Friday, June 13, 2014

King of Kings

As the Stanley Cup final shifts to Los Angeles for game five, here is a look back to the Kings when they first became part of the National Hockey League.

The city of Los Angeles gained an NHL franchise on February 9, 1966.

At a meeting held in New York, word came down that Jack Kent Cooke (California Sports Inc.) had emerged victorious in his pursuit of a big league team for LA. The Canadian businessman prevailed over several groups, including one fronted by Clarence D. Martin. He represented Dan Reeves (Los Angeles Rams) and Bob Reynolds ( Los Angeles Angels). Martin previously worked in Washington as an under-secretary of commerce. Also, he was close to the powerful Kennedy family. Another person hoping to get his foot-in-the-door was Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson.

Reeves, already had a connection with the game, as he and Jim Piggotf, who hailed from Saskatoon, were co-owners of the Western Hockey League Los Angeles Blades.
Jack Kent Cooke

"I feel like I'm now one echelon above the president of the United States," Cooke told UPI upon hearing the news of his successful bid.

After gaining entry into the exclusive NHL playground, Cooke was asked how he would sell hockey's top league in California. "I'm going to build on Canadians to spark the draw," Cooke advised a newspaper reporter. "You know how many Canadians or Americans of Canadian extraction there are in the metro area? Seven hundred thousand, that's how many. They'll form a nucleus of the proper breed."

To help him enlighten Californians of the NHL brand, Cooke hired Ed Fitkin as his director of public relations. Fitkin had a long history in the game, first working as a sports writer in Toronto, then in publicity at Maple Leaf Gardens. After his stint of employment with Conn Smythe, Fitkin joined the CBC.

In addition to his public relations duties, Fitkin served as general manager of the LA Wolves, a team owned by Cooke that played in the United Soccer Association. Also, he sat beside play-by-play man Jiggs McDonald doing colour on radio (KNX) and TV (KTLA).

Former NHL player, Larry Regan, was hired by Cooke to beat-the-bushes for talent in advance the expansion draft. He became the Kings first general manager. "I probably have 600 players in my book," Regan stated in an interview. "Of that number, 120 are in the NHL now - most of them unavailable. I pay a lot of attention to the top six on each American Hockey League club and the bottom six on each NHL team. The difference in those two grades is maybe 10 per cent.

All of Regan's scouting missions paid-off when the National Hockey League expansion draft took place in Montreal on June 5, 1967. Holding the first overall selection, the Kings chose veteran goalie Terry Sawchuk from the Toronto Maple Leafs. During the 1966-67 campaign, Sawchuk recorded his 100th shutout and backstopped the Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup victory over Montreal. In a later round, Regan and his staff selected another goalie, Wayne Rutledge.
Larry Regan

Also at the draft, Cooke signed his first coach. Once again, an ex-Maple Leaf was front and centre. Like Sawchuk, Red Kelly was a member of Toronto's '67 Cup team.

It was Kelly's intention to retire after winning the Cup and become a coach. Apparently, Kelly negotiated his release the previous summer in exchange for playing the 1966-67 season in Toronto. However, the Leafs weren't going along with the plan. As the draft progressed they put Kelly back on their list, thus retaining his rights. This move prevented the Kings from getting Kelly as their first bench boss.

Before leaving Montreal, the Kings and Maple Leafs resolved their differences. "Punch and I have reached an agreement whereby Ken Block goes to Toronto in exchange for Red Kelly, who becomes the official coach of the Kings," announced Cooke in a statement to the press.

Another important move made by the organization was purchasing the American Hockey League team in Springfield. The Kings gave the job of grooming their young talent to Johnny Wilson, who had played for several NHL teams in his career. The acquisition also helped to stock the parent club with warm bodies. In particular, with Dale Rolfe and Bill White securing jobs on the Los Angeles defence.

Recognizing the need for the community to form a bond with their new team, even before they hit the ice, Cooke held a team-naming contest. When the totals were tallied, 7,634 people thought "Kings"
would be a suitable name. A fan base was formed when members who belonged to the Los Angeles Blades fan club, switched their allegiance to the Kings.

The Los Angeles Kings roster in their first year of operation ('67-'68) was typical of an expansion club trying to find its way. Frank Orr, a highly respected hockey writer the Toronto Daily Star, provided the following breakdown of the Kings line-up:

Kings' top forward line to date has been Brian Kilrea between Ted Irvine and Lowell MacDonald. Ed Joyal pivots Real Lemieaux and Bill Flett, while Gord Labossiere centres Terry Gray and Brian Smith. Three refugees from the Springfield Indians - Dave Amadio, Bill White and Dale Rolfe - plus Bob Wall and Jacques Lemieux form the defence corps.

To start the year, Los Angeles held their home games at the Long Beach Arena and the LA Sports Arena. Red Kelly's troops began the season with home wins against Philadelphia and Minnesota. This was followed by draws in Oakland and St. Louis and a win over the Hawks at Chicago Stadium..

On December 30, 1967, the Kings were finally able to play in their new home, The Forum. Jack Kent Cooke had nothing but praise for his new building. "The Forum is easily the most beautiful of its kind anywhere, including the new Madison Square Garden in New York," said the proud owner. "This place is so beautiful it is breathtaking."

Unfortunately for Cooke and company, the Philadelphia Flyers won the first regular season contest at The Forum. They downed the Kings 2-0 with Ed Hoekstra scoring the first goal in Forum history.

Shortly after being awarded the right to operate an NHL club, Cooke was asked to comment on expectations when it came to winning a Stanley Cup. "I don't expect to win in 1967 or 1968. Let's talk about 1969, when we've had two full years of play," responded Cooke to the inquiry.

While Cooke may not have had a part in organizing a Stanley Cup parade, he did lay the foundation for a very successful franchise, as the current team hopes to earn the Kings second championship.

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