The Kings fired Coach Robbie Ftorek on Tuesday, inviting him to a noon meeting with General Manager Rogie Vachon, who informed him that his contract would not be renewed.
It was a move that had long been expected, and not even Ftorek was very surprised.
Ftorek was not fired because of the Kings' record this season or because the Kings did not win the Stanley Cup. Their regular-season mark was 42-31-7, their third-best ever, good for fourth place overall in the league, up from 18th the previous season.
Ftorek was fired after his first full year as coach because he did not have the support of the players.
Wayne Gretzky was at odds with Ftorek this season, and many of the other Kings were frustrated with him at one time or another, voicing their feelings at their end-of-the-season meetings with Vachon.
Gretzky, though, has been at the center of the criticism of Ftorek. Ftorek was not fired because of one confrontation with Gretzky in Detroit last November, but he was fired for reasons that are demonstrated by that confrontation.
On the night of Nov. 23, the Kings were beating the Red Wings and Gretzky was having what might have been a record night for points. When Gretzky felt that he had lapsed and contributed to a Detroit goal toward the end of the second period, he hit his stick on the back of the net in his anger at himself.
In the dressing room between the second and third periods, Ftorek announced that Gretzky would be benched at the start of the third period because Ftorek wanted to teach the team to be disciplined.
Gretzky fired back at Ftorek: "Robbie, if you want to teach, go back to New Haven. We're here to win the Stanley Cup."
When Ftorek was brought up from the Kings' American Hockey League affiliate, the New Haven Nighthawks, in December of 1987, the Kings were a young and struggling team. But after trading a lot of young talent for Gretzky and several other veteran players, the team changed dramatically.
In announcing that Ftorek's contract was not being extended, Vachon said: "Robbie is a teacher, a good technician, but now we have a team that is older, we have a lot of players who have been in the Stanley Cup finals, and it becomes a more difficult team to manage . . .
"Our next coach is going to have to know how to deal with stars. We have a lot of stars. . . . Communication will be very important."
Ftorek has also been widely criticized for his inability to deal with the media. But on the day that he was fired, a day that most coaches would feel was the best day to duck out the back door, Ftorek stood and faced the cameras. Not at the press conference, which took place in the Kings' dressing room. He was not scheduled there because people in the Kings' front office did not think it would be "appropriate" for him to appear with Vachon. Ftorek made himself available in the lounge of the hotel across the street from the Forum.
Asked if he agreed with the assessment that he had not communicated well with the players, Ftorek said: "If that's a flaw of mine, then it's something that I'll have to work on. But I don't know that that's true."
And asked if he harbored any hard feelings against the players, Ftorek seemed stunned. "The players?" he asked. "No! We have a great group of players."
Asked if Gretzky had been consulted concerning the decision to fire Ftorek, Vachon said: "Absolutely not."
As for whether the players had been happy playing under Ftorek, Vachon said: "Now everything is emphasized because of 99. But it happens every year that you can't keep all of the players happy all of the time. . . .
"This year we made a lot of changes. We have a lot of new players, like 12 of them. Robbie was doing very well with the kids, but then we came in with a lot of different players."
It was the member of the staff who the players liked best, Cap Raeder, who was told Tuesday that he would be kept on. Bryan Maxwell, a holdover from the staff of Mike Murphy, was told that his contract would not be extended. Murphy had been fired and replaced by Ftorek.
"I think it was a wise decision for them to keep Cap," Ftorek said. "He's a good coach. It's good to have somebody around who knows the players and who knows what's going on."
The Kings gave no indication who the next coach will be. Team owner Bruce McNall was in New York for meetings of the NHL's expansion committee and was not available for comment Tuesday night.
Gretzky, too, was in New York, reportedly getting ready for a taping of the television show "Saturday Night Live."
Vachon said that the interviewing process would begin soon and that the Kings intended to hire a new coach before the NHL draft and meetings in mid-June.
FTOREK'S RECORD The National Hockey League coaching record of Robbie Ftorek, who was fired Tuesday by the Kings:
Year Team Record Pct. 1987-88 L.A. Kings 23-25-4 .481 1988-89 L.A. Kings 42-31-7 .569 Total 2 Years 65-56-11 .534 PLAYOFFS Year Team Record Pct. 1987-88 L.A. Kings 1-4 .200 1988-89 L.A. Kings 4-7 .364 Total 2 Years 5-11 .313