The expansion Los Angeles Kings featured one future Hall of Famer between the pipes in Terry Sawchuk and another behind the bench in Red Kelly. With more favorable circumstances, they might have boasted yet another on the blueline in Bill White.
Finally free of an oppressive minor league contract, White made his NHL debut as a 28-year-old with Los Angeles in 1967-68. With a stay-at-home defensive game as rock-solid but anonymous as his name, he would quietly emerge as a franchise cornerstone.
Not to say his performance went completely unnoticed. He was named to the Sporting News All-Western Division first team in his rookie campaign. The following year, he was the Kings' lone All-Star Game representative.
Sawchuk may have been LA's original marquee name, but White was its earliest homegrown, world-class talent. That is, until a contract dispute in the fall of 1969 also made him the first significant hold-out in team history.
White recalled, "The year previous, I asked Larry Regan, 'I'll like to renegotiate my contract.' And he said, 'Well, we'll do that at training camp the next year.'
"So it came to training camp and I confronted Larry on it. And he said, 'Wait for Mr. Cooke to come into training camp.' Mr. Cooke came to the motel, and I went into his room. And he just said, 'The contract stays as it is.'
"I knew that obviously, Larry had not really spoken to him about it. So I left camp."
Walking away from the middle of a four-year deal which paid him about $28,000 annually (roughly $200,000 today)-in comparison, Sawchuk banked $90,000 a season with the Kings-multiple outlets reported that White had returned home to work at his family's fish market.
"That's a myth," laughed the gregarious 77-year-old, "I see that on trading cards and that's totally false. I don't know where that came from." He actually toiled somewhere even less glamorous. "At that time, I worked at my brother-in-law's gas station.
"The pumps, I was putting studs in snow tires, and changing oil. Just all the regular stuff."
"He gave me the impression he was quitting hockey," answered Regan. "Fortunately, we're well stocked with defensemen." ("Defensive Ace White Departs Kings' Camp." Los Angeles Times, September 26, 1969.)
Bob Wall, Ted Irvine, Howie Hughes, Terry Sawchuk, Bill Flett, Wayne Rutledge & Bill White of the 1967-68 LA Kings
LA went on to lose 10 of its first 14 games without White, surrendering four or more goals nine times. Meanwhile, the organization accused the Toronto Maple Leafs of tampering with their star defender. While Maple Leafs GM Jim Gregory did tell a Toronto newspaper that he'd love to have the defensive stalwart on his side, White swore that no NHL teams contacted him during his hold-out.
After sitting out for 55 days, White returned to the line-up on November 20, 1969, armed with the same contract but a far different promise. He revealed, "Hal Laycoe, who was the coach at that time, said, 'They want you to get in playing shape. And you know they're going to trade you.'
"There were different teams mentioned: Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago...so I was just waiting around to see where I was going to go."
And the losses kept piling up. New coach Laycoe was canned after just 24 games (5-18-1). Johnny Wilson, who was promoted from top minor league affiliate Springfield to take the reins, didn't offer much encouragement, "The only promise I'll make to Los Angeles fans is that from now on the Kings will start hitting and checking." (Cour, James. "Wilson Replaces Laycoe as Coach of L.A." San Bernardino County Sun, December 16, 1969.)
On February 20, 1970, a few hours after Kelly's Pittsburgh Penguins thrashed the Kings 6-1-Cooke called it the "most humiliating experience of my life"-Regan packaged White, Bryan Campbell, and Gerry Desjardins for the Chicago Black Hawks' Gilles Marotte, Jim Stanfield, and Dennis DeJordy. (Hafner, Dan. "Kings Trade Desjardins, White, Rolfe, 3 Others." Los Angeles Times, February 29, 1970.)
White went on to greater renown away from Southern California. He was a key behind Team Canada's 1972 Summit Series triumph and ran third for the Norris Trophy in three consecutive campaigns (1971-74). All this was accomplished in his 30s. Indeed, there's every reason to believe that the six-time All-Star could've been a Hall of Famer if he had started his NHL career before 28.
The royal ruins that White escaped would suffer the most losses (52) ever by an NHL team in a season. This was in just 70 games. Thankfully, this ignominious record would be short-lived, but the 1969-70 Kings remain the franchise's least successful squad.
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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.