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Oral history: The Miracle on Manchester, 35 years later

Ryan Kennedy
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Oral history: The Miracle on Manchester, 35 years later

News

Oral history: The Miracle on Manchester, 35 years later

Ryan Kennedy
By:

When L.A. eliminated Edmonton from the 1982 NHL playoffs, it was one of the biggest upsets in history – and the turning point was the craziest comeback the league has ever seen.

Never leave a hockey game early. That was the advice Daryl Evans had given his billet parents when he was in major junior after they missed a great Niagara Falls Flyers comeback. The lesson would prove to be fortuitous years later when the billet dad happened to be in California when a rookie Evans and his Los Angeles Kings were hosting the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers for Game 3 of a first-round best-of-five series that wasn’t supposed to last very long.

Even though the Kings had the vaunted ‘Triple Crown Line’ of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer, the 1981-82 campaign had been a slog. Simmer was hurt for a spell and the team couldn’t get in gear, prompting the mid-season firing of coach Parker MacDonald. Though replacement Don Perry had a little more success, the team still entered the playoffs as one of the biggest underdogs in NHL history: Edmonton finished 48 points ahead of Los Angeles in the league standings. The Oilers were flush with future Hall of Famers including Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Glenn Anderson, but there’s a reason you still have to play the games – anything can happen.

Thirty-five years ago, in the first round of the 1982 playoffs, the Great Western Forum, located on Manchester Ave., played host to one of the most shocking series ever.

Entering 1981-82, the Kings felt positive, coming off a second-place finish in the Norris Division – their final year before moving to the Smythe.

Jay Wells, defense: “We thought we had a pretty good team. We had the ‘Triple Crown Line,’ a little experience under our belts and some good young guys. We just had to put it together.”

Mark Hardy, defense: “As a young player you’re always coming in hoping you can win a Stanley Cup, but just getting to the playoffs was our dream that year. Our expectations were high, though I’m not sure how many people agreed with us.”

The regular season proved to be disastrous, with Perry coming up from AHL New Haven after the Kings started 13-24-5 under MacDonald. Perry brought more structure, as well as some ace rookies he had with him down in Connecticut.

Steve Bozek, left winger: “I was playing just like I did in college. I would jump over the boards and I’d be all over the place, just free-wheeling it. When Don Perry came in, he brought more discipline. He took me aside and told me he’d fine me $100 every time I went more than a stick’s length away from the left wing boards in a game.”

Hardy: “Don was a tough man and brought discipline. I remember our first morning skate in Montreal. It was harder than a practice!”

Bernie Nicholls, center: “Don was in New Haven with me before he was brought up to coach the Kings. They had the ‘Triple Crown Line,’ but not much offense after that. One of the first things he did was call me up. I had been up a couple times earlier, but never to stay. Under Don, I had three hat tricks in my first three home games, so I knew I could score at that level.”

Daryl Evans, left winger: “I got called up to the IHL’s Saginaw Gears the year before, when Don was coaching there, so I had a chance to make an impression. I scored three goals and had two assists in three games, so he asked me to stick around the team. I watched them go on to win the championship, so that paid dividends. The next year we were both in New Haven, I was following his path. It was great to get the call-up to Los Angeles. There were 14 games remaining and it was right at the deadline, so I knew I’d be there for the rest of the season. It’s great when you get a coach who knows what you’re capable of.”

During the season, the Kings beat Edmonton just once in eight games, while tying twice. The high-flying Oilers outscored Los Angeles 51-27 in that span. Still, the Kings were excited for the challenge once the post-season arrived.

Bozek: “The Oilers stomped all over us that year, but they hadn’t won anything yet, it was still the Islanders at the time. In a lot of our games with Edmonton, it would be close at first. They’d be up 5-3 and then run up the lead at the end.”

Wells: “We would get psyched up big-time against Edmonton. We were never scared, because we thought we could match them. They proved us wrong during the regular season. They were a very skilled team and so were we. We didn’t match up well against Calgary or Vancouver or Winnipeg, those were physical battles, those were bloodbaths. We were more of a free-spirited team. Edmonton wasn’t that scary if we could contain certain players.”

Hardy: “We always had to be aware of where Gretzky was on the ice. They had a lot of great players. We had to know where Gretzky was, where Jari Kurri was, where Mark Messier was, they had a lot of firepower. Coming out of the Quebec League as an offensive defenseman, I had to learn to take care of my own end first.”

Daryl Evans

Daryl Evans. Image by: Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

Game 1 began as expected, with Edmonton rushing out to a 4-1 lead in the first period. But the Kings were unbowed and, believing in their own firepower, kept pushing. The result was a back-and-forth goalfest, capped off by a Nicholls empty-netter to give L.A. a shocking 10-8 victory on Edmonton ice.

Bozek: “It was a wild and woolly game. Goals were going in from everywhere. All of a sudden we thought, ‘OK, possibly we could play with these guys. We can score, too.’ Don Perry told us, ‘Don’t believe what you read in the papers.’ ”

Nicholls: “We obviously knew that Edmonton could score, but we also knew that we could score goals, too. Charlie Simmer, who had broken his leg earlier in the season, the puck goes off the leg that had a pin in it. The goals were going in from everywhere.”

Evans: “That was the first season that rosters were expanded from 19 skaters to 20, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a chance. Don said to me, ‘If I have a chance to dress you, I will, because you bring a lot of positive energy. I’m not going to play you, but I want you on the bench.’ I ended up with four points, the first star of the game on Hockey Night In Canada in my first playoff game. It was a dream come true.”

Grant Fuhr, Edmonton’s goalie: “I was a rookie, so it was my first playoffs. After that game, I thought I was going to have a short career. When you lose your first NHL playoff game 10-8, it’s not good. But that was the fun back then, if you played bad, you got blown out.”

Game 2 was a much more low-scoring affair, with Gretzky winning the 3-2 contest in overtime and salvaging a split for the Oilers at Northlands Coliseum.

Evans: “Going into Game 2, everybody figured we had already overachieved by winning a game. When Gretzky scored in overtime, there was a sigh of relief from Edmonton fans. When I look back at it, yeah, we could have had a stranglehold on the series if we had won, but we still needed to play with the same desperation that we did in Game 3.”

Game 3 shifted the series to Los Angeles, where the Great Western Forum was known as the home of the NBA’s ‘Showtime’ Lakers rather than the NHL’s Kings.

Bozek: “We were only getting 8,000 or 9,000 fans a game back then, unless Detroit or the Rangers or Islanders were in town. We very seldom sold out that building.”

Wells: “We didn’t have a great fan base then, but there was electricity that night. It was packed. Though I think some of the people came out to see Edmonton, not us.”

Down 5-0 after two periods, the Kings did nothing to convince the fans that the home team was going to give them a good show. But L.A. refused to pack it in. They also got some ammunition from the cocky Oilers, especially legendary coach Glen Sather.

Nicholls: “We were definitely being outplayed. If you’re down 5-0, it’s not because of bad bounces or puck luck. They were rolling pretty good. They dominated.”

Evans: “It was a crazy, run-and-gun style of game. It was an Edmonton Oilers game. If you look back at Game 1, that’s what everybody expected, for the Oilers to dominate. We knew we were outclassed, so we had to change something. But because there was no pressure, we were relaxed.”

Hardy: “At the end of the second period, Jay Wells threw a huge check on Dave Semenko, right at the blueline. Semenko was their tough guy and that gave us a huge spark.”

Wells: “It was pretty calm in the dressing room. A lot of times you’re down and it’s a write-off. But this felt different. We still believed we could win. Our focus was to go out and just pick away. But do you know what really got me? When they scored the fourth or fifth goal, I was on the ice and had to skate past their bench. Not only were they mocking us, but the coach was, too. Now, I have nothing against Glen Sather, he was a great coach, but to see him smirking, that put a fire in our tail.”

Bozek: “It wasn’t so much the superstars chirping, but they’d let you know they thought the series would be over soon. That was their persona, they knew they were good.”

Another indignity for the Kings came when their owner, Jerry Buss, left the game after two periods.

Nicholls: “Back then, the owner’s box was between the benches. It was a little box, so we go out for the third period and we know it’s empty.”

Evans: “A lot of people left. But they ended up coming back in from the freeway when they heard about the comeback.”

Hardy: “The people that did stay saw an unbelievable game.”

Fuhr: “We just wanted to keep playing hard. We just didn’t play well in the third period. You give a team with skill some offensive chances, it’s going to come back and bite you. And it did.”

At 2:36 of the third period, Wells scored his first career NHL playoff goal to make it 5-1.

Evans: “That put the certification on what we wanted to accomplish. It was the first time our fans had a chance to cheer since we were introduced at the start of the game. When you’re down like that, you want to at least break the other team’s shutout, and we broke it. At 5-2, you think, all right, it’s respectable. With 9:56 remaining, a couple of us got misconducts, so the only way I’d be able to get back in again is if the game went into overtime. Jerry Korab and I were talking on the way back to the dressing room…we just wanted a chance to get back in the game.”

Seconds after the raft of misconducts, veteran Oilers center Garry Unger caught Kings defenseman Dave Lewis with a high stick, drawing blood and a major penalty in the process. Lewis also got a minor penalty on the play, but Los Angeles still had the advantage.

Bozek: “It was 5-3 at the time and we were thinking, hey, we’ve got a great opportunity here. Then Pat Hughes got a breakaway for them shorthanded, but didn’t score. They had so many near-misses that would have put the game away.”

Nicholls: “We score two, but the Oilers still aren’t worried. They’ve still got that cocky grin. But sports are funny, it’s 5-4 and the place is going crazy.”

With the clock winding down, the Kings pulled goalie Mario Lessard for an extra attacker. Los Angeles filled the zone and chaos reigned as players attempted to control the puck. Eventually, Jim Fox stripped Gretzky of the puck and got it to Hardy at the point.

Hardy: “The building was going crazy. Fox got the puck off of Gretzky and did a little dipsy-doodling, as he always did. He got it back to me and, it wasn’t a hard shot, but I got it through quickly and Bozek was there. I fell down after I took the shot. I was exhausted.”

Bozek: “It was a reaction. I knew it was near the end of the game, maybe four seconds remaining, so I wanted to put it on net and it went through Fuhr’s legs.”

Nicholls: “Bozek scores and all hell breaks loose. When you get momentum going, it’s crazy what happens.”

Hardy: "All the passion, will and the hatred we had for Edmonton came out in that third period. Talk about a miracle…”

Things looked bleak in overtime when Lessard left his crease to play a dump-in, only to collide with the rapidly approaching Anderson. The puck popped over to Messier, who fired a backhander wide of the open net.

Evans: “It almost seemed like it happened in slow motion. I thought to myself, there’s no way it can end like this. Mario’s reaction, that sigh of relief, said it all. They had already missed two breakaways in the third, so after that, it seemed like destiny. Somebody wanted us to win.”

Nicholls: “Yeah, it was over. That’s it, right? But it’s the old saying, it ain’t over til it’s over. People miss open nets, people miss layups. Today, Messier wouldn’t miss that shot.”

With a second life in overtime, the Kings got a faceoff in the offensive zone. Doug Smith took the draw, with Evans on the wing.

Nicholls: “Smith won the faceoff and it just goes to show you how important those offensive-zone draws can be. Daryl could shoot the puck, that was his best skill. They had a Hall of Fame goaltender in net, but Daryl put it right under the bar, a perfect shot. No one could’ve stopped it. The ol’ storybook finish.”

Evans: “Back then there was only one hashmark, so you were side-to-side with the other player. I was lined up against Kevin Lowe, so I backed off two or three feet so I’d have space. Doug won the faceoff perfectly.”

Fuhr: “I was set. Daryl just beat me with a good shot.”

Madness descended on the arena as Evans bolted towards the other end of the ice in celebration. The Kings had erased a 5-0 deficit to take a 2-1 series lead. The game would forever be known as the Miracle on Manchester.

Wells: “Evans wasn’t a fast skater, but he was past us (in celebration) before we knew what happened. Eventually, Nicholls got a stick on him and then I got a stick on him and we tackled him.”

Bozek: “It was shock on both sides.”

Hardy: “Never give up, no matter what the score is. That’s what that game taught me, and I took that into the rest of my playing days, my coaching career and my off-ice life. It taught me something about life.”

Fuhr: “We knew we let it get away. You blow a 5-0 lead and it hurts.”

The Oilers recovered to win Game 4, by another uncommonly low score for them of 3-2. The series shifted to Edmonton for the final game, something no one had predicted. As proof of this, L.A.’s ownership hadn’t booked a flight, so the Kings’ players had the awkward experience of hopping on the Oilers’ charter back to Edmonton.

Bozek: “How strange is that? Your organization doesn’t have enough faith in you to book a hotel or a flight for Game 5. Edmonton had a charter, so we jumped on with them. We’re both standing at the terminal, staring at each other like it’s a prom dance, nobody wants to mingle.”

Fuhr: “The series should have been over. The fact we had to share a plane? It wouldn’t have happened if we had played better.”

The winner-take-all series finale turned out to be a one-sided affair, with Los Angeles pouring it on and beating a shocked Oilers side 7-4.

Nicholls: “We dominated Game 5. I don’t know why, but everything went our way. We could have played them 10 more times and not won once, but that’s sports…anything can happen.”

Evans: “All the pressure was on them. We had already won in their building, so we had a lot of confidence heading into the game. And we did it. We outgunned the gunners.”

Bozek: “I don’t know if it was true, but we heard that Fuhr had a shoulder problem, so if you watch the game, you’ll see we’re always trying to shoot glove-side high on him.”

Fuhr: “It was hurt before the start of the series, just not enough to affect my play. It’s not even something I can put blame on, I played fine in Game 2 and Game 4.”

The impossible was accomplished. No matter how big the gulf in the standings, no matter how much the Oilers had guffawed during Game 3, it was Los Angeles moving on to the second round. Though the Kings would fall unceremoniously to Vancouver, they provided an indelible entry for the hockey history books.

Hardy: “A lot of us just looked around the room. You could look at the player across from you and say he gave everything he had, and he could look at you and say the same. It was one of the most hard-fought series I’ve ever been in. There were icebags everywhere. We had went through a war.”

Fuhr: “We learned that you have to play 60 minutes. You give a team a chance to come back and they’ll hurt you, so keep your foot on the gas pedal. We learned that, and the next year we went all the way to the final, where we lost to a very good New York Islanders team.”

Bozek: “We had nothing to lose and they had everything to lose. That series shouldn’t have gone that far. They were supposed to go to the Stanley Cup final and the Los Angeles Kings were just a speed bump.”

Nicholls: “We were probably more shocked than they were. We slayed the dragon.”

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Oral history: The Miracle on Manchester, 35 years later