Fifty years ago Tuesday, the expansion Los Angeles Kings were born
There was no shortage of applicants for an expansion franchise in Los Angeles when the insular, six-team NHL decided to double in size for the 1967-68 season. Five groups submitted bids, giving the league’s Board of Governors many options when it met in February 1966.
Los Angeles Rams owner Dan Reeves was the favorite because he owned the minor league Western Hockey League Blades, who played at the Sports Arena. When he invested in the team, it was with a proviso that the Blades would receive “encouragement” from the NHL for future expansion.
Also bidding were: Metromedia, which owned radio and TV stations; TV producer Tony Owen; Ralph Wilson, owner of the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills; and a relatively new guy in town, Jack Kent Cooke, who had made a splash a few months earlier by purchasing the Lakers from Bob Short for $5.175 million in cash that was carried by cart from his bank to Short’s through an underground tunnel.
“He had such a great track record,” said Jiggs McDonald, a fellow Canadian who became the Kings’ first play-by-play announcer. “You just say if there’s one man that’s going to be successful, it’s Jack Kent Cooke.”
On Feb. 9, 1966, the NHL granted a conditional franchise to Cooke, as well as to groups in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Oakland and Minnesota. It was a coup for Cooke, then 53.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier,” he told The Times that day. “I’m thrilled to death. This is the best news I’ve had in years. I feel like I’m now one echelon above the president of the United States….I was born in Canada and in Canada, every boy has one dream. He doesn’t dream of becoming prime minister; he dreams of the day he can become a professional hockey player. I share those same dreams. And since I’m a little too old to play the game, I did the next-best thing.”
“The Sports Arena was relatively new, just built in 1960,” said Alan Rothenberg, who then worked for a law firm that represented Cooke and later worked for him. “His thinking was, ‘If I’m the primary tenant I’ve got to have control of the dates at the facility.’ Cooke went to ask for a lease and the Coliseum Commission turned him down because they were committed to helping Reeves. He then went back and said, ‘OK, help Reeves, but if they award it to me then agree that you’ll give me the dates.’
“It was a series of blunders by the Coliseum Commission that ultimately cost them the Lakers, the Kings and the NFL team. They took the position that no, they weren’t going to do it and there was speculation that Cooke didn’t really have money to build the Forum, so they thought perhaps they could just squeeze him.”
They thought wrong. “He was a tough bargainer,” Bill Nicholas, former chairman of the Coliseum Commission, told the Washington Post in 1982. “It was either Cooke’s way or no other way. No compromises, no ifs or ands.”
“The city of Montreal was able to support both of those clubs and support them rather profitably,” he said. “It’s also my contention — now, remember, the city of Montreal at that time was around 750,000 population — here we are in the second-largest city in America, and certainly before this century ends, unquestionably will be the largest city in America, and I can’t imagine anybody taking the stand that this city will not support two first-class arenas.”
Ground was broken in Inglewood in the summer of 1966. The Kings played their first two home games at the Long Beach Arena and 15 others at the Sports Arena before making their Forum debut Dec. 30, 1967.
They expected to draw the many Canadian expatriates who lived in Southern California, though Cooke, seeing empty seats, famously said those Canadians must have moved to Los Angeles because they hated hockey. McDonald said the team staged half-price ticket nights for Canadians and for fans born in Chicago and Detroit when those teams came to town.
But Rothenberg, who went on to be a founder of Major League Soccer and chair the 1994 World Cup and 1999 Women’s World Cup, said he believed Cooke’s team would thrive.
“I’m from Hockeytown, I’m a Detroit Red Wings fan, so I had no reason to believe hockey wouldn’t be sensational and successful anywhere,” said Rothenberg, now chairman of the board of 1st Century Bank. “It was interesting because it did get off to a disappointing start from an attendance standpoint.
“I never met anyone quite like him. He was very unique. We have been blessed in L.A. with some amazingly good and unfortunately some amazingly bad owners. And Jerry Buss couldn’t be more different than Jack Kent Cooke but at the same time he was phenomenal. Cooke sold both the Lakers and the Kings and they thrived.
And it all became possible 50 years ago Tuesday.
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