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BEST OF SPORTS / HOCKEY

The Great Ice Age

Gretzky Took Kings and Hockey to New Heights, but Plenty of History Preceded His Arrival

December 29, 1999|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hockey's roots in Southern California stretch back decades before Wayne Gretzky glamorized the game or the first Mighty Duck quacked in Anaheim.

In "Hockey Night in Hollywood," Willie Runquist traced the first organized game here to Feb. 23, 1925, when the Los Angeles Athletic Club defeated the Los Angeles Monarchs, 3-1, at the Palais de Glace, at Melrose and Vermont avenues. Artificial ice there and later in Paramount started a wave of enthusiasm for hockey.

As long ago as 1948, groups attempted to bring the NHL to Los Angeles. Travel costs were prohibitive until the NHL announced on Feb. 9, 1966, it would double in size to 12 for the 1967-68 season by adding teams in Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Minnesota.

The Kings' birth doomed the minor league Western Hockey League Blades, who arrived in 1961. Except for a WHL team in San Diego and a brief World Hockey Assn. venture, the Kings had the area to themselves until 1993. That's when the Walt Disney Co., noting the hockey boom Gretzky had sparked, put its marketing muscle behind the expansion Ducks.

Minor league hockey returned in 1995 when the International Hockey League's San Diego Gulls moved to Los Angeles and became the Ice Dogs. They spent one season at the Sports Arena before moving to Long Beach.

IN THE BEGINNING...

The California Amateur Hockey Assn. was formed in January 1925 and consisted of the Hollywood Athletic Club, Los Angeles Monarchs and Los Angeles Athletics. A novelty to most sports fans, games drew as many as 3,000. The league was later known as the California Hockey League and the Commercial Hockey League.

The opening of a rink at Melrose and Van Ness in Hollywood--first called the Winter Garden and later the Polar Palace--led to the formation in 1926 of the California Professional Hockey League, which included the Hollywood Millionaires and Los Angeles Richfields. The league fell victim to the Depression and dissolved in 1933.

The Inter-City League appeared in 1934 with teams in Hollywood, Glendale and Los Angeles, but few records of it exist. Local college players stocked the Southern California Hockey League, which had success in the early 1940s at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, near Gilmore Field.

The amateur Pacific Coast Hockey League was born in 1945. The Hollywood Wolves were a farm team of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who sent them minor leaguers and prospects. Among the latter was Bill Barilko, who scored Toronto's Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1951.

Although the Wolves were respectable, they folded in 1948 after the Pan Pacific Auditorium changed hands. Some teams survived by affiliating with NHL or minor league teams when the PCHL became a professional league in 1948.

The PCHL's Los Angeles Monarchs took purple and gold as their colors and had a crown logo, later copied by the Kings. But the PCHL collapsed when the Pan Pacific was put up for sale. The league was later reborn as the Western Hockey League but had no Los Angeles presence until Ram owner Dan Reeves and Canadian industrialist Jack Piggott bankrolled the Blades at the Sports Arena.

DID ALL THOSE CANADIANS REALLY HATE HOCKEY?

As Southern California's economy thrived after World War II, interest rose in bringing an NHL team to Los Angeles.

Jack Kent Cooke, who owned a string of radio stations and magazines in his native Canada, beat out Reeves and the Blades group, plus a group led by TV producer Tony Owens, for the right to pay $2 million for the Los Angeles franchise. Cooke had bought the Lakers for $5.175 million five months earlier. "I feel like I'm now one echelon above the President of the United States," said Cooke, who couldn't get good dates at the Sports Arena and built his own palace in Inglewood, the Forum.

To supplement players he would get in the expansion draft, Cooke bought the Springfield (Mass.) American Hockey League team. But the Forum wasn't ready for the Kings' opener, and they played at the Long Beach Arena and the Sports Arena until December 1967.

"We were nomads," said Jiggs McDonald, the Kings' radio and TV voice their first five years. "It was a new frontier and a new experience for everybody. When we got out there to Long Beach Arena for our first practice, there were no pucks. They had been the first 1/8equipment 3/8 to arrive and everything was piled up in boxes, and the pucks were at the bottom of a pile. 1/8Fan 3/8 Larry Mann got a puck out of the glove box of his car, and that's how the team practiced. That puck was fired all over the arena, and people would race to get the puck back on the ice so the practice would continue."

The Kings, whose marquee player was goalie Terry Sawchuk, defeated the Flyers, 4-2, in their first game, drawing 7,035 fans to the Sports Arena on Oct. 14, 1967. Cooke, a showman, tried to create stars by dubbing Bill Flett "Cowboy" Bill and Eddie Joyal "Eddie the Jet." Fans didn't buy it.

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