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Hockey

Kings bring a legend back for old-times’ sake

Jiggs McDonald
Ken ‘Jiggs’ McDonald is honored by the New York Islanders before a game with the Florida Panthers at the Barclays Center on Jan. 11.
(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

A few months after the NHL expanded to the West Coast, Ken McDonald, the nascent Kings’ TV and radio voice, slumped behind a desk in the training camp hotel and wondered whether the experiment would work.

The Kings, he knew, would survive. But he wasn’t sure about their broadcaster, a wide-eyed 28-year-old who had never called a pro hockey game in his life.

“I wasn’t positive it would even reach one season,” McDonald said of his career.

Half a century later, the Kings are two-time Stanley Cup champions and McDonald, who went on to call more than 3,000 games for five NHL teams, is in the Hall of Fame. The two will reunite Thursday when McDonald — better known as “Jiggs” — steps in for Bob Miller on the Fox Sports West broadcast of the Kings-Panthers game in South Florida.

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“The butterflies have already started,” he said.

 “Fifty years. It never really entered into my mind back then. I was just happy to be there and hoping to get through the season.”

So were the Kings, a collection of mostly no-name players who startled everyone by battling for the Western Division title until the final day of that first regular season. Their broadcaster, who was given a new name before the first faceoff, was an even bigger surprise.

Jack Kent Cooke, the team’s flamboyant owner, thought Ken McDonald sounded like a novelist or actor.  A hockey broadcaster, he said, needed a name with little more grit. So even though McDonald, an unknown from a tiny farm town in southwestern Ontario, had beaten out a list of applicants that included Dick Enberg, local TV legend Gil Stratton and future hockey Hall of Famer Al Shaver, Cooke wanted his play-by-play voice to have a hook to complement his obvious talent.

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“I remember vividly him pounding his fist on the desk in my room in that hotel and saying, ‘Damn it! You’ve had a nickname, I’ve had a nickname. Everyone’s had a nickname,’ ” McDonald said. “We tried — or I tried — to manufacture everything from Scotty to you name it.”

Frightened, he meekly offered Jiggs, a childhood tag inspired by a comic strip character. Cooke smiled.

“And Jiggs was it,” McDonald said. “There was a slight protest on my part. But really he did me a favor.”

It was an unparalleled golden age of broadcasting in Southern California. In addition to McDonald on the Kings, the Dodgers had Vin Scully and Jaime Jarrin, Chick Hearn was calling the Lakers and Enberg described games for the Rams and Angels. All five would be inducted into their respective sports Halls of Fame.

But if Kings fans quickly fell in love with McDonald’s satiny voice and easy style, the team couldn’t break through at the gate, averaging fewer than 8,500 fans in their first five seasons at the Forum. Cooke, who died in 1997, had been counting on Southern California’s 800,000 Canadians to support his team so when attendance lagged, he quipped: “Now I know why they left Canada: They hate hockey.”

Soon McDonald would leave as well, a contract dispute leading him to join the expansion Atlanta Flames for their first NHL season in 1972. Roy Storey took his place in the booth for one season before Miller moved in for good in 1973, starting his own Hall of Fame career.

McDonald continued to jump around. When the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980, he decamped for Long Island and a 15-year run with the New York Islanders. It was there that he met a cocky schoolboy who called him out during a walk around the neighborhood.

“Hey Jiggs McDonald!” the boy called. “I’m going to have your job someday!”

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Instead of turning away McDonald took the lad under his wing and constantly fed him the press box media notes, which the boy toted to his seat in the Nassau Coliseum to do play-by-play into a portable cassette recorder. Nearly 30 years later the boy, Craig Minervini, found himself working beside McDonald on Florida Panthers’ broadcasts.

“Absolutely Jiggs was a mentor,” Minervini said. “He’s one of those guys that I always said, if I ever make it to some spot where somebody wants to come up to me for advice or help or to give them an NHL media page, I’m going to do it. Because that’s what Jiggs McDonald did for me.”

McDonald, 78, who spent four years with the Toronto Maple Leafs after leaving the Islanders, now splits the year between Florida’s Gulf Coast and a home north of Toronto. He has retired more often than Brett Favre, first quitting at the end of the 2003-04 season, ahead of the league-imposed  lockout that wiped out a season. But when the players came back so did McDonald, who worked several Islanders and Panthers games on what he called a “full-time, part-time basis” before retiring again last summer.

“One of these times I’m going to have to make this retirement thing stick,” said McDonald, who has been honored in pregame ceremonies by the Kings, Islanders and Panthers.

Thursday’s game will be the second he’ll call this season; he did an Islanders-Panthers game in January, extending his streak of calling at least one NHL game to a record 50th consecutive season. Thursday’s game was also supposed to the last call of his career but as the opening faceoff draws near, McDonald is once again finding it difficult to say goodbye, holding out hope some team might need a guy with Hall of Fame credentials to fill in for a game or two.

“That’s a legend,” Minervini said. “They love it so much. And they’re good at it.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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Twitter: kbaxter11


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