Wayne Gretzky did a lot for hockey in California when he arrived in a trade from Edmonton, but the sport’s story in Los Angeles doesn’t begin with that day.
The groundwork in L.A. came in the years before Gretzky’s arrival, as the expansion Kings grew into a strong NHL team and a fan base was cultivated in the process.
“I really enjoyed my time there,” said Bob Pulford, who played two seasons and coached for five with the Kings. “It was certainly not a hockey culture or atmosphere when we were there, but you had to train yourself and train your team that inside the arena it doesn’t matter if you’re in Toronto or Montreal or Los Angeles. It is exactly the same.”
Pulford’s Kings did not make the playoffs in 1971 or 1972 when he played or in his first season as a coach in 1973, but his final four years in Los Angeles before moving onto Chicago were filled with postseason contests.
The Kings finished with 42 wins and 105 points in 1975 but were upset by Pulford’s old team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the best-of-three preliminary round of the playoffs. The next two seasons Los Angeles were knocked out in second round by the Boston Bruins.
“In my five years of coaching there we had great teams,” Pulford said. “We were never able to get by Boston in the playoffs, but they had Bobby Orr and that’s when they had the great team. We played them hard and they respected us.
“I found in coaching that if I could convince the team that inside the rink it was the exactly same in Los Angeles as it was in Toronto that they would have the right attitude in playing. We were successful in doing that, and during our period there we had some great teams. We actually outdrew the Lakers for four of those five years that I coached there. It wasn’t exactly the same as when Gretzky got there and his contribution to hockey in Los Angeles, but I felt we did a lot to make hockey acceptable or popular in Los Angeles.”