As part of the LA Kings’ 50th Anniversary celebration, LAKings.com will have conversations with 50 former players as part of our special series 50 KINGS.
Our second piece features a member of the Kings during the 1979-80 season, forward Mike Marson. He played in just three games for the club after nearly 200 games with the Washington Capitals.
Marson, who is from Ontario, was also one of the first black players in NHL and LA Kings history.
He answered these questions from LAKings.com:
LAKings.com: Your time in Los Angeles, in particular, was somewhat short-lived. As you go back and you think about that time, what are some of the things that stand out to you about being an LA King?
MIKE MARSON: Well, it was interesting to be an LA King playing in the climate that’s out there. The warm climate and the whole “Summer” thing being 24 hours a day. That was different than what I was used to. My Junior career was played in Sudbury where it was so cold all the time. But LA is a fantastic city and it has so many different aspects to it that are entertaining. You’re playing hockey one minute and you could be at the beach another. You have all the different entertainment facilities at the Marina Del Rey. We used to make a big joke about, no matter what day it was… it was always Friday. “Thank God It’s Friday.” And we would go and have lunch after practice or whatnot.
LAKings.com: Talk a little bit about where you were in terms of your career at that point. You had played almost 200 games in the NHL with Washington and you ended up hanging up the skates in ‘80-‘81. Can you tell us where you were at that point as a player?
MARSON: It was a struggle near the end. But I remember George Maguire had been kind enough to acquire my rights. He was the team’s GM and I had two training camps with LA and I was one of the last cuts the second time. I don’t know, my contract was up. I was on an option year and I think I was looking for different terms than the Kings were prepared to give me at that time. And so, after training all summer in order to put a proper show on, to be cut and be sent to Binghampton, New York, it wasn’t for me at the time. And so I opted to be bought out of my contract and try real life on. The thing you have to remember is, at that time, when I turned pro, and all the civil rights stuff had just kind of not come to an end but it had finished a chapter. You have the assassination of JFK and Bobby (Kennedy) and Dr. King. And in many of the cities that I would go into, there was still a strange kind of residue regarding that kind of situation. I mean, at the time, I was the only black in hockey. At least my first year. And so, as a Grade 12 student, there were a lot of things that went down that, in no way, could have anybody been prepared to handle. But you do your best, you try to cope and you try to move on.
LAKings.com: From that racial aspect, when you broke in with the Wolves in ‘72 up until your final season playing in Binghamton, did you see positive changes or maybe not as much as you would have liked to have in that span of a decade give-or-take?
MARSON: Well, the thing is… there weren’t really enough guys playing for there to be any kind kind of difference. I’m sure maybe the guys would share my sentiments on the difficulties of the struggle and traveling with the team and different hotels that may have had a resistance to them staying there. That being said, I remember a number of years ago, Mr. Bettman flew me to New York to meet with his then council, and we discussed a whole bunch of different things including different initiatives that I had that I thought might be of some kind of assistance to the game. They then had launched the diversity program and, of course, Willie Oree’s name came up and I had mentioned that, at the time, Willie wasn’t working in hockey and that it would be nice if he was. He went on to head the diversity program and whatnot. But I think from that meeting, things started to change. Maybe there was a certain consciousness that opened up or some new way of thinking that started to open up. And as of today, so many years later, yes… we see a lot of change.
LAKings.com: Do you, along those lines, feel as if you were a role model?
MARSON: Absolutely. As you get older, you begin to cut the fat off and you get rid of some of the things that were negative and you remember things like great lunches you may have had with a couple of the guys -- things that were totally positive with nothing negative. But in my case, it became a nonstop show – a nonstop setup of circumstances. You’d go into a rink and there’d be somebody there interested in harming you or causing you trouble and it’s odd because I always make the joke that both of my great grandfathers were from Ireland. So, my bloodline… we’ve really never understood the whole concept of what the racial overtones were about because my great grandfather could’ve been sitting with his great grandfather enjoying a pint. That’s true in a lot of cases. But regarding hockey, I think that it’s starting to open up. Don Cherry has been a great proponent of being able to speak up when things were not looking quite so right for guys that are playing now. And it’s a thing that changes over time and who ever would’ve thought that there would’ve been a day when you’d look at the President of the United States and realize that he has a whole multicultural background.
LAKings.com: Being the only black player at that time, did you end up doing a lot of media, like a lot of interviews or not necessarily?
MARSON: I remember a lot of times it was embarrassing. There was a time that Boston… we’d get in to play the Bruins – the Big Bad Bruins and it was the old Boston Garden. And the whole area was a real character setting for a movie. And we were beaten, I forget what it was but something like 11-2. Something outrageous. That year, we only won seven games all seasons and I remember that the media came right over to me and started asking me, “What’s it like to be the only black hockey player or the first contemporary?” However they wanted to describe or voice their questions. And here we’ve just been beaten up by the Bruins. Why am I the focal point? I never got that. But that was true in a lot of situations.
LAKings.com: Last question about the LA Kings. Who were some of the teammates that you look back on that you’re proud to have played with?
MARSON: Well, Marcel Dionne was there. He’d signed the biggest contract ever signed by a professional hockey player at that time and Marcel had been a hero of mine as a young kid. I had a hockey coach who used to take us to watch the St. Catherines Black Hawks to play. I might’ve been 14 or 15 and I was always impressed with how Marcel could take the puck from end-to-end. All the greats could do that. The Orr’s. The Howe’s. They all have this thing. Henri Richard. Mike Murphy was there… just a whole bunch of guys. At the time, I think they wondered or tried to be emphathetic with what perhaps I was feeling or going through at the time. Having been traded is one thing. Having this situation with the racial difference and whatnot following me everywhere. To be honest, at the time it put me in a situation where, psychologically, I began to doubt myself as an athlete. Almost like a form of emasculation. You have to remember, I was getting hate mail sent to my house as well as hate mail sent to my mailbox at the arena. I hadn’t been in Los Angeles long enough for any of that stuff to happen. But in Washington, that was like the norm. I would get a message. Someone would cut words out of a page, stick it to a page and there was the message. Again, I look back and I think… someone from Grade 12th turning Pro. That’s a lot to start to deal with. Night after night. Day after day. Week after week. But I did my best with it. It’s one of those things that’s unfortunate and as a trail blazer, as a pioneer… you’re going to deal with that kind of stuff. But the LA Kings, at the time, were very open to receiving me and they offered to help me. Different guys offered to offer any sort of thing. I remember Randy Holt was there. Randy had myself and a couple of the guys for lunch. We had played Junior together in Sudbury, where I had been a #1 pick. But it’s all good. When you look back, you have fond memories of the things that were great. And the things that were not so great, you just let them go.
LAKings.com: Finally, Mike, transitioning to your interest away from the ice. How did you get involed with Shotokan?
MARSON: It’s a style of martial arts that I studied under the great Kancho Okuyama.
LAKings.com: Is that something you do to this day?
MARSON: Well, it’s certainly a thing I do with Mike Marson Athletic Training Services is I offer young players who are really talented the opportunity to learn how to handle themselves in just about every situation that might come up. It helps them to have a more relaxed understanding of what they’re supposed to do as a professional athlete. I try not to leave any stone unturned in explaining to them what’s going to be expected of them. And the thing is, as a younger person… a 16 or a 17 year old, they’re going to against guys that are 20, and some of them almost 21 years of age. And, of course, there’s a big difference between a guy who’s 16 and a guy who’s 20. And when you learn how to handle yourself, you learn how to deal with things like fear. And through martial arts, I’ve been able to come up with a style that has been very rewarding for me to see some of the guys that are playing in the show that I’ve worked with at different points in their life. It’ll be my life’s work now. I’ll never retire from that, I don’t think. It’s very rewarding to see guys, in particular, guys who had a bad season or two. And they just can’t seem to get back in the groove. The thing that I do, it turns things around for them and it re-instills a sense of truth and confidence and whatnot. And that’s basically what it’s about. So I borrowed from martial arts. I borrowed different discipline aspects and help the guys to become more disciplined in order to perform.
Special Thanks to Michael Ruiz
Previous 50 KINGS pieces: