With Vachon backstopping them, the Kings’ eighth season was one for the ages.
Vachon spent the 1974-75 season standing on his head, posting a 2.24 goals against average while winning 27 games as the Kings posted a 42-17-21 record.
“Rogie Vachon was the Kings’ first superstar,” Miller said. “In 1974-75, he led the Kings to 105 points, their most ever. The Kings lost only 17 games all year. Rogie was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and he was spectacular to watch. It’s a disservice to the Hall of Fame that he is not in it. If he had done what he did in Montreal, he would have been elected on the first ballot.”
With great goaltending and Coach Bob Pulford’s sound defensive system (to which backup goaltender Gary Edwards’ 15-3-8 record stands as testimony), the Kings seemed poised to make a run at the Cup when they opened the playoffs with an abbreviated three-game first-round series vs. Toronto.
“The best-of-three format was ridiculous because it allowed a poor team to have a couple of good games and upset a better team,” Miller said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
After Mike Murphy’s overtime goal gave the Kings a hard-fought 3-2 win in Game 1, the series shifted to Maple Leaf Gardens where Toronto goaltender Gord McRae stymied the Kings in a 3-2 Leaf win.
Less than 24 hours later, on a Friday night, the deciding game was played at the Forum in Los Angeles. “Jack Kent Cooke didn’t want to play on a Saturday afternoon,” Miller recalled. “Both the Kings and Leafs were going to fly back Friday morning but at the last minute, Toronto owner Harold Ballard chartered a plane and the Leafs flew back after the game on Thursday night. The Kings didn’t get back until 1:30 in the afternoon on Friday. The Kings had an older team and couldn’t get going after traveling all day.”
That game is remembered for a notorious stick-swinging incident between the Kings’ Dave Hutchison and Toronto’s Tiger Williams. And for a 2-1 loss that eliminated the heavily favored Kings. It remains a bitter loss in the franchise’s history.
“Bob Pulford told me he cried in the tunnel after that game,” Miller said.
During the off-season, the Kings addressed their deficiencies on offense by acquiring center Marcel Dionne from Detroit. Dionne delivered, scoring 40 goals and recording 94 points as the Kings finished 38-33-9 before knocking the Atlanta Flames out in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. A memorable seven-game series with Boston ended the Kings season, but not before Dionne scored six goals in nine playoff games
The Kings would make regular Stanley Cup playoff appearances during the late ’70s, but could never make it past the second round.
During the 1978-79 season, an obscure left winger named Charlie Simmer was recalled from Springfield of the AHL and placed on a line with Dionne and right-winger Dave Taylor. The result was magic as the Triple Crown Line became one of the NHL’s most successful combinations ever. During the line’s heyday in 1979-80 and 1980-81, each individual member averaged 51 goals, 62 assists and 113 points per season.
The trio’s brilliance helped Marcel Dionne win the Art Ross Trophy in 1979-80 as the NHL’s scoring champion. “That line had great chemistry,” Miller said. “They would start up ice and you were certain they were going to score. Their passes were like a game of tic-tac-toe. At one time, they had a point in 56 straight games.”
It was also perfectly balanced. “Marcel Dionne was a great goal-scorer,” Miller said. “Dave Taylor was a tough kid who went into the corners to get the puck, and Charlie Simmer had a big body and he would stand in front of the net and a lot of goals would bounce off his body.”
In 1980-81, the Kings went 43-24-13 and once again appeared headed for greatness before Simmer’s year came to an early end when he broke his leg in a late-season game at Toronto. “It was a devastating injury,” Miller said.
The Rangers eliminated the Kings in the first round, another disappointing end to a promising season.
The following year, Jerry Buss took over from Cooke as the team’s owner. Little was expected as the Kings entered the postseason with a miserable 24-41-15 record, where they drew Edmonton, the league’s best team in the first round. After splitting the first two games, the Oilers had the Kings on the mat with a 5-0 lead in Game 3 at the Forum, a contest that would be remembered as the Miracle on Manchester.
“I’ve watched the tape of that game over and over,” Miller said. “Every time I watch it, I ask myself, ‘How in the world did the Kings win that game?’”
The comeback started innocently enough with a goal from defenseman Jay Wells. Then Doug Smith scored before Simmer cut the lead to 5-3.
“When Simmer scored,” Miller said, “the atmosphere in the building changed. People began to believe the Kings might actually come back.”
Mark Hardy brought the Kings to within a goal before Steve Bozek scored with five seconds left to force overtime.
“The Kings tied it when Jim Fox made a great play to take the puck from Wayne Gretzky,” Miller said. “All Gretzky had to do was clear the puck and the game was over. But Jim got the puck to Bozek who tied it up. The atmosphere in the building was frenzied between periods.”
At 2:35 of overtime, Daryl Evans blasted the winner past Grant Fuhr to cap the surreal comeback. Five games later, the King’s season was ended by Vancouver.
The rest of the mid-to-early-’80s were characterized by the Kings being undercut by subpar goaltending.
The 1986-87 season represented a crossroads for the Kings. The arrival of Luc Robitaille gave the team a Calder Trophy winner who would go on to become the franchise’s first homegrown Hall-of-Famer. But when Dionne, Robitaille’s boyhood hero and mentor, was traded to the Rangers, it symbolized the end of an era.
In 1987, Bruce McNall became the Kings’ third owner when he purchased the team from Buss and quickly put his stamp on the Kings.
With Dionne gone, Robitaille and Jimmy Carson combined for 108 goals, and the Kings were on the rise again.
“Jimmy Carson had 37 and 55 goals in his first two seasons,” Miller said. “He was intelligent and wise beyond his years. I remember one year, my contract was up and he was giving me advice on how to handle it. He was only 19 years old at the time.”
While Carson had a conservative, buttoned-down wisdom about him, Robitaille arrived with the boyish charm and natural charisma he still displays today.
“Luc was so personable with fans,” Miller said. “He is still that way as the Kings President of Business Operations. Robitaille’s goal-scoring touch and ever-present smile spoke to everyone. The thing about Luc is that he always had such a joy of playing the sport.”
The Kings finished the 1987-88 season in fourth place before being dismissed from the playoffs by the Calgary Flames in five games. A few months later, McNall engineered a deal that would make Los Angeles the center of the hockey universe.Editor's Note: This is part two of a five-part series that will discuss the history of the LA Kings organization.