It was 50 years ago today – February 9, 1966 – that Los Angeles, along with St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Oakland were granted NHL expansion franchises that would begin play in 1967-68 as the league doubled in size from six teams to 12.
The former of those new markets had weather more associated with a winter sport, and naturally, attendance that suggested a sustainable marriage of hockey and city. That marriage did not come as naturally for the two California markets, and the Oakland Seals, who later became the California Golden Seals, and after a 1976 relocation, the now defunct Cleveland Barons, never emerged from their expansion throes.
And that’s part of the reason of why this Kings semicentennial is so special.
“I think it’s a celebration of what this franchise has accomplished,” said Hall of Famer and Kings President, Business Operations, Luc Robitaille. “I mean, when you look on the map, and [after 1976 when] California Golden Seals left … if you look from that date on, until 1993 when the Ducks came in, the LA Kings were all alone on the West Coast South, and somehow they survived. That is truly amazing to me, that this franchise, all alone in LA, survived all of this time without really winning any championships [prior to 2012] or having great success. So to me, we’re celebrating the fact that we’re a pioneer of developing the game and making sure it stays alive.”
In viewing the Los Angeles franchise from a distance, it is clear that there were several integral moments that breathed life into the nontraditional hockey city and helped sustain the team and a passionate fan base in advance of a rise to Stanley Cup prominence this decade.
Obviously, the second and larger moment was Wayne Gretzky’s August, 1988 trade to Los Angeles, a transaction that placed an instant spotlight on the organization and sent notice that a competitive window that had previously been opened for shorter, intermittent periods, was being jammed wide open. The front office grew, as did media coverage in a city that until then had only fleeting reason to pay attention to a team that had to that point never advanced from the second round of the playoffs. Attendance records were set, and the sport’s premier and enduring superstar captured the hearts and minds of Kings fans and more casual fans alike.
But the earlier moment that signaled the team’s first competitive spike occurred when the team acquired Rogie Vachon from the Montreal Canadiens for Denis Dejordy, Dale Hoganson, Noel Price and Doug Robinson in November, 1971. Instantly the team had a star player in net, and as the team failed to qualify for the playoffs in his first two seasons, Vachone experienced challenges unique to any environment he had been a part of in the past.
“It was totally different, especially I was coming from Montreal after winning three cups in four years, and all of a sudden we came here and the sun is out all of the time, there’s not a whole lot of people coming into the games – four to five thousand people sometimes – so it was a total culture-shock, you know, coming from Montreal to here,” Vachon said. “Our team was not very good, we had a real bad team, and I was not used to losing like this because in Montreal, you lose two games in a row and everybody panics in the city, so it was totally different, you have to imagine.”
But in Vachon’s fourth year a clearly successful link developed between the team and third-year Head Coach Bob Pulford, who claimed the Jack Adams Award for his work during the 1974-75 season. It was a year in which Vachon posted numbers that would make him a Vezina Trophy candidate even in today’s more defensive era, as he went 27-14-13 with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
“There’s no question, when Bob Pulford came in as a coach and installed a very defensive system and everybody played the system correctly, we had a boring team but we were winning games 1-0, 2-1 all of the time, and we were very respectable,” Vachon said. “In 1974-’75 we had 105 points, which is a lot of points in those days. So, yeah, you could see, the crowd was coming in, everybody got excited when we got into the playoffs, and you could see that the whole city started to notice the Kings.”
It’s similar to the success forged by recent tightly structured Kings clubs, though while Los Angeles was winning lower-scoring games in the Darryl Sutter era, they also claimed a pair of Stanley Cups, whereas the 1974-75 teams, like other Kings teams in other eras, failed to capitalize when presented with an opportunity to strike and were upset in a Preliminary Round playoff series by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But there was an identity on those Pulford-coached teams to a level that hadn’t been associated with the club before. For the first time, teams weren’t coming to Los Angeles for a two-day break in the schedule.
“It was like a little vacation for the teams back East coming in,” Vachon said of the organization’s earlier days. “The Rangers and Boston and Montreal, all of these teams, they were coming in, having a good time, picking up two points and go home. I think back in ’74-’75 when we had that team, all of a sudden the teams coming in here had a hard time winning and it was a little different, I think that’s when the whole thing changed, back in the middle of the 70’s.”
The success led to gains in the box office and a growing and passionate fan base that all of a sudden had tasted moderate success and had reason for optimism. Even though dips in attendance continued and the team sunk back into quite a few middling seasons up until Gretzky’s tenure in Los Angeles, the Forum, like many buildings in the prior generation of NHL hockey, did a good job of keeping the energy and noise inside the building like a pressure cooker.
“There’s always been a passion at a Kings game that you don’t really get at any other events in LA,” Robitaille said. “Kings fans are very passionate and it almost feels like everyone that comes into a Kings game, it seems to spread, they get that passion, and I think that’s one of the reasons the Kings have been around this whole time.”
When Robitaille burst onto the scene with a 45-goal rookie season in 1986-87, he took notice of the potential of the market.
“When I came to LA before Gretzky to use as an example in ’86, people used to tell me ‘you’re in a non-hockey market and it’s not really good’ and I remember thinking, ‘our crowd, a sellout crowd in the forum was 16,005 exactly,’ he recalled. “And I remember we used to average, I think it was like 13,800 and something, and I remember thinking ‘man, we’re almost sold-out every game, like why are they saying it’s not a good market?’ I remember thinking that, thinking we’re 2,000 fans away from selling out every game, and then my second year after we started winning after Christmas, we were selling out every game and everybody was excited, you know, and obviously getting Gretzky after that just turned the whole page around.”
Words hardly do it justice, but the captivation of hockey spurred by Gretzky’s 1988 arrival went beyond the boundaries of the team’s fanbase and spread into casual observers to the point where every single Kings game was a special event. For his eight years in Los Angeles, the city for the first time took on the reputation of a hockey market, and as the Dodgers and Lakers endured several nondescript seasons in the early 1990’s, the Kings soared to the 1993 Stanley Cup behind Robitaille’s 63-goal, 125-point season, marking the first time the team had emerged from the second round of the NHL Playoffs.
Gretzky was ultimately traded, and Vachon, Team President at the time of the trade, described the challenges of having to win immediately with Gretzky in the lineup while balancing the superstar’s impending free agent status in 1996. That plans were coming together for a new building, and the team’s desire to be competitive at the time of the eventual move also weighed into the decision, according to Vachon.
But by the time of the move into the new facility, the base of success had already been laid, and by the time that Ziggy Palffy, and eventually Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty were electrifying crowds and lifting Stanley Cups, there had already been ample work undertaken on their behalf to solidify the city and the market as a driven and passionate, if untraditional hockey market.
“It’s great. We’re talking about 50 years, that’s a long time, and that franchise has come a long way compared to when we first started back in the 60’s and 70’s, so I think we’re very proud of what everyone has accomplished so far in the first 50 years,” Vachon said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to see the 60th and the 70th.”