The Los Angeles Kings have had 13 captains since joining the NHL in 1967. Four are in the Hall of Fame and the team has retired three of their numbers.
Who had the biggest impact, was most memorable or made the greatest contribution? Who was the shortest serving captain? Can you name them all?
The Birth of the Los Angeles Kings
It all began when Canadian businessman Jack Kent Cooke was awarded an NHL expansion franchise on February 6, 1966. He built the Forum in Inglewood, south of downtown Los Angeles. It opened in the fall of 1967 and became known as the Great Western Forum. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The very first captain of the Los Angeles Kings was Bob Wall, picked up from the Detroit Red Wings in the expansion draft. It was a cultural shock for the Canadian player to move to Southern California.
In an interview with the N.Y. Times (June 6, 2012), Wall said leading a new club was not easy and a lot of hard work. “There wasn’t a whole bunch of fun the first year or the second year, as far as that goes,” he said.
Wall saw his role as captain being a peacekeeper between players and management. There was a lot of disorganization to go with Cooke’s dominating presence on the team. The team even had to borrow a puck from a television producer for its inaugural game!
“You begin to wonder,” Wall said. “‘Are we really a National Hockey League team? Is this the way it’s supposed to be?’ ”
Goaltender Terry Sawchuck was the biggest name and one of the very few, along with Wall, with any NHL experience. In the weak Western Conference, where the expansion teams resided, the Kings made the playoffs and had a memorable seven game battle against state rival Oakland Seals in the first round. Wall helped lead the Kings to its first ever series win before falling to Minnesota in the next round.
There were few fans in the early days. The Kings competed for attention with MLB’s Dodgers and local football and basketball university teams.
“We had to sell the game to the fans,” Wall said. “It was a tough sell. We didn’t draw very many people in our own rink, unless we played against the Original Six teams. Against our own expansion teams, there were 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 people at the most. That was it.”
Wall captained the Kings for the first two seasons and was eventually traded in 1970. Like many alumni, he watched with satisfaction as the team finally brought home a championship to the City of Angels in 2012.
“When expansion started in ’67, I felt like I was probably a seedling or a sapling that was planted in California,” he said. “It would be nice to have that seedling or sapling grow into something potent. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around to do that but it’s nice to see it all come about.”
Larry Cahan took over as captain in 1969 after an NHL career that saw stints in Toronto and New York before Oakland claimed him in the 1967 expansion draft. While playing for the Seals, he and partner Ron Harris became involved in a hit that changed the game. They collided with Minnesota’s Bill Masterton, who fell and cracked his head on the ice (players did not wear helmets in that era). Masterton died two days later in a Minneapolis hospital.
Cahan was known as a heavy hitter and provided leadership after arriving from Montreal. Unfortunately, the Kings suffered through the team’s worst season ever, a miserable 14-52-10 record in 1969-70.
Some success in the 1970’s
The third player to captain the Kings was Bob Pulford, an experienced player who won four Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1960’s. He was unable to help the Kings make the playoffs as a player but had a big impact behind the bench. In his second season as coach, Pulford brought the Kings back to the post-season in the spring of 1974. With the emergence of goaltender Rogatien Vachon, Pulford pushed the Kings to their best season ever the following year — 105 points — and was presented with the Jack Adams Trophy for best coach of the year, the only LA coach to be so honored.
In an interview with the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006, Pulford said he learned much about coaching from Fred Shero, who won Stanley Cups with Philadelphia in 1974 and 1975, and football coach George Allen, who coached the Los Angeles Rams at the time. “Allen helped me a lot my first year in things like handling people, motivation and discipline,” he said. “Those are things that are hard to get when players know their jobs are relatively safe.”
The Kings were one of the league’s better teams, finishing in second place for three consecutive seasons in the Smythe Division behind the dynasty in Montreal. Success proved more difficult in the playoffs where, in 1976, the team pushed a strong Boston Bruins team to a seventh game in the second round.
“What I tried to do, and this is a thing Shero did, was always explain why I was asking something,” said Pulford. “Like, if I figured we needed a tough practice, I’d tell the players why I figured it. They’re mature – they shouldn’t just be told things without a reason.”
Pulford went on to coach the Chicago Blackhawks for six seasons, capturing three divisional titles and making it to the Conference Finals in 1982 and 1985. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.
Los Angeles improved greatly in the regular season after Terry Harper took over as captains, becoming more competitive despite being in the same division as Montreal, which won four straight Stanley Cups from 1976 to 1979. LA made the playoffs both seasons Harper was captain but lost in the first round each time.
Harper had been part of four Stanley Cup Championships with Montreal between 1965 and 1969 and brought a physical presence on the Kings’ blue line and leadership from his experience with the Habs.
Harper’s philosophy has always been to keep working until you find a way to succeed. “The only advice I’d ever give someone is to never give up; don’t quit,” he said to The Hockey News in 2009. “You want to do it and there’s a way somewhere.”
The Kings have been fortunate to have hard working leaders throughout their history. In 1975, Mike Murphy was named captain. Known today as the NHL Senior Vice President for Hockey Operations, Murphy played 12 seasons in the league, most of them with the Kings. He scored 20 or more goals five times.
During his six-year tenure as captain, the Kings became competitive for the first time, doing well in the regular season and never failing to make the playoffs. In his first season at the helm, Murphy helped the team win a playoff series over the Atlanta Flames. In the second round, the Kings lost a heartbreaker to the Boston Bruins in a hard fought seven game series.
Murphy retired in 1984 and was named the assistant Kings coach. He became the head coach two years later and served for almost two seasons before being fired. He coached the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1996-1998.
To be continued……
Mario now covers the Los Angeles Kings and writes other hockey features. He is an experienced journalist who has covered sports and entertainment in daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and online, including thedigitalbits.com/columns/inside-cinema. He is also the co-creator of The Gaffoos, www.gaffoos.com