Bobby Hull traded for Wilt Chamberlain?
When the Los Angeles Kings storm the United Center for Saturday afternoon’s Western Conference Final opener against the Blackhawks, there will not be an abundance of history to draw on between the two franchises.
However, if one man’s fantasy had become fact, we would still be recalling the deal of deals in professional sports.
During the 1971-72 season, Hull was skating in circles with the Blackhawks about a new contract while a rival to the National Hockey League, the World Hockey Association, prepared to exist. Arthur Wirtz, owner of the Blackhawks, did not take the threat very seriously, along with most of his brethren.
But Jack Kent Cooke, a Torontonian entrepreneur who owned the Kings and basketball’s Lakers, expressed concern. Also, he was frustrated about poor attendance for the Kings at his new palace, the Fabulous Forum. It was Cooke who famously remarked that he came to understand why 800,000 Canadians moved to Southern California. Huffed Cooke: “Because they hate hockey.”
As rumors grew about Hull’s discussions with the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets, Cooke, who always thought big, thought really big. Wirtz owned the Stadium where the Bulls played and was in the process of securing a majority stake in the franchise itself. The Bulls were averaging only about 11,000 per date in Chicago, and the Kings desperately needed a marquee player in Los Angeles.
Instead of tempting fate by allowing The Golden Jet to escape the NHL and provide the WHA instant traction, Cooke had an idea: He would trade superstar Chamberlain to the Bulls, and Hull would join the Kings. That would help both teams and both leagues, and might doom the WHA before it ever established credibility.
Would such a transaction have been possible? It would have been dramatic, for sure. Cooke never denied the proposal and Wirtz never acknowledged it, but those two giants of industry usually achieved their objectives. Cooke and Wirtz were movers and shakers.
As it turned out, Hull, the greatest left wing in NHL annals, signed with Winnipeg and seven years of war with the WHA ensued. Was Cooke serious? His inner circle confirmed that he was. Cooke is deceased, as is Wirtz, and Hull is back with the Blackhawks as a Hall of Fame ambassador, willing to admit that jumping leagues was a mistake that brought him a fortune, if not happiness.
In 1974, with Hull gone, the Blackhawks met the Kings in their only playoff series to this point. The Blackhawks won the first two games at home, then traveled to Los Angeles. Germain Gagnon, a journeyman “replacement” for The Golden Jet, scored 40 seconds into Game 3.
Bob Pulford, coach of the Kings, was renowned for his defensive doctrine. But with an early 1-0 lead, Billy Reay’s Blackhawks went into a shutdown formation. They took only 10 shots all night, including just three in the last two periods, but goalie Tony Esposito was brilliant, stopping 32, and the Blackhawks won 1-0. He authored another 1-0 shutout three nights later at the Stadium, and the Blackhawks won the series 4-1. They lost in the next round to the Boston Bruins.
In 1977, Pulford, who was an excellent coach with Los Angeles, joined the Blackhawks as general manager and head coach. After he pared his duties to those of GM only, a number of coaches followed, including Pulford, and always on an interim basis. In 1988, Mike Keenan was hired as coach, and by 1992, the Blackhawks were in the Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won in a sweep.
While Keenan prepared to become GM, chairman Bill Wirtz fretted about losing assistant coach Darryl Sutter. He was a valuable player with the Blackhawks and had become a hot commodity. In mid-June, after denying permission for Sutter to interview with the Kings, the Blackhawks anointed Sutter head coach while Keenan went upstairs.
But not for long. In November, Keenan was summoned to a meeting he thought had been called to finalize his contract. Instead, he was fired. “Mike wanted more authority than any team is willing to give,” said Pulford, again a GM. Less than two years later, Keenan won the Stanley Cup as coach of the New York Rangers. In 1995, Sutter resigned to spend more time with his family and perhaps less time around Jeremy Roenick, who torched Sutter’s dump-and-chase style as anathema to creative instincts.
Sutter is now coach of the defending champion Kings, whom he resurrected after being installed in midseason last year. Wandamae, Bob and Roz Pulford’s adopted daughter, is married to Dean Lombardi, the Kings’ general manager. And within the next couple weeks, these two teams likely will create more history.
Dioner Navarro hit three home runs for the Cubs Wednesday, but his story was near the newspaper tire ads because, like pollen, hockey is thick in Chicago’s air.