He never could turn down a drink, Bill Flett admitted, and he didn’t miss many good times when he and the Kings were young and every day seemed to be part of an endless, rollicking party.
“I’ve been known to enjoy life. Hey, you’ve got to enjoy life,” he said.
He can say that now, with the experience of a lengthy battle against alcoholism.
Flett, who was taken by the Kings from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 18th round of the 1967 expansion draft, has lived life to its fullest. A rugged right wing with a blistering shot and a sense of adventure, he was one of the Kings’ most popular players in their early years.
Owner Jack Kent Cooke, looking for gimmicks that would draw fans, concocted colorful nicknames for his players. Eddie Joyal became “the Jet” and Real Lemieux was “Frenchy,” but unlike his linemates, Flett came by the nickname “Cowboy” honestly. He had been a calf roper in and around Calgary, building up the muscles and toughness he would use to score a team-high 26 goals and accumulate 97 penalty minutes in the Kings’ inaugural season.
Playing on the Kings’ top line, Flett recorded the first hat trick in club history, on Nov. 5, 1967, and finished second to Joyal in scoring each of the first two seasons. He also represented the Kings in the 1971 All-Star game.
“He was part of that first group of wild men, and he was not averse to getting into a few scraps,” said Channel 5 sportscaster Stu Nahan, then an announcer for the Philadelphia Flyers and CBS’ Game of the Week telecasts.
“Remember how they’d say, ‘Clear the track, here comes [Eddie] Shack’? Shack would take his Jeep and ride it around the parking lot outside the Forum. He had a golf cart and he’d drive it around the parking lot and almost killed people, and Flett was right there with him.”
Bill Clement, who played with Flett in Philadelphia after the Kings traded Flett there in 1972 and later played with him again in Atlanta, also remembers Flett’s appetite for a good time.
“Toward the end of his first year [with the Flyers] he partied a lot. He was a wild guy, but he was always fun,” said Clement, an analyst for ESPN hockey telecasts. “I always found him to be generous, never adversarial or confrontational, with his teammates.
“He was a very slow-talking, deliberate guy. He was the ultimate Western stoic, just an incredibly strong guy.”
Maybe being stoic was a mistake. Maybe, while Flett was still playing--or after he began struggling for a toehold in the oil business--he should have told someone he couldn’t control his drinking, and that it was controlling him.
It was affecting him at work and at home, “but not that I noticed at the time,” said Flett, now 53. His friends noticed; they would see him at games in Edmonton after he had retired and remark about his disheveled appearance and wonder if he was OK. Quietly, Wayne Gretzky, who had played with Flett in the Oilers’ last World Hockey Assn. season and their first year in the NHL, helped him financially and persuaded friends to steer work Flett’s way. The Oilers’ and Flyers’ alumni associations also supported him when things were bleak, but they couldn’t cure his illness. He had to it himself.
Finally, Flett realized seeking help was a sign of strength, not weakness, and he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage. His wife of nearly 33 years, Doreen, and their three children stood by him as he fought the toughest battle of his life.
“It was just a matter of doing it. If you need it, then it’s time,” he said with typical brevity. “I drank more than I should have, I guess. I always enjoyed a drink.
“I sort of decided to go. [Oiler General Manager] Glen Sather and [owner] Peter Pocklington came up with the idea and said they would arrange it, and so I went. I got pretty sick there.
“That was four, five years ago, and I haven’t touched a drop since.”
Gretzky was reluctant to discuss his generosity toward Flett, considering it simply repayment of the kindness Flett had shown him. “When I broke in I was 17, and he and his wife took care of me like I was family. He was more like a father to me. I was a baby,” Gretzky said.
“Everybody goes through tough times. I’m just grateful that he’s bounced back and done OK for himself.”
It hasn’t been easy.
After being traded to Philadelphia in a six-player deal in January 1972, Flett had 2 1/2 good seasons with the Flyers, including a career-best 43 goals and 74 points in 1972-73. He had 17 goals and 44 points in 1973-74 but had only six assists in the Flyers’ Stanley Cup run. He was traded after that season to Toronto and a year later was claimed on waivers by Atlanta; he spent three seasons with the Oilers in the WHA and retired after their first NHL season, 1979-80.
He spent a year as the general manager of a junior team but has worked mostly “in the oil patch.” He’s a consultant, building leases and doing land reclamation in the oil-rich land of northern Alberta. “Things have gone pretty good. It can be up and down,” he said.
Flett has fond memories of his days with the Kings and is eager to see his former teammates during the club’s 30th anniversary celebration, which begins today.
“We had sort of a mix-up that first year because the Forum wasn’t finished. We were playing in Long Beach and at the Sports Arena, and when you could go out of the rink and onto the beach, it was quite different from what we were used to,” he said. “We had a pretty good club, and we drew pretty well that first year. There was a pretty good core of fans.
“We had some problems after we traded a bunch of guys away after the second year. The fans would get disgruntled seeing their favorite players traded away. But the fans were really good to us. . . .
“It’s great [the Kings] are doing this. It will bring a lot back to the organization, when the guys playing there now see how well the ex-players are being treated.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A look at the events surrounding the Kings’ celebration of their 30 years in Los Angeles.
TONIGHT: Kings will wear replicas of 1967 jerseys during game with St. Louis.
FRIDAY: All-time Kings team named at Century City gala.
SATURDAY: Fan fest in Forum parking lot at 2 p.m. King alumni vs. celebrity team at 4 p.m. Kings will again don replica jerseys for game against Calgary.