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A Kingdom for a Championship : BOB MILLER HAS SEEN L.A.'S HOCKEY TEAM TRY JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING--AND NOTHING SEEMS TO WORK

April 01, 1990|STEVEN HERBERT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During Bob Miller's 17-year tenure as the Kings' announcer, not even training camp was a time for optimism.

"There were a lot of years in my career when the season started there was no chance we could win the Stanley Cup," Miller said. "We'd be lucky to make the playoffs in some of those years."

And making the National Hockey League playoffs isn't exactly tough. For the past 11 seasons, 16 of the league's 21 teams have advanced to the playoffs under the most charitable system in pro sports.

But things figured to be different this year.

Miller observed the Kings had a new attitude in September, when the team reported to training camp in Hull, Canada, after finishing second in the Smythe Division and fourth overall last season. The team was further buoyed by the prospects of a full season from goalie Kelly Hrudey and the free-agent signing of future Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson.

"We went into this season with more optimism than any season I'd ever been involved with," Miller said. "There truly was the feeling this team could win the Stanley Cup."

But what began for the Kings as a season with the most optimism in team history has become the most disappointing.

The team has fallen to fourth place in the Smythe Division and will be decided underdogs against the defending Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which open Wednesday. Games continue Friday, Sunday and Tuesday, all on Prime Ticket.

Miller blames the team's front office for the Kings' problems.

"Through its history, this team has never seemed to have a plan to get where they're going to go and staying with that plan," Miller said. "When Jack Kent Cooke (who owned the team from its inception in 1967 until 1979) was here, the plan was to trade all the draft choices and get veterans. That didn't work and they scrapped that. Then they kept their draft choices, traded some other people and that didn't work. So a couple of years into what might be a five-year plan, they change again.

"They brought Robbie Ftorek in here as coach because they had young players. Then they got Wayne Gretzky and changed again to having an older team, and that hasn't worked.

"The best chance to win is with Wayne Gretzky here and surrounding him with the right kind of people. Thankfully, that's not my job, but it goes back to the scouts and the general manager (Rogie Vachon), who know more hockey than I do, to go out and find those players. The maddening thing is that you see other organizations-Edmonton's the prime example-trading someone the stature of a Gretzky, and two years later competing again for the Stanley Cup."

Miller's journey to Los Angeles began in Iowa. After announcing the University of Iowa's football and basketball games for the school's student-run 10,000-watt radio station, the Chicago native's first post-college job came as a newscaster for an Oelwein, Iowa, radio station in 1960.

"I felt it was important to have a job when I graduated," Miller said. "I graduated on a Friday and started work on Monday."

After four months in Oelwein, Miller was hired by WITI-TV in Milwaukee, first as a news reporter and later as a sportscaster. In 1964, Miller became sports director of WMTV in Madison, Wis. Seeking a return to play-by-play announcing, two years later, Miller joined WKOW radio and television in Madison, which carried the University of Wisconsin's games.

After announcing football and basketball, Miller became a hockey announcer in 1968, not out of design but of necessity.

"It was the only sport on campus that was winning consistently and drawing standing-room-only crowds," Miller said. "The program director at the radio station came to me and told me we're doing hockey next Friday, and since you're the sports announcer, you're doing it. I'd never done a game before in my life."

In the small world department, Miller's first hockey broadcast partner was Ira Fistell, then teaching at Wisconsin and hosting a WKOW talk show. Fistell now hosts a KABC Radio talk show.

Miller quickly found hockey to be much different from om er sports he had announced.

"The more I did hockey, the more I found it was more challenging than any other play-by-play I had ever done," Miller said. "Football is structured more for radio. You have time to recap the play and set up the next play. You have a couple of spotters and a statistician and all kinds of help. Basketball, you have five guys, and they don't change until the whistle blows, and there are only six or seven guys who play all night, so that's fairly easy.

"But in hockey, you're on your own. When they drop the puck, if you're not prepared and haven't done your homework, it's going to be very evident."

Miller first sought to join the Kings in 1972, when the team's original announcer, Jiggs McDonald, left after five seasons to announce for the expansion Atlanta Flames.

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