Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Miller recalls a flamboyant original owner, the greatest player in the sport’s history and the game’s most loyal fans coming together to make up hockey’s original Sun Belt franchise as he helps guide us through the history of the L.A. Kings
Back when the Kings were mere princes of the city, flamboyant original owner Jack Kent Cooke surveyed a sparse crowd at the Inglewood Forum and quickly figured out why 400,000 Canadians had left Canada to live in the Los Angeles area. “They hate hockey,” Cooke cracked.
Things change. While ex-pats from north of the border can still be spotted at the team’s fashionable STAPLES Center home, the Kings no longer hope for displaced Canadians to show up in order to fill seats.
If the Kings are playing, a rabid, engaged crowd of Southern Californians are sure to be on hand. The Kings sold out 38 games at STAPLES Center last year.
Those loyalists have gone 44 years without a championship and without dissent. Is there a more dedicated fan base anywhere in sports? The Kings have lost games over the years, but their followers have not lost heart.
Nearly 800,000 fans rocked STAPLES Center over the course of last season, witnessing the continued development of one of the NHL’s best young teams.
For a lot of people in Los Angeles, hockey is king. This is the story of how the Kings established their empire.THE FORMATIVE YEARS (1967-73)
With their infancy spread out across three distinct Southern California cities, the seeds were sown early for the Kings to grow into perennial favorites throughout the Southland.
It all began when the Kings, playing their first season of hockey in what is now whimsically known as the NHL’s “Original 12,” made their debut at the Long Beach Sports Arena. They made one more appearance in the LBC, and then played 15 games at Los Angeles Sports Arena before moving into the brand new Forum.
Cooke, the bombastic owner, saw to it that those early days were colorful, outfitting the team in garish purple and gold uniforms. But Cooke hated the sound of the word purple, so the colors were officially Forum blue and gold.
The eccentric Cooke was a self-made man, earning his money as a media mogul. He was part savvy communicator, part hustler, and he believed that nicknames would make his players more marketable. So Bill Flett, who had participated in rodeos in his native Alberta, became “Cowboy.” Eddie Joyal, who skated like the wind, was christened “The Jet.” And Real Lemieux, a French-Canadian from Quebec, was dubbed “Frenchy.”
With Flett leading the way, the Kings went 31-33-10, good enough to finish second in the six-team Western Conference in their inaugural season. Not bad, until you realize the entire conference was made up of first-year expansion teams (Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). They lost their first playoff series to the Minnesota North Stars in seven games.
A year later, the Kings slipped to 24-42-10 but managed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs again, this time with a fourth place finish. They won the NHL’s first Battle of California, defeating the Oakland Seals in a seven-game first-round series. The euphoria of the franchise’s first series win didn’t last long: Behind the goaltending tandem of Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, the Blues made quick work of the Kings with a four-game sweep.
After that early taste of success, the Kings went through some lean years, missing out on the postseason in each of the next four seasons.
The Kings early development was stunted by an uncontrollable urge for the quick fix. Cooke’s penchant for mortgaging their future by trading high draft picks for veteran players doomed them to failure.
“Jack Kent Cooke’s philosophy was to get established name players that people would recognize, like Terry Sawchuk and Harry Howell, even if he had to trade draft picks to do it,” Miller said. “Looking back, his philosophy set the franchise back years.”
It also became part of the franchise’s DNA. NHL stars Raymond Bourque and Phil Housley would be selected with draft picks obtained from the Kings. But not every trade engineered by Cooke’s front office failed.
In 1971, General Manager Larry Regan dealt Denis Dejordy, Noel Price, Dale Hoganson and Doug Robinson to Montreal for goaltender Rogie Vachon and the Kings had their first superstar. Behind Vachon, the Kings finished 33-33-12 in 1973-74 and returned to the playoffs. They were ousted by Chicago in five games.
But something special was happening.Editor's Note: This is part one of a five-part series that will discuss the history of the LA Kings organization.