Kurri discovers old success at new position His play at center helps boost Kings

December 13, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Mark Messier is a hockey center by trade, and being one, he thought he knew who can play the position and who cannot. His best friend, Wayne Gretzky, redefined the position.

Which was why Messier started laughing when Jari Kurri skated out to take the opening faceoff against him during the Los Angeles King-New York Ranger exhibition at Phoenix, Ariz. The Kings, from the bench, saw Messier laughing and talking to Kurri.

Kings coach Barry Melrose asked Kurri what Messier had said to him. Kurri answered reluctantly.

"Messier stood and laughed at him," Melrose said. "He said, 'Jari, you're no center!' "

Melrose paused for dramatic effect, setting up the punch line.

"Well, the guy who can't play cen ter is only ab-out 20-something points ahead of Messier," he said, laughing.

Actually, Kurri is seven points ahead of Messier among the National Hockey League's scoring leaders, but Melrose's point is well taken. Kurri's resurgence has been one of the most unexpected stories in the NHL this season.

One of the best right wings in the game smoothly switched positions, taking the place of the injured Gretzky. And Kurri has been among the league's scoring leaders all season. Now, he is third with 16 goals and 48 points, trailing only the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux and the Buffalo Sabres' Pat LaFontaine. Very soon, Kurri will equal last season's total output of 23 goals and 60 points.

His inspired play not only stopped the Kings from making a multi-player deal for a center with the Detroit Red Wings before the season opener, it has helped lift the Kings into second place overall in the NHL. In the Smythe Division standings, they lead second-place the Calgary Flames by seven points.

Any pride Kurri takes from this season's accomplishments doesn't bubble easily to the surface. He doesn't boast. Much as he didn't complain when everything around him seemed to turn sour last season.

It takes some gentle prodding for him to even acknowledge that, yes, he is pleased.

"I needed to have a good start to put everything behind me," Kurri said. "There were those people who counted me out. Stuff went on. Personally, I wanted to prove I could still play this high level of hockey." "He is the nicest guy I ever met," said Selanne, who is second in scoring among NHL rookies. "He is the idol of every young Finnish player. He is such a good example for young guys like me.

"He said last year wasn't as bad as everybody said. People should realize it's not easy to play with Wayne Gretzky because of the expectations. This was no problem with Jari. He had 10 excellent years in the NHL, so nobody worried about one that wasn't so good."

And Kurri wasn't the only struggling King last season. Gretzky will be the first to acknowledge that he wasn't pleased with his own performance last season.

"If you look at the whole team, no one played that well," Kings right wing Tomas Sandstrom said.

"So many players of that stature, when things are going bad, they make excuses," Melrose said. "They say, '[The coach] is not using me right.' But he took it. He never complained. He took a lot of [criticism], including some from Tom, and he never pointed a finger. Jari Kurri doesn't handle things like that.

"He had never played center. I asked him and right away he said, 'I'll try.' Most guys would have said, 'Get out of here, you're out of your mind.'

"I think this has made hockey more exciting for him. It's a bigger challenge."

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