Tuesday

Ken Baumgartner

Ken Baumgartner was told he wasn’t good enough to play hockey at the junior level, let alone in the NHL. That only inspired "Bomber" to prove the "experts" wrong.

Bomber was never confused with the more skilled players on any team he played on, even before he made it to the junior level.

“Ken was never the best player on any team he played with,” recalls Ted Baumgartner, Ken's father. “But he was by far the strongest and the most determined.”

A defenseman until he reached the NHL, Baumgartner had little tangible skill according to scouts. His skating was horrendous, despite hard work to improve it. Below average speed and mobility made it easy for better skaters to burn the large blueliner. He had a poor shot, always rushing his release which resulted in an easy save or a wide shot.

Although Ken was good at reading the oncoming attack, his lack of patience hindered him. He quickly would lose his composure and positioning as he wanted to flatten the puck carrier. That of course resulted in a big hit by Baumgartner, but usually not before the forward dished the puck off to a wide open teammate resulting in a great scoring chance against his team. He was a punishing hitter, although it took him a long time to learn how to be an effective hitter. He was also a willing fighter, often initiating fisticuffs. Make no mistake about it, fighting is the reason Bomber made it to the NHL, and the reason he stuck around so long.

While the juniors were apparently going to pass over this fumbling, over aggressive kid, Baumgartner started to change his focus. He decided that if he didn't make it to the juniors that he would give up on hockey to pursue a university education. However Baumgartner put on an eye-catching performance in front of a scout for the Prince Albert Raiders.

“I had some good hits, a fight and a goal,” recalls Baumgartner, who was subsequently offered a three-day tryout with the Western Hockey League’s Raiders. “One thing led to another and three years later I graduated out of junior.”

Baumgartner had a decent junior career too. He helped the Raiders win a Memorial Cup Championship (1984-85) and was named to the WHL All-Scholastic Team (1983-84). He was even selected as one of the two top Prince Albert defensemen of all-time by a panel of Canadian Hockey League officials.

While he beat the odds and made it to the junior level, his dream of playing in the NHL was still far, far away. He was drafted though, by the Buffalo Sabres. The bad news was he was an after thought of the draft, selected in the final round, 245th overall in 1985. He was drafted strictly because of his fighting ability. The Sabres figured there was an outside chance he could fill a role as a minor league tough guy for them, but not much else.

But Ken worked hard and never gave up on his dream, and against all odds he made it to the NHL.

“Ken has always wanted to improve himself in whatever he does,” says Ted Baumgartner. “It’s really pretty simple. Everything Ken has accomplished is the result of hard work.”

After his junior career, Baumgartner, along with brother Kevin, a netminder, opted to play in Switzerland. The brothers were considered to be non-imports to the roster due to the fact that their grandfather hailed from Switzerland. Now one would think that Bomber would be out of place in international hockey where speed, skill and finesse were promoted, not fighting and bodychecking. However he brought his crash-and-bang brand of hockey to the league and played pretty well, considering.

“The gloves stayed on because those were the rules,” says Baumgartner “But there were some solid cross-ice body checks that were somewhat frowned upon!”

While playing in Switzerland, Bomber's NHL rights were traded from Buffalo to Los Angeles. Once the Swiss season ended, the Flin Flon Manitoba native reported to the Kings' AHL affiliate in New Haven, picking up 99 PIM in 13 games plus 60 more in 6 playoff games.

Bomber started the 1987-88 year in the minors of course, but his reputation as one of the minor league's toughest customers earned him a promotion to Los Angeles. He played 30 games in the NHL year, including his first game as an NHLer, on January 4, 1988.

With the exception of 10 games in the minors, Bomber stuck with the Kings the following year. It was. It was an exciting time for Baumgartner. Not only had he made it to the NHL, but he was playing on the same team as Wayne Gretzky! One game in particular sticks out with Ken in a Kings uniform. It was against the New York Rangers and Ken went out of his way to run Guy Lafleur on a couple of occasions. Lafleur of course was a Hall of Famer who came out of retirement to play again, and this brash young kid named Baumgartner was looking to make a name for himself.

With fellow tough guys Jay Miller and Marty McSorley in Los Angeles, Bomber became expendable. In November of 1989, Baumgartner was traded to the New York Islanders, who may have become interested in Bomber after the incident with Lafleur and the Isles arch rival Rangers.

However coach Al Arbour pulled Baumgartner aside was not impressed with Bomber's skating ability and informed the blueliner that he was taking him off defense and making him a winger.

The move worked well and probably lengthened Ken's career in the NHL. His lack of mobility wasn't as noticeable as he patrolled the left wing. Although you get the impression that Ken was really disappointed to leave the blueline.

“I was not happy to see my jersey hanging in a forward’s stall,” recalls Baumgartner. “But, I had no choice. I wanted to contribute to the team."

Ken spent almost three years in New York before being shuffled off to Toronto where he enjoyed his longest stay, almost 4 full season. Ken, who is a very articulate businessman and student, played a large role for the NHLPA during the lockout shortened season of 1994-95. His prominent role with the union probably spelled the end of Bomber's career in Toronto. However a season ending broken wrist forced the Leafs to wait until next year before shipping Bomber to Anaheim.

Ken played a strong game on the 4th line for Anaheim. He even scored a modest career high 11 points, all assists.

Ken became an unrestricted free agent in 1997 and signed with the Boston Bruins. There he was reunited with his former coach from Toronto - Pat Burns. He would play two more seasons, retiring in 1999.

The odds were against Ken Baumgartner ever making the NHL. There were far more talented players through out history who were not good enough to stick in the league. But the desire to succeed, the willingness to sacrifice, and the heart and effort that Ken showed earned him a lengthy NHL career.

After retiring as a player, Bomber initially entered the world of coaching. He soon left to enter the MBA program at Harvard, and has been very active in his daughter Alexa's hockey career.

4 comments:

Anonymous,  8:51 AM  

He was my Idol growing up, this story reflects that. He did it the hard way and made it. Cheers Bomber

Lance.f

Joel,  2:06 PM  

Bomber was my idol too, this guy played with heart!

Anonymous,  5:38 PM  

I played against him in flin flon ....very poor skater but tough as nails

Les harnish,  10:42 PM  

he was a beast, loved in toronto, greta guy. i rank him up with wendal, tie and dougie, for heart. cheers ken, your bud Les from nova scotia

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