Everybody loves a good underdog story. Whether it was David vs Goliath in the bible, The New York Mets vs the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, or Bret “The Hitman” Hart against the 500 pound Yokozuna at WrestleMania X, (not the one from Wrestlemania IX), people love to see someone, or some team go up against the odds and defeat the odds on favorite. That underdog scenario just never gets old… well, that is unless it’s YOUR team that was the overall favorite, that had just lost to an inferior underdog team of course, but I digress.
There have been so many shocking (depending on your point of view), upsets by underdogs in sports, life, television or in film, but one in particular is my favorite of all-time. Of course, I am talking about the “Miracle on Manchester,” where the underdog Los Angeles Kings just squeezed in to the playoffs after a very poor, below average regular season, only to face the new darlings of the NHL. A team that was being prophecized to be the next dynasty in the NHL, and had a player that was only 22 years old, but already being called “The Great One.” The Kings, who had just worked so hard to get into the playoffs, had now drawn the shortest straw by now having to face Wayne Gretzky and his young and upcoming Edmonton Oilers. Nobody thought or believed that the Kings had a chance. Everyone was predicting doom.
So let’s see if the so-called experts were right? Well of course, they weren’t. We live in the future so we already know what happens but let’s pretend like we don’t, so let’s dust off our time machines and go back in time to 1982 and witness the first round NHL playoff series between our LA Kings against the Gretzky led Edmonton Oilers in what is now well known and celebrated today in the Kingdom as the “Miracle on Manchester.”
Okay, here .. we … GO!!!
After the Los Angeles Kings had a very successful, All-Star season during the previous year, with a record of 43-24 13 and 99 points, the 1981-82 NHL regular season had been a tough one for the Kings, as they declined to a very poor 21-49 15 record and 63 points. The was their first year competing in the Smythe Division, (they were playing in the Norris Division previously), and still had the “Triple Crown Line” of Marcel Dionne, (who scored 50 goals and 117 points), Dave Taylor, (who scored 39 goals and 106 points), and Charlie Simmer, but Simmer ended up missing 30 games due to injury, finishing that season with a poor 15 goals and 39 points.
The goaltending situation was a complete mess, as the team used 4 different goalies throughout the season, with Mario Lessard, Doug Keans, future two-time Stanley Cup-winning General Manager (with Carolina and Pittsburgh), Jim Rutherford and Mike Blake (not Rob), who only got to play 29 games in his NHL career. Head Coach Bob Berry, who coached the Kings the previous season with some success, was now gone, abandoning the Kings for the greener pastures of coaching the Montreal Canadiens, (if it makes you feel better, Berry ended up bombing with the “Habs.”) Replacing Berry, was the inexperienced Parker MacDonald, but after a disappointing first half of the season, Kings’ GM George “The Dumbass” Maguire fired MacDonald and replaced him with the Kings’ AHL affiliate head coach Don Perry, (no relation to the Quack’s Corey Perry … I think?) of the New Haven Nighthawks, (before there was the Ontario Reign or the Manchester Monarchs, there was the New Haven Nighthawks, oh joy. <rolls eyes>). Not too much had changed or improved for the Kings after Perry became the coach, but there were two memorable moments. One, after 3 weeks on the job, Perry was suspended for 6 games by the NHL after ordering the Kings’ enforcer Paul Mulvey to illegally jump off the bench and help his teammates out during a brawl, (think David Clarkson during his first ever game with the Toronto Maple Leafs back in 2013, but this time with the coach’s permission), and two, he got the Kings into the playoffs despite suffering a disastrous season, squeaking in by finishing fourth in the division. Most experts and journalists at the time, thought that making the playoffs alone that year, was already enough of a miracle for the LA Kings. They all had also agreed that the Kings would get completely destroyed by their first round, best of 5 games playoff series opponents, the heavily favored (and drooled over) Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers of course had the 21 year old, “Great One” Wayne Gretzky, who was not only tearing up the league, but he was tearing up the NHL record book as well with ease by finishing that year with 92 goals (WHAT?!?!), 120 assists (OH MY), and 212 points!, (HOLY SH*#!) “Gretz” also shattered the “50 goals in 50 games” record by doing it in only 39 games (still a record to this day) and by becoming the first and to this day, the only player to reach 200 points in a regular season, (Gretzky would go on to hit that 200 mark three more times in his career. Yeah, I think that Gretzky kid was kind of good at hockey). Though Gretzky got most of the attention from the press, the Oilers had some other talented, up and coming (and future Hockey Hall of Fame) players with Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glen Anderson, Paul Coffey and goalie Grant Fuhr, (ironically, Gretzky, Kurri, Coffey and Fuhr would all go on to play for the Kings at one point or another). The Oilers finished first in the Smythe Divison with a 45-17-15 record and 111 points, meaning the Oilers had 48 more points than their 4th place Division rival LA Kings. In paper and in theory, the Kings didn’t stand a chance.
The Oilers were young and talented but also cocky, played a super fast open style of hockey and could score dangerously in bunches. The Kings on the other hand were too slow, had lousy goaltending, an incomplete “Triple Crown Line” due to Simmer’s injury problems and not many players that could score, though current LA Kings’ color commentator Jim Fox had scored 30 goals for the Kings that season. Flashy offensive defensman, (and future Hall of Famer) Larry Murphy scored 22, Steve Bozek scored 33 and the Kings had first year rookie Bernie Nicholls, who had tons of scoring potential, but was still learning the ropes and how to be dangerous around the net. They were the ultimate underdogs that needed a miracle, and a miracle is exactly what they got.
Game one of the first round, best of 5 series was played in Edmonton at the (now scheduled to be torn down) Northlands Coliseum (aka Rexall Place), and it was a barn burner. Strategically thinking that his Kings would have a better shot against the Oilers if he used more of his younger players in order to go toe-to-toe with Edmonton’s youth, it turned out to be an early major blunder by Coach Perry, after the Oilers were up 4-1 after the first period. Luckily for the Kings, the Oilers were not playing very disciplined by taking too many penalties, which allowed the Kings to get back into the game and bounce back with a 5-4 lead. The game then went furiously back and forth and was an 8-8 tie by the 3rd period. Somewhat healthy and reunited with his “Triple Crown Line” buddies, Simmer scored the winning goal after an Oiler defensive breakdown with only 5:02 left in the third. Bernie then put the Oilers away when he “PumperNicholl’ed” an empty netter and the Kings won 10-8, (an NHL playoff final score record that still stands today), to take a surprising 1-0 lead in the series. The Oiler faithful were stunned but not worried, as were the Oiler players, and head coach/GM Glen Sather. Most of the Edmonton and NHL press thought the Kings’ win was nothing but a mere fluke and predicted that the Oilers would bounce back even stronger in game 2.
Which they did, but Sather changed his team’s original tactics by dropping the “Firewagon” style of play for a more defensive one. This worked well and the game was tied 2-2 before going into overtime, where Gretzky scored the OT winner from approximately 40 feet out to tie the series 1-1. The pro-Edmonton crowd and media breathed out a sigh of relief. Everything was now back on track and the way it was supposed to be. Too bad for Edmonton, they forgot to send that memo to the Kings.
Game 3 was in Los Angeles, (Inglewood) at the “Great Western” Forum on Manchester Avenue, and the Oilers quickly ditched their defensive structure of game 2 and went back to their free open playing style, which became in other words was an ALL-ATTACK on the Kings’ net. The Oilers were up 2-0 at the end of the first period, which included a brilliant, short-handed goal from Gretzky, after he went end to end, deeked out most of the Kings while doing so, including a back-checking Charlie Simmer and scored from a very sharp angle past goalie Mario Lessard. The Forum crowd was starting to get nervous, but the worst was still to come. In the second period, the Kings were still on the power-play from the previous period, when Lee Fogolin scored another short-handed goal (from the same penalty) to make it 3-0 for the Oilers. This is when the taunting began.
With an easy 3-0 lead by the Oilers, they started to get too cocky. Certain Oiler player’s were chirping, hot-dogging and even insulting, booing and laughing at the Kings’ players on the ice, as well as when they skated by their bench, like some cruel, school yard bully. The arrogance became worse after the Oilers added 2 more goals to make it a 5-0 lead after the second period. Even Coach Sather couldn’t help himself by flashing a mischievous smile towards the Kings’ bench, just to add some insult to injury, but what Sather and his Oilers had forgotten, was that the Hockey Gods were watching, and while the Oilers were all smiles and laughing comfortably in their locker room during that intermission, believing that the game and the series was already over, the Kings’ had a team meeting. They were pissed off at the constant insults and taunting by the immature Oiler players, and they were not going to let them get away with it anymore. It was decided by the Kings, that no matter what the Oilers did or tried to do, physically or verbally in that third period, the Kings were going to band together and hit the Oilers with everything they had. EVERYTHING! Win or lose, this was now all out WAR.
The Oilers happily made their way back to the ice to start the 3rd period, but the Kings’ team they saw in front of them, didn’t look like the same team they had just left behind before the intermission. This Kings’ team was anxious to go and really angry, almost as if they were breathing fire, (think Darth Maul when he was trapped between those laser walls during the lightsaber duel in “The Phantom Menace.”)
Still, the Oilers weren’t fazed. They did have a 5-0 lead after all. Like how much damage could these pissed off Kings really do to a team of destiny??? Well they were about to find out the hard way, and a “Miracle” was born.
Led by the “Triple Crown” line of Dionne, Taylor and Simmer, plus Fox, Nicholls, Murphy, Bozek, Captain Dave Lewis, future LA Kings’ radio color commentator (and owner of the greatest shiny suits ever), Daryl Evans, and tough as nails defensmen Jay Wells and Mark Hardy, the Kings exploded into action. Wells got the Kings on the board thanks to a set-up by Dionne and Murphy, and a screen by Taylor to make it 5-1. The Forum crowd took their hands off their faces, but still couldn’t look, while the Oilers just shrugged it off. Shortly after, Kings’ center Doug Smith made it 5-2 with a power-play goal, and the Kings’ faithful allowed themselves to curiously take a peak at what was happening, while the Oilers also shrugged that one off. The Oilers then seemed to have everything back under control for the next 1o minutes of play until Kings’ forward Dean Hopkins intercepted a sloppy Oilers’ pass, and got the puck to Simmer, who got past an Oiler defender, lost his balance, still got the shot off but was saved by Fuhr, but Oiler defensman Randy Gregg accidentally interfered with Fuhr, who now fell back into the back and taking the puck with him, and just like that it was 5-3! This led the Forum crown to explode with hopeful excitement, while the Oilers were really getting annoyed that these pesky Kings weren’t following their game plan. No more fun and games from now on, thought the Oilers, it’s time to get serious. Game on!
Now with both the Kings and Oilers fighting hard to win this game, the Oilers ended up taking a 5 minute major high-sticking penalty after hitting and cutting Captain Dave Lewis in the face. With the Kings already having someone in the penalty box, both teams would now have to play 4 on 4 for the next few minutes. This calmed the Oilers down, as they are the “Kings” of 4 on 4 hockey due to their youth and speed, or so they thought. Taking their foot off the pedal, and arrogantly assuming this 4 on 4 was to their advantage, the Oilers got sloppy, and the Kings took advantage. King’s forward Steve Bozek broke into the Oiler’s zone with the puck, before dropping it behind him to a rushing in Mark Hardy. Hardy then got around a “back checking” Gretzky and shot the puck at the Oiler’s net and past Fuhr to make 5-4! The Forum went berserk, while the Oilers thought in their best Scooby-Doo voices, “Roh-oh!” Now with the Kings scoring 4 unanswered goals in this 3rd period, and with all of the momentum in their favor, the young and no longer arrogant Oilers were starting to panic.
With a 1:37 left of the game and behind by a goal, coach Perry decided to switch his goaltenders in a very unorthodox move. Out went Lessard and in came Doug Keans. The reasoning behind this, was that the Kings were on the Power-Play, but both PP units were getting exhausted, so Perry made the switch to buy some time for them to re-cooperate. You see back then, if the back up goalie was brought into the game, he was allowed to face a few shots of practice to warm him up before the game was back on, creating a legal delay of game, which is course illegal in today’s NHL but was well within the rules back in 1982, (BRILLIANT!) The Kings caught their breath and play had resumed and at the very next stoppage of play, Perry switched the goalies again and brought back Lessard, (no warm ups this time).
With a minute left in the game, the Kings’ finally pulled their goalie for the extra attacker in an all or nothing move. With the extra player, the Kings hovered in the Oilers zone, looking for open teammates or lanes towards Fuhr, but the Oilers’ speed of their defensive coverage was making it very difficult. Finally Dionne got the puck and held on to it, waiting for an opening. He held it, and held it, and held it, it what seemed like an eternity as the clock and the game was ticking down towards 0:00. Finally, he saw Simmer rush towards the net and he quickly got the puck to him, forcing the Oilers D-men to focus on the attacking Simmer, but as soon as they did, Simmer got the puck back to Dionne, who was no longer covered and he fired the puck at the net with all that he had, but was stopped by the flexible Grant Fuhr. The Forum crowd moaned with anxiety, while the Oilers starting thinking, “No worries, we got this!” With mere seconds left before the game was over, Dionne’s rebound ended up bouncing into the boards and phenom Wayne Gretzky frantically went to fetch it, in hopes of clearing the zone and winning this game. It is well known that “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky had a sort of “Sixth Sense” when it came to playing hockey. It was as if he saw the play unfold in his mind, before the actual play had happened. If he did, it wasn’t working in this game, because as soon as Gretzky went to claim the puck, the man with the greatest hair in the history of hockey, Jim Fox, (Jagr who?), completely picked Gretzky’s pocket of the puck, got the puck to Hardy who fired a shot dead bang at the Oiler’s net. Fuhr made the save but lost control of the rebound (again), and with a live puck on the loose, the Oilers noticed that Dionne was too close to it so they double marked him to take him out of the play, but that left Bozek all alone to backhand the puck into the net, tying the game 5-5 with :5 seconds left in the clock. BOOM! The Forum faithful exploded in celebration, while the Oilers were left in horror at what just happened. Some Oiler players even laid down on the ice, as if wounded and completely flabbergasted from what they just witnessed. Coach Sather wasn’t mischievously smiling anymore, and wouldn’t for the rest of this series. Maybe hot-dogging and taunting the Kings while they were down wasn’t the smartest thing to do after all? The underdog Kings had done the unthinkable, coming back from should have been an unsurmountable 0-5 lead, and scoring 5 unanswered goals in the last period to get back in to this game. Now all they needed to do was to win it in overtime to fully complete the historic comeback. They refused to be denied.
Starting off the overtime period, the Kings were confident, determined and hungry, while the Oilers were still in shock and confused. This had never happened to them before. They were supposed to be a team of destiny? In all fairness, they will be, but just not today. To end the greatest comeback in a single playoff game, The Kings made history by winning the game 6-5 in overtime, after Doug Smith won an offensive zone face-off against Messier, and got the puck to the point for Daryl Evans. Evans then positioned himself in front of the opposing net and fired the hardest slapshot that he possibly could muster and blasted the puck towards the Oilers’ net, flying by and over Fuhr’s shoulder (with a middle finger up, or so I like to picture it), and hit the back of the netting to end the game. The red goal light flashed and every Kings’ player and every King’s fan, in the forum and around the world went absolutely INSANE AND LOST THEIR MINDS!!! THE KINGS DID IT!!! THE KINGS DID IT!!! THEY CAME BACK AND WON IT!!! IT WAS PURE BEDLAM AS PEOPLE WERE JUMPING ALL OVER THE PLACE IN FULL CELEBRATION, OTHERS WERE CRYING IN HAPPINESS, WHILE THE KINGS’ PLAYERS PILED UP ON DARYL EVANS, NOW FOREVER KNOWN AS AN LA KING PLAYOFF HERO!!! THE PLAYOFF HERO OF THE NEWLY AND FOREVER DUBBED, “MIRACLE ON MANCHESTER!!!
(Actually I got so excited by re-living this historical moment, that I accidentally pushed the wrong button on my Time Machine and ended up in the future and caught the ending to Star Wars : Episode VIII : The Last Jedi, before I headed back to 1982 for the conclusion of this playoff series, whoops, and sorry, no film spoilers here, you’re gonna have to wait to see it yourself!)
The Oilers left the ice in embarrassment, but knew (hoped?) the series wasn’t over yet, and they bounced back by winning a very close game four, 3-2 to tie the series. Now with the do-or-die elimination game 5 to be playing back in Edmonton, the Oilers hoped that home ice advantage would provide them with the edge they needed to finally put these pesky Kings to rest, but they were wrong. Instead, Simmer opened up the game by scoring two goals to make it 2-0 for the Kings, and then they led 6-2 by the end of the second period. You could hear a pin drop at the Northlands Coliseum. The Oiler fans were completely stunned. The Oilers then fought back and desperately tried to salvage their season, but the Kings held on and won 7-4 to win the series 3-2 and eliminate the heavily favored Oilers from the playoffs. The “Miracle” was complete. The Kings celebrated as if they had just won the Stanley Cup, as this was the first Playoff victory for the Kings since the 1976 first round playoff win over Atlanta (not the Thrashers but the Flames), and only their third overall playoff series victory in franchise history. The Oiler players shook the hands of the victors, but kept their heads down like in “Depressed Charlie Brown” style and left the ice, while the Oilers’ faithful exited the arena as quickly as they could.
The Kings celebrated by partying that night, simply because they had earned it, but where ready to get back to business for the second round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Kings had nothing left in the tank, and bowed out to the Vancouver Canucks in 5 games, before watching them go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, only to lose to a more powerful New York Islanders team. Still, thanks to the “Miracle on Manchester,” that 1981-82 season was considered a success for the Kings, and that historical comeback would be remembered forever. At that point, it was the biggest victory in franchise history, but as tasty as a first round underdog, comeback, playoff series victory was for everyone in the Kingdom, it only made them even hungrier and wanting for more.
The Oilers did go on to become the next hockey dynasty, by winning the Stanley Cup 5 times in 8 seasons, while the Kings never won another playoff series after “The Miracle on Manchester,” (the 1982 playoffs also turned out to be the last hurrah of the “Triple Crown Line” after injuries and playoff misses negatively effected the famed trio before Simmer was traded away during the 1984-85 season), that is until the first round of the 1989 playoffs, where ironically they were led by that same 21 year old, Oiler phenom, who was now 28 years old, an eight, (soon to be nine) time Hart Trophy winner and a four time Stanley Cup Champion, now fully armed in the new Silver and Black Kings’ amour, battling against his former team, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Edmonton Oilers, all in the name of the Kings, but that epic time-traveling trip will be saved until next time. So let’s head back home to 2017 and re-charge our time machines, as for our next trip will be to 1988, where we will witness first hand, THE TRADE THAT WAS HEARD AROUND THE HOCKEY WORLD AND CHANGED THE GAME FOREVER! THAT’S RIGHT! “THE GREAT ONE” WAYNE GRETZKY IS COMING BACK TO LOS ANGELES, BUT THIS TIME HE’S ON OUR SIDE!!!