Prior to 1967, there were six teams in the National Hockey League. The Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs made up the Original Six teams of the NHL.
Then, on the eve of the league’s 50th season, the league doubled in size. The news was earth-shattering to the hockey community. The NHL intended to produce twice more of what it had done for nearly half a century.
With professional teams in baseball, basketball, and American football, Los Angeles threw its hat in the hockey rink. LA was one of twelve host cities bidding for an NHL franchise. Their bid was accepted as the league granted franchises to Los Angeles (Kings), San Francisco/Oakland (Seals), Minnesota (North Stars), Pittsburgh (Penguins), Philadelphia (Flyers), and St. Louis (Blues).
Not two years after buying the Lakers, billionaire Jack Kent Cooke bought the expansion team heading to Los Angeles. He wasted not a second.
After being denied access to the Memorial Sports Arena, Cooke decided he would build his own castle. With the help of Charles Luckman, the man responsible for designing LAX and Madison Square Garden, they would build “sports’ answer to the Taj Mahal.” One year and $16 million later, the “Fabulous” Forum was born.
Of course, Cooke’s job was far from done. He still needed to build a team and a brand. Cooke dubbed the team the “Kings” to bring a royal essence to the City of Angels. Building the team, however, would prove to be a little more controversial.
In the eyes of Punch Imlach, general manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Cooke made two mistakes: drafting their star goaltender, and convincing their eight-time champion forward to become the new coach of the LA Kings.
With the first overall pick in the NHL’s first-ever expansion draft, the Los Angeles Kings selected goaltender Terry Sawchuk. Sawchuk, a highly respected goalie after winning five Stanley Cups, won his most recent Championship with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the ’66-’67 season. His teammate, Red Kelly, finished his twentieth season in the NHL. Three weeks before the expansion draft, Kelly announced his retirement as a player and would move to Los Angeles to coach the Kings. There was a glaring hitch in Cooke’s plan that pleased Imlach: Toronto still owned Kelly’s player rights.
“If Cooke thinks he can come into this league and push everybody around, he’s got another thing coming.” – Punch Imlach
Imlach thought his twenty-plus years of experience dealing with owners in the NHL would intimidate the NHL newcomer. However, never in his twenty-years had he encountered an owner like Jack Kent Cooke.
After several attempts to trade Kelly’s rights for valuable pieces of LA’s roster, Toronto finally gave up, accepting a trade for a defenseman that would never don a Maple Leaf’s jersey.
June 5th, 1967 was a joyous day for Los Angeles. Although there is no hockey for LA fans to celebrate on June 5th, 2020, it is important that we remember the day that started the hockey craze in Tinseltown. Today, Kings fans remember when the NHL gifted our city with 53 years of memories, both good and bad. We remember the man who built two empires in one cathedral. And remember, even after 53 years, we have so much to look forward to.