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Before Lombardi, Bob Pulford was the Original Kings Architect (part 2)

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
(back to part 1)

Pulford won four Stanley Cups in 14 seasons with the Maple Leafs before being traded to the Kings before the 1970-71 season. The Kings, at that point, were still NHL infants, starting their fourth season, and Pulford experienced some hockey culture shock.

``There's no question about that,'' Pulford said. ``In Canada, hockey is everything, and Toronto might have been the hotbed, certainly at that time. Everywhere you went, you were recognized. In Los Angeles, no one knew you. I remember my wife and I being at a Hamburger Hamlet. We were in line, and we had three children so the five of us were in line to wait our turn. A movie actor came up, and they moved him ahead of us and he took our table. I was really upset about it, that they would do that. My wife turned to me and said, `Now you know how the people in Toronto felt for 14 years.'

``And she was right. In a way, I liked that atmosphere in Los Angeles. But it was different, and the team was different. In Toronto, you were serious about every practice, every game and so forth. The seriousness there wasn't there yet in Los Angeles.''

The Kings didn't make the playoffs in either of Pulford's two seasons as a player, and by then he was starting to be limited greatly because of back pain. After the 1971-72 season, Pulford decided to stop sitting on the bench and instead stand behind it.

Pulford was named coach of the Kings in 1972, replacing one-year coach Fred Glover.

``I think, when they made the trade, that they made it for me to (eventually) coach the team,'' Pulford said. ``I don't think there's any question about that. During the second year I was there, Dr. Robert Kerlan was there, and I was having tremendous pain in my back. I went in to see him, and he said, `Bob, you've got a choice to make. We can do a back fusion' -- and in those days, back fusion was a serious, hard operation -- `or, if you continue to play, you will be crippled.' He said, `I think you should retire.'

``So it wasn't a question of me making up my mind. I respected him a great deal, and he said, `You're through.' So I came home and told my wife that, that I was retiring. I think the Kings were just as happy that I did, too.''

Thus, Pulford found himself behind the bench without any previous coaching experience at any level. During his playing career, though, he had accumulated enough thoughts to complete his coaching bible, and Pulford also sought out some help.

Captain Bob Pulford skates against the Montreal Canadiens in his playing days with the Kings.
Pulford found two of the biggest coaching names in town and picked their brains, spending significant time when then-Los Angeles Rams head coach George Allen and longtime UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

``George Allen, I went and lived with him for two weeks at his training camp,'' Pulford said.`` I slept in the same room with him and talked to him all the time. I followed him around and I learned a great deal. Coaching, in the different sports, there are a lot of similarities in football, baseball and hockey. I learned a great deal from him.

``The other man in Los Angeles who really helped me was John Wooden. Wooden was really good to me. I'm (in my mid-30s) at that time. As a coach, I was young. On my way home from practice, I would go and sit in his office. He was really beneficial in helping me become a good coach. I would go and watch them play and watch him, and he had me sit behind him. He was really a teacher.''

It certainly didn't hurt. In the season before Pulford took over as coach, the Kings totaled 49 points. In his first season, they jumped to 73. In his second season, they went to 78 points and made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons.

Then came the breakthrough. In 1974-75, Pulford's third season, the Kings set a franchise record that still stands today, with 105 points. Then came the disappointment. In a best-of-three first-round series against Toronto, the Kings won the first game in overtime, lost the second game in overtime and then lost Game 3 by a score of 2-1.

Pulford won the Jack Adams Award that season, as the NHL's best coach, but still feels the sting of not advancing deeper into the playoffs.

``There's no mixed emotions; it was devastating,'' Pulford said, the disappointment still evident 36 years later. ``The happiness, the pride of going neck-and-neck with Montreal all season, for the overall championship, and then losing two of three to stupid fate, it was the most disappointing thing that ever happened to me in hockey.

Pulford's 2007 picture as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks staff.
``The reason that it hurts so much is the pride that I did take in it, the pride in the players and how hard they worked. For us to get defeated, that hurt a great deal.''

Pulford guided the Kings to the playoffs in their next two seasons as well, and made the quarterfinals both years, but Pulford resigned after the 1976-77 season, in large part due to philosophical disagreements with Cooke.

Pulford moved on to Chicago, and over the next three-plus decades, Pulford served as coach and general manager (and sometimes both) of the Blackhawks.

In 2006, Pulford developed another tie to the Kings, when his son-and-law, Dean Lombardi, was named president and general manager of the Kings. Pulford and his wife, Roslyn, served as foster parents to Wandamae Lombardi.

So, in part because of family ties and in part because of past success, Pulford retains good memories of his time with the Kings.

``They let me, basically, do a lot of the things I wanted to do,'' Pulford said. ``We missed the playoffs that first year, and we missed them because of my inexperience as a coach. We should have made them. Then I never missed the playoffs again, in all my time.''

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