Guess who’s back with a brand new track and the brand new track’s all that??? Well it’s me and since this season is the 50th anniversary (or birthday) of the Los Angeles Kings, and with our fearless leader here at MakeWay, Lord Commander Ryan Cowley doing his excellent “Royal Reflection” interviews with a lot of former LA Kings’ players, I thought I would contribute to that theme by doing some historical articles on the good, the bad, the triumphs, the heartbreaks, the well known’s and the randomness that was 50 years of LA Kings’ hockey! So dust off your preferred time travel machine and lets all zoom back to 1967, the inaugural year of our beloved Los Angeles Kings. Let’s do this!
The decade of the 1960’s was one of serious change. With the assassinations of American President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, Human Rights Activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, the raging war going on in Vietnam that was only starting to get worse, the tense and dangerous paranoia-filled Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that had the world holding it’s breath, the musically-innovative Beatles invasion, the human rights and peace movement rallies and protests and the eventual “Hippie” movement. Then, there was the rise and success of legendary musicians Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison (the Doors), Janis Joplin, Black Sabbath (Ozzy Osbourne), Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the epic Woodstock concert and humankind finally walking on the moon (or did they???), the 60’s was an eventful and chaotic decade that changed the world’s course forever and one to always remember.
The major changes also occurred in the sports world. With the expansion of Major League baseball (aka California baseball), and the upcoming merger between the National Football League and the American Football League, the National Hockey League finally gave in — after learning that the rival Western Hockey League was planning to expand their territory to California — and after 25 years of only having six teams playing in the NHL with Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Detroit, New York and Chicago, the league announced its plans to add another six franchises to the fold. One of the expansion locations was announced to be in Los Angeles, with a franchise named the Kings on February 6, 1966.
Owned by Canadian-American entrepreneur Jack Kent Cooke — who also owned the Los Angeles Lakers — Cooke had to battle against other aggressive bidders who were foaming at the mouth to get a piece of a possible goldmine for hockey in the state of California. With the odds against him, Cooke prevailed and was granted the Los Angeles franchise after he paid a $2-million expansion fee and promised to build a new modern stadium in the mold of the ancient Roman Coliseum and named in honor after the hockey mecca used by the Montreal Canadiens, The Forum — later also known as “The Fabulous” Forum or “Great Western” Forum — in nearby Inglewood, California.
An expansion draft was held and the Kings had the first pick, selecting legendary — and moody — goaltender Terry Sawchuk to become the first ever Kings player. Other picks included the first-ever Captain of the Kings, Bob Wall, as well as Wayne Rutledge, Eddie Joyal and Real Lemieux, among others. The Kings were placed with the other expansion teams: Oakland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Pittsburgh in the newly-created Western Division. Legendary player Red Kelly — who had just won his 8th Stanley Cup, 4th with the Toronto Maple Leafs — retired as a player and was hired by Cooke to be the first-ever head coach of the Los Angeles Kings — which led to certain problems as after Kelly had retired and the Kings received his rights through the expansion draft — Leafs GM George “Punch” Imlach decided to play his usual insane and for-no-good-reason mind games and decided to protect the retired Kelly without the Kings or the NHL knowing, and against Kelly’s wishes. A deal had to be made with Toronto, which turned out to be a trade, so technically the Kings had to trade Ken Block to the Leafs just so they can have a head coach. (Oh Punch, you greedy and strange bastard).
Cooke then decided to adopt the royal colors of purple and yellow for the team to wear — which he also used for the Lakers — and made everyone involved with the team from the commentators to the players and to all staff to call the colors “Forum Blue” and “Forum Gold” from now on and forever, instead of purple and gold, (and I hope the Hockey Gods had mercy on the poor saps that didn’t use those new terms in front of Mr. Cooke!)
The newly expanded NHL’s new season finally begun, but the construction of the Forum wasn’t complete in time (surprise, surprise), and the Kings had to start and play their first-ever game in their first-ever season at the Long Beach Arena, defeating the Flyers 4-2 on October 14, 1967. The Los Angeles Sports Arena — later also the home of WrestleMania II and VII — was also used by the Kings for home games until the Forum was finally completed in December of that year. The Forum then became the official home of the Kings and the Lakers until 1999, when STAPLES Center was built. As a site note, the Kings lost their inaugural game at the Forum in a 2-0 shutout by the Flyers.
Early into the season, Cooke wasn’t too pleased with the lack of attendance or attention that his Kings and the sport of hockey was receiving from the locals, especially since the Kings were not even playing that badly by playing around the .500 level. After listening to his trusted advisors, partners and staff, (and then ignoring them), Cooke realized (in his warped mind) that the true reason why the Kings weren’t selling out their games was obviously because the players didn’t have nicknames! (Huh?) That’s right… nicknames! That’ll put butts in the seats because Hollywood is all about nicknames right??? So Kings player Bill Flett was now to be called “Cowboy” Bill Flett, because he owned a ranch in Alberta and liked to perform in rodeos — or more like he USED to like performing in rodeos because Cooke threatened to fine Flett $1000 for every rodeo he appeared in so that hobby ended rather quickly. Eddie Joyal became the “Jet,” Eddie Shack was the “Entertainer,” Bob Wall was creatively called “The Captain” because, well, he was the Captain of the team and French-Canadian player Real Lemieux was dubbed, well … um … the politically incorrect “Frenchie.” Cooke was quite proud of his … um … nicknaming skills, but the overall attendance didn’t improve, nor did the overall awareness of the Kings or the sport of hockey. (No word on if Cooke shed a tear after his “ingenious” plan failed?)
The Kings finished in second place of the Western Division behind Philadelphia with 31 wins, 33 losses, 10 ties (remember those???) and 73 points, and faced off against their expansion brother Minnesota North Stars. In what became an extremely tight series, the Kings had a 3-2 lead in the series before goalie Terry Sawchuk suffered what should have been a season-ending injury. Coach Kelly put Wayne Rutledge in for Game 6 and they lost in overtime 4-3, which angered Cooke. Despite the protests by Red Kelly and Captain Bob Wall that Sawchuk shouldn’t play in Game 7 because he was badly hurt and couldn’t even walk properly, Cooke didn’t want to hear about it and he ordered Kelly to put the four-time Stanley Cup-winning Sawchuk back in net instead of the healthy Wayne Rutledge. Hobbling on the ice but doing the best that future-Hall-of-Famer Terry Sawchuk could possibly do, considering his poor health, the Kings went on to lose badly 9-4 at home, therefore were eliminated from the playoffs. Cooke was livid! Sawchuk was then unfairly blamed by Cooke as the reason why the Kings lost the series! All Red Kelly and the Kings’ players could do was shake their heads in disgust at what they were witnessing by their owner. Sawchuk never wore the Kings’ armor again.
Overall, despite the low attendance, and their disappointing playoff exit, there were many positive things that the Kings could happily look back on about their inaugural season and in theory, learn from as positive forward improvements for their second season. Terry Sawchuk was now gone but with a year of experience with these core players and with Red Kelly as a head coach, and with the excitement that the locals were having after experiencing some NHL playoff hockey for the first time, there was a strong hope that progress would be made both on the ice and with the local fan base. It was only a matter of time … or so Kelly and his players thought at the end of that 1967-68 season. They did still have the unpredictable Jack Kent Cooke as their owner after all, whose loose cannon behavior and constant interference had the power to throw a large wrench on any progress the Kings may have hoped to achieve, just due to some idea or impulsive whim he suddenly obsessed over. I wonder if Cooke ever came up with a nickname for his behavior whenever he acted like that? (Probably not, but I’m sure Red Kelly and the players did behind his back but that’s another story!)
Well everyone, we’re back to 2016! What did every one think about that inaugural 1967-68 season for our Kings or of owner Jack Kent Cooke? Do you have any memories of that season or know of any Kings’ stories that took place in that time frame? If you do, let us know in the comments below!
So until our next time travel trip, GO KINGS GO!!!