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Golden Knights make impression on comic legend Little

Famed impersonator grew up in Canada, got hooked on hockey in Las Vegas

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- Legendary Canada-born comedian and impressionist Rich Little remembers his first brush with hockey, and how it spawned a popular joke he used in his act for years.

Little's father, Lawrence, a surgeon who had been a star basketball player at Montreal's McGill University, had become friends in the early 1950s with Detroit Red Wings icon Gordie Howe. For the teenager's 15th birthday, Howe sent him an autographed puck.

"I'd been to a game when I was about 12 but I knew nothing about the game," Little recalled. "When the whistle blew and my father told me it was icing, I asked him whether it was vanilla or chocolate.

"So I got this autographed puck from Gordie Howe -- I wish I could find it now -- and the joke I added to my routine years later was, 'I appreciated the puck Gordie sent me, but I was up all night trying to get it open.'"

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

Little, 79, invited NHL.com to his home on the outskirts of Las Vegas to talk about his newfound love of hockey, courtesy of the Vegas Golden Knights, who defeated the Washington Capitals 6-4 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena on Monday. 

Game 2 is here Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Video: Rich Little and 'friends' wish Golden Knights luck

He was waiting on the front porch when the taxi pulled up, and when a 2018 Stanley Cup Final Game 1 puck was given to him inside as a small gift, he didn't hesitate. Little opened a kitchen drawer, produced a can opener, and immediately went about trying to pry the vulcanized rubber open.

Little's home is an impeccably organized personal museum, its walls adorned with dozens of photos of himself with former U.S. presidents and fellow entertainment giants, friends all, as well as his own portrait pencil sketches and oil paintings by members of his family.

"One of my early impressions was of Rocket Richard," Little said of the Montreal Canadiens legend. "Rocket did a TV commercial for a beef bouillon in the 1950s, stopping on the ice and saying to the camera (now mimicking Richard's thick French-Canadian accent), 'I stop any time for Bovril.' I don't do impressions of hockey players now. They don't speak much, but they do groan a lot."

Born Nov. 26, 1938 and raised in Ottawa, Little discovered fame and fortune in the U.S. almost from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles in 1964, eventually finding his way to Las Vegas, a live-entertainment mecca tailor-made for the 200-plus voices in his repertoire. Little still performs with great zeal, on stage at the Tropicana Hotel's Laugh Factory four nights a week with his one-hour autobiographical, career-retrospective show. 

Little is usually on stage on Mondays, but he took the night off this week so he could watch Game 1 during a barbecue with friends.

"The Golden Knights have united Las Vegas," Little said of the first-year team. "When I first heard that hockey was coming here, I thought, 'In the desert? it will never work.' But once a team starts winning, it's amazing."

Hockey, Little says, was never in his blood growing up in Ottawa or when he moved on to Toronto, with his show-business career taking root.

"I left Canada because I didn't like hockey," he joked. "In Canada, there are four seasons: spring, summer, fall and hockey. I like the game, but I wasn't a fanatic. Certainly now, everybody here is into it, even those who don't understand it, because the team is doing so well. They have brought people together and given them a source of pride."

Little enjoyed skating as a boy, but while holding a girl's hand instead of a stick. He often skated to Patti Page's early 1950s hit song "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?" and he later thanked Page, who would come to open his shows, telling her, "Because of you, I got to kiss a lot of girls."

One of Little's best friends would become Don Rickles, the late comic icon who for years would insultingly refer to someone as a hockey puck.

"I always meant to ask Don where that putdown came from," Little said. "But if I'd asked, him, he'd probably have done a number on me and not answered at all. Maybe just the words 'hockey puck' sounded funny to him."

Little loves the Paul Newman cult classic "Slap Shot," and says he must watch the movie again one day soon. And he relates, in voice, a terrific, slightly ribald hockey-themed joke featuring late actors Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

It's the speed of hockey that impresses Little the most, "and how they can turn so quickly and how good the teamwork is."

He would become friendly in Los Angeles with Wayne Gretzky, and fondly recalls a late 1970s NHL awards banquet he emceed in Toronto, joking to the audience that he himself was living in a city that didn't have a hockey team -- Toronto (cymbal crash). 

The Stanley Cup Final, Little said, would be great fun for himself and a hockey-mad city that keeps pinching itself with the performance of its Golden Knights.

And if he had the Stanley Cup for a day, as winning players do, he knows precisely what he'd do with it.

"I'd fill it with 200 voices," Little said. "And then maybe I'd take it to a homeless shelter. Wouldn't it be special to take it there and dish food out of the Stanley Cup to those who need it most?"

***

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