Daryl Evans on Toronto, LA, Gretzky and Miracle on Manchester
Former NHL player Daryl Evans discusses his transition from Toronto to LA, the growth of hockey in the US, and playing against Wayne Gretzky.
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The life of a hockey player can change in an instant.
A move to a new team brings with it a new city, a new house, a new set of teammates and, sometimes, a whole new hockey culture.
That was certainly the case for Daryl Evans, when the Toronto native was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 1980.
“It was definitely an eye opener,” says Evans. “Not only growing up in Canada, but Toronto being the hockey hotbed of the world, and then going to Los Angeles at that time.
“I’d gone to the United States and played games before, in tournaments in Detroit and things like that, and got a chance to see the way the game was evolving, how it was growing in the US. But going to a non-traditional hockey market was a lot different.
“In Toronto, it's hockey, hockey, hockey everywhere. You want to strike up a conversation with somebody, just talk about the Maple Leafs and you’ll be engaged for a great period of time.
“It was a transition in that hockey wasn’t at the forefront. You had the Dodgers, the Lakers, the Raiders playing at that time. Hockey was a sport that was down on the totem pole a little bit.”
Despite going through such a significant move at a relatively young age, it is safe to say the change worked out for Evans.
The forward would go on to play 105 games for the Kings over four seasons, and has since become their radio color commentator, now entering his 23rd year in the booth.
Having spent the majority of the last 40 years in California, Evans has witnessed first-hand the growth of hockey in the state and across the US.
“When I was growing up, I remember playing against a team from Pittsburgh that we had to beat by 32 goals in order to move on in a tournament,” says Evans. “We beat them 33-1 in a game which only had three 10-minute periods.
“Hockey has always been the number one sport in Canada, but I think now in different spots in the US, you can start to see it has evolved into that.
“The US has done a great job at embracing the game of hockey, and even taking it to the next level. They've provided different ways of looking at the game, different ways of coaching the game to the Canadians, just as the Russians did.
“If you're standing still, you're going backwards, and we continue to embrace new things. To see the way that hockey has grown in the US – we don't have the numbers that they do in Canada – but when you look at the level, the number of kids being drafted, it’s so great to see.
“It's just like it's one country.”
One of the biggest factors in the growth of hockey in California, in particular, was the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in 1988.
“When Gretzky came to Los Angeles that really put hockey on a different platform and drew the attention of different parts of the city,” says Evans.
“He brought the Hollywood scene into it, and I think anytime that you get that type of attention, it becomes magnified, everybody else starts to pay attention to it.
“What Gretzky did, by coming to Los Angeles, took our game to a different level and kind of put it on par with Canada and Toronto.
“As a young player that comes in, especially when you're going into a new environment, to see the city embrace you, and the people embrace you and know who you are, it's a warm feeling.
“It makes it that transition, going to a strange area, strange part of the country – maybe a new country – a lot easier and more comfortable for you to be able to go out there and perform your job.”
Evans was no longer with the Kings when they acquired Gretzky in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers in 1988, having left the NHL the year before.
He did, however, still get to experience the impact of ‘The Great One’ in amplifying the reach of hockey in his adopted hometown.
“The story I tell is that the town wasn't big enough for the two of us!” Evans jokes. “But no, I would have loved to have been part of him being in Los Angeles.
“I got a chance to take people to games and educate them as to what was happening and how special what they were seeing on the ice was.
“Not only was he one of the greatest players to ever play the game of hockey, but I think everybody got to see the type of individual that he is off the ice.
“Gordie Howe was his idol, who's the ultimate professional. I think Wayne carried a lot of those characteristics and traits.
“I had the great fortune of playing both hockey and baseball against Wayne since we were nine years old. So, we'd built a little bit of a friendship all the way through, but it would have been nice to have stepped on the ice alongside him playing on the same team.”
Evans did play against Gretzky a few times, though, including during the ‘Miracle on Manchester’, which remains the largest comeback in NHL history.
Not only did Evans play in that famous game, he also scored the winning goal as LA came back from 5-0 down to beat Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, eventually winning the first-round playoff series against their heavily favored opponents.
“It was an incredible moment,” remembers Evans. “I’ve learned to appreciate it more now, many years removed from it.
“When you do something like that in the NHL, and you do it against Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, it magnifies it that much more.
“Looking at the way the two teams lined up going into the playoffs, Gretzky's team had 46 more points than us during the regular season. It was supposed to be a walkover.
“I wasn't even supposed to be in the lineup. That year, they expanded the roster from 19 to 20 players, and I was one of the add-ons.
“Believe it or not, both teams flew on the same plane to go back to Edmonton for game five. That was the quietest plane ride I've ever been on.”
The Miracle on Manchester was undoubtedly Evans’ greatest moment on the ice, but on a personal note, there is another that may trump it.
After four seasons with LA and one with Washington, Evans ended his NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Although he played just two games for his hometown club, skating out at Maple Leaf Gardens was a unique experience for the Toronto native.
“It was really special,” says Evans. “I remember growing up, it was Wednesday night and Saturday night hockey, listening to the games on a radio, when we'd be travelling to our own games.
“So, to be able to put that uniform on was really special, to step into Maple Leaf Gardens, it was really quite a setting.
“Walking in those doors and walking into the locker room, those are special memories, even if all it was for a short period of time.
“They’re things that you can always cherish, and you never forget.”
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