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50 Forgotten Stories: The Doldrums of Opening Night

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

 

Before the days of Stanley Cup banner ceremonies, European expeditions, and the Great Gretzky, Los Angeles Kings season openers were, in some ways, pretty ho-hum affairs.

Home season openers couldn't even attract a full house. The inaugural game in franchise history, October 14, 1967 against the Philadelphia Flyers, was witnessed by just 7,035 at cozy Long Beach Arena.

Long Beach, of course, was a temporary place for the Kings to hang their helmets, as their permanent residence, the Forum, was wrapping up construction. LA's only true major league arena at that time, the Sports Arena, had a previous engagement with "America's largest Home Furnishings Show." (Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1967.)

Home sweet home, indeed. At least season-opening ticket prices were very hospitable, ranging from $2.50 to $6 (that's $18-44 today). And Los Angeles doubled up Philadelphia 4-2.

The Flyers figured into another special season opener on October 10, 1974. The Kings staggered into the Spectrum, reeling from their first and only winless exhibition season ever. "They played like fat cats," bemoaned Los Angeles GM Jake Milford. "I know Mr. Cooke is very worried." (Larson, Al. "Lethargic Kings Open Season Tonight in Philly. The Independent, October 10, 1974.)

LA would knock down the defending Stanley Cup champs 5-3 and go on to score their finest regular season ever with 105 points.

Expectations were sky high the following year as the Kings added scoring ace Marcel Dionne to their attack formation. But as it would prove to be time after time, the Montreal Forum was a house of horrors for Los Angeles, as the Canadiens dropped them 9-0 on October 8, 1975.

This was LA's worst-ever season-opening loss and some way to welcome future franchise cornerstone Dionne. Even the opposing netminder sympathized. "That's enough errors by their team for three or four games," observed Ken Dryden. "I'm sure it feels bad to open the season like that." (Cole, Glenn. "Kings Come Up Flat Against Flying Habs." The Canadian Press, October 9, 1975.)

It went from bad to worse a couple nights later when Los Angeles lost 7-0 to the New York Islanders, tying the most lopsided two-game stretch in club history. (They were outscored 18-2 over consecutive contests in 1971-72.)

Speaking of franchise cornerstones, LA replaced one in Rogie Vachon, who had departed via free agency, just days before their October 11, 1978 season opener against the Washington Capitals. GM George Maguire sent a 1979 first-round draft pick to the Boston Bruins for Ron Grahame.

"It's no secret we've been looking for a front-line goaltender," declared Kings coach Bob Berry. "Ron Grahame fills the bill to perfection." (Merry, Don. "Kings Get Goalie Grahame from Bruins." Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1978.)

Some of the 8,318 who were there at the (Los Angeles) Forum to gaze at this new star might have been surprised to see a familiar No.30 shooting out of the tunnel. "Numbers weren't that big a deal to me. It was almost more what I was given," Grahame revealed almost three decades later. "I obviously knew Vachon wore 30 in LA, but that was the number I was given.

The Capitals topped the Kings 4-2, but Vachon was still on everybody's mind. Detroit Red Wings GM Ted Lindsay, mired in a contentious compensation battle with Maguire over the signing of Vachon, fumed, "[The Kings] make a mockery out of the NHL by giving a No. 1 draft choice for a minor league goaltender." (Brown, Frank. "Vachon Deal Has Everybody Mad." Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1978.)

To this day, Grahame had never heard Lindsay's rant. "I very seldom read any of the articles or clips," he recalled. "I did that purposely just because I knew how I played. I really didn't feel like I needed a writer to tell me I played well or I played poorly.

"At the time, if I had heard that, it probably would have angered me to the point of proving that he didn't know what he was talking about."

Unfortunately, Grahame, who was two-time WHA goalie of the year and had gone 26-6-7 in his rookie year in Boston, wasn't able to make "Terrible Ted" eat his words. He won just 23 games in three years in Los Angeles. "Quite frankly, it was disappointing. I had hoped to contribute a lot more. It didn't work out with them.

"I wish I really had a good answer [why]."

Boston, of course, would spin LA's first-rounder into Hall of Fame defender Ray Bourque.

A not much larger Forum crowd of 8,852 watched Dionne make history during the October 5, 1983 season opener, as "Little Beaver" chugged past fellow French-Canadian legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard on the all-time goals scored list with 546.

"The only sad part, I guess, is that I didn't accomplish this closer to home in Montreal," noted Dionne before the 3-3 tie with the Minnesota North Stars. "But I have no control over where I play." (McManis, Sam. "Dionne Passes Richard; Kings Tie." Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1983.)

Dionne's greatness kept hockey rolling in Los Angeles, but indeed, it was Gretzky who would transform season openers into true Hollywood spectacles.

"Never in NHL history has there been such excitement about an opening game," said Detroit head coach Jacques Demers before the Great One's LA debut on October 6, 1988. (Associated Press, October 6, 1988.)

Gretzky didn't disappoint a Forum-capacity 16,005, as he scored on his very first shot of the game, leading the Kings to an 8-2 triumph over the Red Wings. 120 media were on hand, 10 times more than normal for an opening night, according to PR director David Courtney. This was the first-ever sold-out home opener in Los Angeles history, the first of many.

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Sheng Peng is a freelance hockey writer based out of Los Angeles, California. He covers the LA Kings and Ontario Reign for Today's Slapshot. His work has also appeared on VICE Sports, The Hockey News, and SB Nation's Jewels from the Crown.

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