecating humour aside, Kilrea was a playmaking American Hockey League centre who had paid his dues and deserved his shot in the big leagues when the National Hockey League expanded to 12 teams from six in 1967.
After playing a single game with the Detroit Red Wings in 1957, Kilrea spent a decade in hockey’s minor leagues before finally returning to the big league with the Kings. From 1959-60 through 196667, Kilrea scored 162 goals and 417 assists in 552 games for the legendary Springfield Indians, where he also played a pivotal role in improving playing conditions under Eddie Shore and the evolution of the NHL Players’ Association.
Kilrea was one of countless former Springfield players who made the jump to the NHL with the Kings in 1967.
Naturally, the puck from that first goal takes centre stage on the mantle in his basement in Ottawa South, right? Guess again.
“I never realized how big it was at the time, the first goal for the franchise,” he says. “The trainer gave me the puck, but, after the game, (Kings owner) Jack Kent Cooke was going around, congratulating everybody on the win. I waited around and gave the puck to him and said, ‘I think the puck means more to you than me.’ You would have thought I gave him a ruby, he was so thrilled.
“But I have no idea where that puck is today. (Cooke) brought hockey to the West Coast. He tried to do everything for the players. At the time, getting the first goal wasn’t as important as getting the win.”
Kilrea led the NHL in scoring during the opening week of the season and ended up with three goals and five assists in 25 games with the Kings. Yet it wasn’t La-La Land for him. Kilrea felt lost amid the heat and hustle of big-city California life. The roads, he says, “went everywhere and anywhere, and I was just this little guy from Ottawa.” His parents also had health issues back here and he wanted to be closer to home.
Then a bizarre thing happened: He asked to be shipped back to the minors, which also meant a drop in salary to $9,500 from $16,500.
“I think I was the first guy to ask to be sent from Los Angeles to Springfield,” said Kilrea, now 77. “It was just too hot. You would see guys coming to the rink with shorts on. It just wasn’t a hockey atmosphere for me. I had trouble with the heat. Sure, it was a pay cut, but I never played for money. I certainly never made big money playing for Eddie Shore. I knew they weren’t going to build around a 32-year-old.”
Kilrea played another two minor-league seasons before returning to Ottawa, where he fell into coaching.
He went on to make a lasting impression on two generations of teenaged players with the 67’s, earning his spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.
There are no regrets about his NHL days. Except, maybe, for the Kings colour scheme.
“It was different,” Kilrea said. “But that was one of (Cooke’s) ideas, to be distinctive. It wasn’t purple; he called it ‘Royal Blue.’ I don’t know about some of the other (sweaters) … the yellow, or I guess they would have called it gold.”
Leaping ahead 45 years, Kilrea is impressed by what the underdog Kings have accomplished, and he’s a fan of coach Darryl Sutter. Just the same, he’s not impressed with the overall NHL emphasis on defence at all costs. He yawned earlier in the postseason as the New York Rangers employed a passive style that relied on shot blocking to defeat the Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals.
“I try to stay up at least for the first period and watch Don Cherry,” he said. “The games are not really what you would consider games that are entertaining. It’s like a game of checkers. You jump past one guy, you eliminate him, and then another guy eliminates you. It becomes a one-on-one and you dump it into the corner so you change. It’s systematic hockey. It’s tough to watch.”
Kilrea remains a king of the one liners. Once upon a time, he was also the king of the Kings.