STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS: KINGS vs. FLAMES : Kings Return to Earth in Calgary : Victory Over Edmonton Gives Tonelli Shot Against Former Team

Times Staff Writer

Before John Tonelli was a King, he was a Calgary Flame. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to go through the same kind of gut-wrenching emotions during the Smythe Division playoffs that plagued Wayne Gretzky during the semifinal series against Edmonton.

It’s a different story for Tonelli in the series that begins tonight at Calgary.

He wasn’t called the Great One in Calgary. In fact, he wasn’t called much at all during the playoffs the last couple of years he was with the Flames. Mostly, he sat.


And when last season ended, they called him a cab. Made him a free agent.

That was a shock, but not as big a shock as having been traded to Calgary by the New York Islanders, the team he helped to four Stanley Cup titles.

Holding desperately to the belief that he had some more good days of hockey left in him, Tonelli signed with the Kings last June 27.

Now he wants nothing more than to show the Kings that they were right, that he can still do the job. He did it all season, showing the way on the ice with a dogged determination and off the ice with mature, low-keyed leadership. But he wants to do it in the playoffs. This is his favorite time of year. This is when it really counts.

And what happens this time around? He comes down with the flu, then complications. He ends up in the hospital with respiratory problems, losing weight and patience while the Kings struggle through the early games.

“I was very frustrated when I was in the hospital watching the games,” Tonelli said. “It was very difficult. You can’t help but think a little negative at a time like that, thinking, ‘It’s happening to me again. I’m being denied this opportunity again. I’m missing the time I like to play most.’ I’m so thankful for my teammates for keeping it going.”

So he can get back into it.

Tonelli made a token appearance in Game 5 against Edmonton, played a little more in Game 6 and actually played some real hockey in the big victory Saturday night in Game 7.

“I’m getting better every day,” Tonelli said. “I feel I’m getting stronger. The coaches have been very wise in giving me part-time duty, letting me fill in.”

He insists that he harbors no animosity toward the Flames, but his days in Calgary do not account for his happiest hockey memories.

“My heart was in New York,” he admitted. “It was a big shock to be traded. It took me awhile to get over it. But I love playoff time, and my first season with the Flames, I got to play and contribute in the playoffs, and that was great. The last two seasons were very different. I wasn’t given the opportunity to play.”

Tonelli played in all 22 playoff games as the Flames advanced to the Stanley Cup final series against the Montreal Canadiens right after he was traded to Calgary. But the next year he played in only three of six playoff games. And in his second full season with the club he played in only six of nine playoff games.

As soon as he said that he didn’t play much, he hastened to add in his diplomatic way: “But that has to go on my shoulders as well as theirs. I don’t think I got the best out of me, so, obviously, they didn’t get the best out of me. It works both ways.”

Given another chance with the Kings--and when that almost slipped away, another chance when the Kings came from two games behind to gain him at least one more round--he says things will be different. “I damn well better get the best out of me this time,” he said.

The Kings are taking nothing for granted as they prepare for the team with the best record in the National Hockey League during the regular season, the team that dominated their season series, winning six of eight games. The Kings did not win at the Saddledome this season.

The only sign, so far, that the Flames might be vulnerable is the semifinal series between the Flames and the Vancouver Canucks. The Flames finished 43 points ahead of the Canucks in the regular season, and the series was expected to last four games, maybe five. But it went seven, and even went into overtime in the seventh game at the Saddledome.

“We have to take a close look at what made Vancouver so successful against them,” Tonelli said. “Vancouver took them to the brink, to the final seconds of overtime. (The Canucks) never gave up. They took the body and forced them all over the ice.”

The Kings also have been pointing out that the Flames did not see them with their current roster completely assembled. The Kings are playing much better now than they were earlier in the season. And the Flames?

“They play so well all season long, right from the start they have great consistency,” Tonelli said. “They play so well throughout the regular season. Other teams, during the playoffs, pick it up a notch, eh? The Flames are already there.”

Still, it’s not easy for a team to go into a building where it was 0-4 and try to upset the favorite.

“You either look that challenge right in the eye or you don’t,” Tonelli said. “We’ve seen a big challenge already, and we met that one. We have to be positive.”

Playoff Notes

Tonight’s game will be televised by Prime Ticket and broadcast by KGIL (1260) and KORG (1190) at 6:30, Pacific time. . . . Calgary will be without defenseman Gary Suter, who suffered a broken jaw in Game 2 against Vancouver, and Mark Hunter, who suffered a broken hand in Game 6. When Calgary beat the Kings in a Smythe Division semifinal series last season, Suter led the Flames with nine points, including eight assists.

Mike Vernon, the Calgary goaltender who has been maligned as a guy who can’t win the big games, made 42 saves, including two overtime stops, in the Flames’ 4-3 victory in Game 7 against Vancouver. Vernon, who led the NHL during the regular season with 37 victories, said after the game that he never understood the reputation. “I don’t understand the bad rap. It ticked me off a bit, yeah. In the last 10 years, only three goalies have won a Cup. I have a great team in front of me. So did (Grant) Fuhr, (Patrick) Roy and Billy Smith. I think the criticism has made me a better player, though. I’ve had to face it day in and day out.”

King Marty McSorley, on whether this series will be more physical than the fight-free Edmonton series: “Our goal-scorers are going to have to suck up a punch, a stick to the ribs. They’re going to have to be tough--and it’s tough to take that stuff and not retaliate--and then hurt them by shaking it off and scoring goals. That’s the best way to stop that garbage. I expect Wayne (Gretzky) to get a few more cheap shots this series. But he can take a shot, turn around and score a goal. When I was first getting to know Wayne, there were times when he would come back to the bench and say, ‘Relax, I can handle it.’ He’s said many times, it’s easier to look in the mirror and see yourself with a bloody nose after a win.” But McSorley is not saying that the Kings are going to do nothing but take shots. He’s not shy about dispensing what he sees as justice if he needs to. McSorley said: “Our guys have to have some room to play.”