(Photo credit: Mike Powell/Allsport)
When fans of the Los Angeles Kings think of the summer of 1988, one name comes to mind: Wayne Gretzky.
On August 9, 1988, the biggest trade in sports — not just hockey — history was pulled off as Gretzky, fresh off guiding the Edmonton Oilers to their fourth Stanley Cup win was traded to the new-look Los Angeles Kings along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski. That much fans remember.
What they may not remember as well was, six weeks earlier, when the Kings had acquired another four-time Stanley Cup winner in John Tonelli.
An integral part of the New York Islanders’ dynasty in the early 80’s and a key veteran in the resurgence of a young Calgary Flames squad, Tonelli had signed with the Kings as a free agent on June 29, 1988, bringing a plethora of lineage to a team looking to make a name for themselves in the highly-competitive Smythe Division.
I recently had the honour of speaking with John Tonelli who was kind enough to share his memories with the Kings, including two of their biggest playoff victories as well as playing under Robbie Ftorek and the late Tom Webster.
From the Rockies to the Beaches

John Tonelli was 31 when he signed with the Kings.
Photo credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For a player who had already won four Cups and been to the Finals six times in seven years, Tonelli had the experience of a player in the twilight of his career. As a matter of fact, coming off a season where he registered 41 assists in 74 games for the Flames, the Kings added the dominant playmaker to a roster which had included deep scoring threats Luc Robitaille and Bernie Nicholls.
“The interest from the Kings was very strong,” Tonelli said. “It’s always nice to be wanted. For some players, that’s all it takes. Then, you add in the bonus of coming to L.A. the year that Wayne Gretzky comes. It was just so exciting to be a part of that, to be on that team and to witness first-hand how great of an achievement Wayne brought to L.A., bringing the game of hockey and just expanding it by so much. It was just great to watch and great to be a part of.”
An Auspicious Start in SoCal

Tonelli’s maiden season in Los Angeles was a successful one. He scored 31 goals in 77 games in 1988-89 en route to a 64-point campaign. His efforts even helped his new team improve by 23 points from the previous season, which paved the way for a first-round upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion, the aforementioned Edmonton Oilers.
“I just know how difficult it was to beat them,” Tonelli recalled. “But if you look at the experience we had on the Kings team at the time, we had some really character players. It was just nice to figure it out because it takes teams time to figure just how good they are and what they can achieve. [The series win vs. Edmonton] was just an example of what we did and I only wish we went further.”
The Kings, however, would go on to be swept in four games by Tonelli’s former team, the Flames.
The Kings had to wait another year to avenge their loss and, in the process, have an opportunity to eliminate the defending champions once again. The Flames would go on to hockey’s Holiest prize just weeks after sweeping the Kings.
The wait may have been long but for Tonelli, the Kings and their fans, it was worth it.
Another Chance at Dousing the Flames

In his second season with the Kings, Tonelli would score another 31 goals. The Kings would enter the playoffs facing Tonelli’s former team, the Flames. It was a rematch of their short playoff series from the previous year. This time, though, the Flames entered as defending Stanley Cup champions.
Photo credit: Graig Abel/Getty Images

While he did spend parts of three seasons with the Flames prior to joining the Kings, Tonelli admitted that he didn’t feel the same ease in Calgary like he did with the Islanders or even the Kings.
“Calgary was a tough spot for me to play,” Tonelli noted. “Not that I didn’t feel welcome. It was just that it wasn’t the right fit.
“In 1986 when I got traded to Calgary, I realized when I got there how talented a team they were. They were a little on the young side and as good as they were, they, in the [‘86] Final against Montreal, didn’t realize how good they really were. Only the older guys like me thought, ‘Hey, we’re really good! We should win this thing,’ but it takes the experience of losing to figure out what you need in addition to win.”
As for 1990, Tonelli and the Kings got their revenge, eliminating the defending champions in six games. He went on to admit that there was a sense of enjoyment in defeating his former club.
“It was a lot of fun to beat the Flames in that playoff run,” Tonelli reflected. “I’m sure you’ll talk to players around the league that have played for several teams and they’ll always have a favourite. I was always just so happy to be in L.A. and to be part of a group that wanted me and respected me and I could just go out and play and do what I do best.”
Learning From His Coaches

Aside from eliminating the Flames, the 1989-90 campaign marked Tom Webster’s first season as the Kings’ head coach.
I asked Tonelli how Tom’s contributions helped the Kings’ success that season, including their playoff upset over Calgary.
Tom Webster (Photo credit: Nick Ut/AP)

“Tom and the coaching staff had devised a game plan. He was very thorough,” the Milton, Ont., native said. “I remember spending a lot of time going over that game plan that we needed to execute to win and it was simple. We frustrated [our opponents] and executed our plan. Often the story in the playoffs is the team who gets over the hump is the team that executes their plan the best.”
In 1989, Webster took over in Los Angeles for Robbie Ftorek. The latter had actually helped Tonelli in his decision to join the Kings.
“I have to say that Robbie Ftorek helped me out a lot by believing in me,” Tonelli said. “He gave me the opportunity to come to the Kings and play.”
Al Arbour (Photo credit: Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

While he played for some legendary coaches, including Bill Dineen in Houston for the WHA’s Aeros and “Badger” Bob Johnson in Calgary, Tonelli was quick to mention his most influential coach, a man who was a major reason for the former winger’s four championship rings.
“When it comes to coaching, for me, number one by far was Al Arbour,” Tonelli stressed. “Al Arbour taught me how to play the game. He taught me many things like how to carry myself off the ice. So, when I retired from hockey and I went on to coach youth hockey, there were a lot of things I relayed from my Al Arbour days to the young kids. That theory and foundation helped those kids a lot. They were pretty lucky in hindsight not because I coached them but because I relayed the message from Al Arbour.”
Tonelli then played under another legendary coach in Calgary.
“Badger Bob was like a mad scientist,” Tonelli chuckled. “He’d always figure out and come up with a way to figure things out and execute on paper. He was quite the character and I learned a lot from him from his practices and from his power plays.”
Fond Memories of Tinseltown

John Tonelli would play in 221 games in his three seasons with the Kings. Over that stretch, he scored 76 goals and 86 assists for 162 points. Tonelli even helped his club pull off a couple of memorable playoff victories in the process.
Photo credit: Graig Abel/Getty Images

Looking back, Tonelli was quick to point out that his time in Los Angeles was a very special time. In fact, it was one of his favourite times as a player.
“Although we didn’t win in Los Angeles while I was there, that was one of my favourite three years playing in the game,” he admitted. “There were a lot of players when I played who went, ‘Ah, I can’t play in L.A. It’s warm weather, not hockey weather,’ while I was totally on the other side of that argument. I loved it because I came to play as hard as I could. Then, when practice was over, I’d drive back home and relax and enjoy the calmness of L.A.
“At the same time, though, we had a group of guys that wanted to win and the number-one thing: to play with The Great One was pretty amazing. Not only was he a great one on the ice but just a great human being off the ice. He always had a lot of respect for me and I’ll never forget it.”
Helping to Quit Smoking Without Even Knowing

Gracious enough to share his stories, Mr. Tonelli brought up memories of his father. After all, this writer had admitted that his own father, a long-suffering Detroit Red Wings fan, had quit smoking because of the New York Islanders.
Photo credit: Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

On the evening of May 17, 1983, my father was planning on buying cigarettes. What would have been his ninth attempt to quit smoking, my father turned on the TV. Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final had just started between Tonelli’s Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers.
Up 3-0 in their series, the Islanders had a chance to win their fourth-straight Cup that night.
After jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the game, the Oilers scored twice to make it a one-goal game. From there, eventual Conn Smythe winner Billy Smith and the Isles defense shut the door on the Oilers’ onslaught, with Ken Morrow icing the game with an empty-net goal.
Too invested in the game, my father never left for cigarettes. He never smoked again.

After leaving the Kings in 1991, John Tonelli would split the next season between Chicago and Quebec before retiring.
After a 14-year NHL career, Tonelli would tally 325 goals and 511 assists for 836 points in 1028 games. He would even register a plus-minus rating of plus-221, which ties him for 56th on the NHL’s all-time list.
Photo credit: Jim McIsaac

Prior to joining the Islanders, Tonelli played three seasons in the WHA for the aforementioned Houston Aeros. In 224 games in the WHA, Tonelli scored 64 goals and 86 assists for 150 points. He accomplished this while playing alongside Mr. Hockey, the late, great Gordie Howe.
Among his many accomplishments in the game, John Tonelli helped the New York Islanders shake off their playoff-underachiever tag in 1980. In doing so, Tonelli set up Bob Nystrom for one of the most memorable goals in NHL playoff history to clinch the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Three years later, as underdogs, Tonelli and the Islanders would give it their all in the Final, sweeping Gretzky and the Oilers to win their fourth-straight Cup. During that run, the Isles won an unfathomable 19-straight playoff series — some of which produced some of the game’s greatest playoff contests. This includes the aforementioned Cup clinchers in ’80 and ’83. It also includes Game 5 (of a Best-of-Five) of the 1984 Patrick Division semi-final when the Islanders hosted their cross-town rivals, the Rangers. In the latter game, Tonelli forced a turnover in overtime, setting up a goal scored by the aforementioned Morrow.
Watch them all if you can.
Helping to create a dynasty that will likely never be duplicated again, John Tonelli was a warrior on the ice. In recent months, he had his No. 27 retired by the Islanders. He joined fellow former King, Butch Goring, as the latter recently had his No. 91 retired. Even more, Tonelli was noble enough to let team captain Anders Lee continue to wear the number. For these reasons, John Tonelli is one of the greatest ambassadors to the game of hockey.
John Tonelli: "I have spoken with current Islanders team captain Anders Lee and from seeing the tremendous leader he is, I told him that I would be honored if he continues to wear our number until the end of his career."
— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) December 18, 2019
In their history, the Los Angeles Kings have had some of the game’s greatest players don their uniform. John Tonelli is among those, having made a significant mark on the Kings franchise, adding to his celebrated career.

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