Tom Webster, a former Kings coach who was a standout player with the New England Whalers of the now-defunct World Hockey Assn., has died. Webster was 71 and reportedly had been suffering from brain cancer.
“It is very sad news for our organization,” said Luc Robitaille, the Kings’ president. “Coach Webster was a great man and my head coach for three seasons. He was also a tremendous part of a lot of the success our team enjoyed when Wayne Gretzky was playing in Los Angeles in particular.”
Former Kings goaltender Kelly Hrudey noted Webster’s personable manner away from the bench. “I’ll always remember Tom’s warm personality along with his laugh and smile. We were fortunate to have Tom in our lives,” he said.
“So sad to hear of Tommy Webster’s passing,” former Kings forward Tony Granato said via Twitter. “He was a great man and a coach that I was lucky to play for! Prayers and love to the family.”
Webster coached the Kings from May 31, 1989, through May 4, 1992, and compiled a record of 115-94-31. His tenure was highlighted by the team’s first Smythe Division title in the 1990-91 season, still the only division title the Kings have won. But his term also was marked by outbursts of temper that contrasted with his soft-spoken demeanor away from the ice.
He was suspended for four games and fined $5,000 for exchanging punches with Doug Gilmour of the Calgary Flames in March of 1991, and was suspended 12 games and fined $10,000 for throwing his stick and hitting referee Kerry Fraser in the foot in November 1991. It was the longest suspension imposed on an NHL coach. He previously had been ejected from a game for tossing his stick.
Webster drew the 12-game suspension during a game against the Detroit Red Wings at the Forum. Upset when he thought Fraser had failed to make a proper call, Webster hurled the stick from the bench. It hit the ice and grazed one of Fraser’s skates. “In handing down this decision, the league wishes to make it clear that there can be no excuse for taking physical actions against any official,” then-NHL vice president Brian O’Neill said in a statement.
Mike Donnelly, who works for the Kings’ player development staff, had a close-up view of Webster’s stick-throwing incident. “I just remember seeing the stick get launched over my head while sitting on the bench,” Donnelly said, via the Kings. “What can I say? He cared about his team so much and loved his players so much.”
Donnelly said he often saw Webster in later years, when Webster scouted for the Flames. “I was very fortunate that I got to know him really well after playing for him,” Donnelly said. “He was a great family man. Talked about his grandchildren all the time. Very well liked.”
The Kings were eliminated from the playoffs in the second round in each of Webster’s first two seasons and in the first round in 1991-92. He was fired after that season.
“When you reorganize your team, unfortunately, the first place you look is the coach,” Rogie Vachon, then the Kings’ general manager, said at the time. “I don’t put all the blame on him. Some of the players also have to be held accountable.”
Webster was born in Kirkland Lake, Canada, and was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the fourth round of the 1966 NHL amateur draft. He couldn’t win a regular spot in Boston and was claimed by Buffalo in the 1970 expansion draft. However, he was traded to Detroit soon after and had a breakthrough in the 1970-71 season, when he had 30 goals and 67 points for the Red Wings. He jumped to the WHA for the 1972-73 season and helped the New England Whalers win the Avco Cup, which was awarded to the league champion. Back injuries limited him late in his career, and he finished his WHA career with 220 goals and 425 points in 352 games.
He became a coach and led the Central Hockey League’s Tulsa Oilers — an affiliate of the New York Rangers — to an unlikely title in the 1983-84 season. The team’s financial instability led to the cancellation of its lease at its home rink, and they had to play the last six weeks of their season on the road. They won the championship and then disbanded.
Webster was hired to coach the Rangers for the 1986-87 season but developed an inner-ear infection that left him unable to fly. He resigned in April 1987. The Kings hired him in 1989 to succeed Robbie Ftorek.
Webster later worked as a coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, who had been the Hartford Whalers until they left Hartford, Conn., and moved south in 1997.
Former Kings player and general manager Dave Taylor called Webster “a good guy” who had “some pretty darn good teams” in Los Angeles. “He is what I would call a ‘players’ coach’ and he treated the players with a lot of respect,” Taylor said in a statement issued by the Kings. “He was well-liked amongst our group. Being an ex-player himself, I would call him more of an offensive-minded coach — he was that himself as a player — but it was mostly how he handled guys. He respected the players and got his point across that way.”