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MIKE DOWNEY

Tonelli Is No Longer Playing on Thin Ice Now That He's a King

January 16, 1989|MIKE DOWNEY

How could they have done such a thing to John Tonelli? Why would they cut him and slash him the way they did? What made the New York Islanders and Calgary Flames decide they didn't need him around anymore? What made a recent book about hockey players call him just about every name in the book?

Hard to believe anybody could be so mean to good old "Tonto" Tonelli, trusty sidekick of hockey legends from Gordie Howe to Mike Bossy to Wayne Gretzky. Tonelli is skating so splendidly these days for the Kings, they might just take their first Stanley Cup championship--and he might win his fifth .

Four championship rings were fitted for Tonelli's fingers from 1980-83, when he was working for the Islanders. Tonto assisted on the most famous goal in that franchise's history, the 2-on-1 breakaway that resulted in Bob Nystrom's Game 6 overtime goal that gave the Isles the first of their championships.

"I haven't had this much fun playing hockey since, well, since those New York years," said Tonelli, who will be accompanying the Kings to Long Island for a game Thursday.

Tonelli loves L.A., and it loves him. The guy is playing like one of the greats on skates. Wayne Gretzky's belief, stated again and again, that Tonelli's knowledge of what it takes to be a champion would prove invaluable to the Kings has become, with every passing day, less of an opinion and more of a fact.

Last time the Kings played the Islanders, in early December, Tonelli scored twice. Last time they played his other ex-employer, Calgary, on Dec. 20, Tonelli had a hat trick. Starting with that night, he has scored a dozen goals in the last 11 games. Against Hartford last Saturday, he had 2 goals, 2 assists, and swapped hugs all around after getting his 700th-career point.

Tonelli and linemate Ron Duguay, both of whom will turn 32 this year, are having the best time they've had since their old New York days, Tonto with the Isles, Doogie with the Rangers. More than once since then, both have been assured that their best times were behind them, that they were mere ghosts of the great players they used to be.

"What happened to Doogie is exactly what's happened to me," Tonelli said. "My reputation around the league was, 'He's gone. He's finished.' It's almost drilled into your head. After a while, you begin to think, 'Hey, maybe it is over. Maybe I am washed up.' "

The heck he is.

OK, so Tonelli has been around the rink a few times. At 18, he centered a World Hockey Assn. father-and-son line of Gordie and Mark Howe, with the old Houston Aeros. Together they won the 1976 Avco Cup. (Surely you remember the Avco Cup.) Three years later, Tonelli joined the Islanders, for whom he went to the Stanley Cup finals five times.

Yet, even though during his last Islander season Tonelli scored a career-high 42 goals, a career-high 100 points, made the NHL All-Star squad and set a club single-season scoring record for left wingers, New York got rid of him, traded him to Calgary for Steve Konroyd and Richard Kromm. And what did he do his first season with Calgary? Played in his sixth Stanley Cup final, that's what he did.

Then they quit on him. The Flames just plain gave up on him.

"They even scratched me from some playoff games," Tonelli recalled. "I was totally bewildered. They left me with hardly any confidence. It's something all hockey players dread. The next year I come to camp, and suddenly I'm a question mark. The coach is wondering out loud whether Tonelli can still cut it.

"Still, I suppose I should look at both sides of the coin. They had so many good players, they couldn't afford to use everybody. Maybe they were right to dump me. All I know is, the greatest day I've had in a long time was the day Rogie called me on the phone."

Rogie Vachon, general manager of the Kings, rescued Tonelli from his plight. The Kings signed him as a free agent June 27. Six weeks later, Vachon and the big bossman, Bruce McNall, traded for Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, all of whom have contributed mightily to the L.A. hockey revival. No wonder so many Canadians hate that free-trade bill with the United States.

Was John Tonelli washed up?

A book called "Hockey Scouting Report, 1988-89," authored by former NHL goalie John Davidson and a couple of other writers, did a report on Tonelli that made his eyes water. "I don't want to point any fingers," Tonelli says now. "Let's just say that the nature of the game is that some guys out there hold grudges a long time."

Some excerpts:

Once a good skater with a lot of power, Tonelli's skills are now on the downslide. He doesn't have the acceleration he once did, and for a straight-ahead player who had little agility, loss of speed and power is the worst loss that could be suffered. He retains a kind of laziness he's long had, in that he won't backcheck as well as he should, sort of coasting back to save his energy for another offensive rush.

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