THIS IS THE TEAM THAT JACK BUILT
The Los Angeles Kings have broadloomed dressing rooms, a palatial rink and miniskirted usherettes. But can they play hockey?
THE NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE, most sports-writers and many fans are convinced, will never be the same again.
They reason that the expansion of the league this year from six to 12 teams will dilute the average quality of hockey to the level of mediocrity. What’s more, the dilution is all at the bottom, like unhomogenized milk. The old teams kept most of their stars and dealt off to the new entries — at $100.000 per player — an assortment of aging regulars, perennial bench-warmers, and minor leaguers who had seldom or never put skates to NHL ice. What's even more, the new teams represent three cities whose fervor for high-priced hockey is untried. plus three cities — Philadelphia, St. Louis and Pittsburgh — which once had NHL teams but lost them through nonsupport.
Put that way, it’s a gloomy prospect, all right. But the viewers-with-alarm ignore another reason, not at all necessarily a pessimistic one, why the NHL will never be the same again: the league now embraces, and is embraced by, one Jack Kent Cooke.
Cooke, who has dabbled in and enlivened most major sports in the past 20 years, got into hockey for the first time this year as sole proprietor of the Los Angeles Kings of the expanded NHL. He is also ex-officio associate coach, manager, scout, publicist and chief cheerleader.
Cooke entered the NHL with a mixed assortment of assets:
□ A team whose players’ names are so unknown to hockey fame (with the single exception of goalie Terry Sawchuk) that sportswriters accused Cooke of something close to masochism in his choice among such player talent as was available.
□ A brand-new arena, the Los Angeles Forum, which must be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then. It is the gaudiest sports palace this side of the heyday of the Colosseum of Ancient Rome, of which the Forum is, in fact, a modernized copy. The Forum has something else going for it that could happen only in Los Angeles. Where else do people go to hockey games to gawk at other fans? Cooke’s rink will be lined with audience-bait. Frank Sinatra alone has taken 16 season tickets; other top stars of screen and television who have bought two or more season tickets include Cary Grant, Danny Thomas, Bob Hope,
Danny Kavc, Dean Martin, and David Janssen.
□ A trio of profitable instant feuds that would have taken a less talented feudist than Cooke years to develop: one with Toronto’s Stafford Smythe and Punch Imlach over possession of Leonard (Red) Kelly, ex-MP, exLeafs star and currently, after several namecalling sessions, coach of the Los Angeles Kings. (Says Cooke, “We aim to replace Montreal as Toronto's dearest hockey enemy.”) Another Cooke feud that will undoubtedly yield reams of newspaper space is with the fillers of that space, “the colossally egotistical sportswriters” who have derided Cooke’s draft of players. For example, Dick Beddoes' comment in his Toronto (Hohe and Mail column: “Can you visualize Gord Labossiere. Bob Wall, Ed Joyal, Paul Popeil, Terry Gray and Bryan Campbell in big-league uniforms? If you can, you have as gaudy an imagination as Jack Cooke, who somehow picked them.”
What hurt was that Cooke not only picked them — they were his top six choices.
For local consumption Cooke has nurtured a minor embroilment with the California Seals of San Francisco by accusing them of trying to lure away some of his players.
Among the Things To See at the Forum will, of course, be Cooke himself. A longtime observer of the Cooke phenomenon tried to put it into focus: “The things Jack does don’t endure individually, but get blurred into a general reputation as a wheeler-dealer and money maker. But there’s no doubt he's a Presence. When he’s around things happen — or seem to happen.”
Remember when Conn Smythe used to electrify Toronto Maple Leafs fans and Canada’s largest TV audience by circling the rink, hat in hand and anxiety on his face? Well, Cooke, a tireless 55, has replaced the retired Smythe as the most visible owner in hockey.
“What’s the fun of laying out five million dollars,” he asks, “if you can't get excited about what you’ve bought?”
In the course of spending those five million dollars Cooke garnered a free bonus of more newspaper space (not all of it complimentary) than the other five new teams combined. (Quick, now, what are the team names and who are the owners of those other five teams?)
Of course, there may well be some among the half-generation / continued on page 55
THE TEAM THAT JACK BUILT continued from page 39
Cooke dreamed of ice stardom, settled
that grew up since Cooke fermented the Canadian scene in the 1940s and 1950s who may ask, “Who's Jack Kent Cooke?” So here's a quick rundown of his background:
He was born in Hamilton, attended Malvern Collegiate in Toronto, and made his first showbusiness dollar (but not much more) as a juvenile hillbilly - orchestra leader under the name of Oley Kent. It’s not quite accurate to say that Cooke's present multimillion-dollar involvement with hockey is his first. People who know Cooke's “you name it. he's done it" proclivities will not be surprised to learn that he once came within reasonable distance of becoming a professional hockey player.
At 19 he was good enough to be a regular with the Toronto Victorias, and was offered a hockey scholarship by the University of Michigan.
“It was tempting.” he recalls. “Like most Canadian boys, I dreamed of being a big-league player. And the Michigan coach was Eddie Powers, who had coached Toronto, including a Stanley Cup winner, a few years before.”
But Cooke took realistic stock of his own hockey ability and reluctantly decided that he just wasn't good enough to make the grade among such players of the early 1930s as Howie Morcr.z, Eddie Shore. King Clancy, Aurel Joliat and the Toronto Kid Line of Primeau. Jackson and Conacher. So he turned down the scholarship and went back to peddling soap and encyclopedias and otherwise working toward his first million dollars.
The Cooke mystique
At 23 Cooke got a job with a Timmins, Ont., radio station, and the energy with which he tackled his chores so impressed the owner, Roy Thomson, that two years later he was a partner in Thomson-Cooke Publications, an organization that has since become the world’s largest newspaper empire. (Without the name Cooke, of course. Thomson bought him out in 1952. Many people think Cooke and Thomson “broke up.” Actually, their only break was with their native Canada, one to become a British peer, the other a U.S. citizen. Lord Thomson is a director of Cooke’s Los Angeles sports empire. Another director: Canadian expatriate Lome
The Cooke mystique is elusive. Try to define the deeds that led one
Cooke-watcher to describe him as “a brazen, unorthodox public figure, an upstart aggressive freebooter, brilliant, shrewd and charming when he wishes to be,” and you end up with a summary that’s somewhat less than earthshaking.
As owner of Toronto radio station CKEY, Cooke practically invented the clamorous gimmicks and breathless
broadcast techniques that infected
radio in the 1950s, to the periodic dismay of the Board of Broadcast
Governors. (Never an armchair owner. Cooke had been known to invade broadcast studios to deliver pep talks to disc jockeys who seemed to lack
the "infectious enthusiasm” that was CKEY’s watchword.)
In Liberty magazine, one of Cooke's gimmicks was sometimes to run American short stories “Canadianized" to carry such titles as How the Medicine Hat Miss Tamed the Cowboy from Calgary. Cooke kept his Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team afloat by
a series of stunts — diaper-changing contests at home base, free admission on Friday 13 for patrons accompanied by a black cat.
Then suddenly and in unaccustomed silence Cooke gave up on Canada. He has never explained why. but acquaintances are convinced that he became impatient at a series of frus-
trations in his attempts to expand his sports and communications empire. He failed in bids to buy two Toronto papers. He lost out in an attempt to be granted the second Toronto TV channel. He failed to persuade Toronto's city council to help build a baseball park suitable for a big-league franchise.
In May I960 Cooke quit Canada with a dramatic gesture. The U.S. Congress passed an unprecedented private bill “for the relief of one Jack
Kent Cooke.” It waived the requirement that an alien must live five years continuously in the United States before being eligible for citizenship.
During the next several months Cooke sold his publishing company, his radio station, his ball club (at a loss of $300,000), his yacht, a converted Fairmile patrol boat of the Royal Canadian Navy noted for a voracious appetite for fuel; his $200,()()() town house on fashionable Frybrook Road. He moved to Los Angeles with a stake of $10 million, bought a pink palace next door to Jerry Lewis in Bel Air, and began methodically to build a sports empire.
For three million dollars he bought a quarter share in the profitable but not very proficient Washington Redskins of the National Football League, with an option to acquire a larger share. He paid $5,175,000 for the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association. He owns the Los Angeles franchise in the United Soccer Association, the “authorized” soccer league that leases top teams from other parts of the world to play in the United States, It cost Cooke $250.000 last season to operate the Wolverhampton team under the name of Los Angeles Wolves.
“They were the youngest team in the league, and a second-division club back home, at that,” Cooke points out. “But they led the league here. Maybe those know-it-all sportswriters should be reminded of that when they sneer at my hockey team, the youngest in the NHL and admittedly mostly minor leaguers — until now.”
Scouting for a scout
In February 1966 Cooke’s bid for the Los Angeles berth in the expanded league was accepted. He didn’t have a single hockey person on his staff, and he had little more than a year in which to assemble a team and an organization ready for the October 1967 faccoff. His first need was for a head scout to assess the best available players. So, characteristically, Cooke went scouting for a scout. Among the candidates was Larry Regan, a bettcrthan-average player with Boston and Toronto during the 1950s. (His one weakness was a disinclination to backcheck. “I played on a team with goalie Terry Sawchuk a whole season before I made his acquaintance,” Regan recalls. “I never got that far back on the ice.”)
What Cooke liked about what he heard about Regan was that he was a glutton for work. “He’d be out scouting when other scouts were sitting around a hot stove gabbing.”
Regan had spent a couple of years in Europe organizing an Austrian hockey league and returned to scout for the Baltimore club, which was a candidate for an NHL franchise. When Baltimore's bid failed. Cooke hired Regan. In preparation for last June’s expansion draft in Montreal. Regan and Cooke, with the behindthe-scenes connivance of Red Kelly, who wasn't yet Los Angeles’ property, drew up a detailed list of all available players, concentrating on size, youth, skating ability and willingness to work
"The sportswriters had a field day at our expense when they heard our
THE TEAM THAT JACK BUILT continued
“I hope those sportswriters will have the
guts to apologize”
choices. Sure, there wasn’t a ‘name’ among them except Sawchuk. That was deliberate. We didn't want fading stars playing their last two years to entitle them to full pensions. We wanted a team that would improve over the years. We’re sure we’ve got it — and I hope those sportswriters will have the guts to apologize before the season’s over.”
Another key staff member Cooke needed was a radio and TV hockey announcer. (To protect attendance, the Kings' home games will be broadcast only on radio at least for the first year or two, but 20 road games will be telecast.) Selecting an announcer was a typical Cooke operation. He listened to tapes from no fewer than SO candidates across Canada and the United States. The winner was Ken McDonald, a 28-year-old radio announcer and sportscastcr who had worked on Peterborough and Orillia. Ont., stations.
"Ken is the best hockey broadcaster on the continent, bar none,” says Cooke.
Before the first faceoff of this season. Cooke's ledger for the Kings read like this: two million dollars for the contracts of 19 players (he had to trade a player to get Coach Kelly): one million dollars to the Western Hockey League and the Los Angeles Blades for “invasion of territory"; $900.000 to Eddie Shore for his American League Springfield Indians. now renamed Kings, which will be Cooke’s top farm club: $3()().()()() for a 46 percent share in the minorleague Seattle Totems; and the balance, which Cooke says “gives me a few thousand in change from five million,” for organization expenses, including one of the largest training camps in hockey history — more than 70 candidates — and for equipment, including the gaudy royal-purple-andgold uniforms which Cooke admits he copied directly from the Detroit Red Wings. “All my life I’ve thought Detroit had the most attractive uniforms in hockey — so why not go along with the best?”
Cooke's five-million-dollar hockey gamble does not include the Kings’ share of the overhead on the $ 16million Forum Cooke built to house them and his Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. Allowing for income from rentals for boxing and other sporting and cultural events, hockey represents about one third of the Forum’s capitalization, making it a $ 10-million operation.
The Kings may be among the league’s poor relations on the ice. but they’ll be slumming in every other rink in the league, including Toronto’s “House of Money,” Maple Leaf Gar-
dens. Anyone who has peered through an arena dressing room in quest of an autograph knows the kind of accommodation provided for glamorous hockey stars: elevated on their skates, they duck through a doorway into a dank cavern furnished with steam pipes, low wooden benches and schoolsized lockers.
Cooke’s Kings are housed in a paneled, broadkiomed dressing room reached through doors eight feet high and three feet wide (which, of course, also accommodate Cooke's elongated basketball Lakers in season.) Each player has a walk-in locker equipped with a dial-combination strong box in which to store his valuables. For
relaxation, there’s a players’ colortelevision lounge. Equally luxurious facilities are available to visiting players. of course, and Cooke is not unaware of the effect of such opulence on attracting players in the future: “How you going to keep them out in the sticks after they’ve seen L.A.?” There was a time, earlier Cooke employees recall, when income tax was not among their major problems. In Los Angeles, Cooke’s hired hands will have free use of the services of the
Forum’s accountants, lawyers and fiI nancial experts to help them with money problems that athletes are apt to stumble over, including income tax and investments.
“1 remember the jam my friend Joe Louis got into because he had nobody to advise him on how to handle his income.” Cooke says. ‘‘I wouldn’t want that to happen to my boys. What these services would cost depends on how much the players use them. But let's say they couldn’t afford them if j 1 didn’t provide them.”
(Cooke says his Kings are as well ! paid as comparative players on other ! i NHL teams, and that certainly applies I to Sawchuk, whose $40,000 is nearly twice as much as he received during his days of super-stardom in Detroit and Toronto. Actually, most Kings sign a two-salary contract, paying a i ! major-league salary if they stay in Los ¡ Angeles, a reduced rate if they’re rele| I gated to the minors.)
Another fringe benefit of being a i Los Angeles King is the Forum's house-finding service. To relieve his players of the worry of finding a place ! to live in a strange and formidable j city when they should be concentrating on playing hockey. Cooke’s “intramural service staff” had lined up houses and apartments long before the j hockey season opened.
The home of the Kings, the Forum, j will be unveiled coast to coast in livid ! color ( nothing less could do it justice) via CBS on December 30, when j Cooke's team plays its first home game in its permanent quarters. Thirty milj lion bemused viewers will behold a j ; vast pillar-less interior equipped with ! tier upon tier of upholstered chairs I — more than 16,000 of them — rest; ing on acres of broadloomed floors,
I and the whole divided into two resplendent colors.
Well, more than two colors, really. The entire west side of the Forum is in coppertone, shading from deep i j color at icc level to light in the upper ¡ tiers as the illumination diminishes, j On the east half, the color is gold.
! again shading upward from deep to j light. The usherettes, all chosen for movie-starlet looks, are (what else?) garbed in abbreviated Roman tunics i of either coppertone or gold, depend| ing on what side of the Forum they use. The first time Cooke saw them ; at an undress rehearsal, he exclaimed.
“What do you know — Roman girls : 2.000 years ago were wearing miniI skirts!”
The Forum’s color theme invades i the 25-acre parking lot. Season ticket j holders get three color-keyed tickets,
I one for parking in the right colored j ! area, the second for entry to the rej I served seats (follow the coppertone or | ! gold pathway), and the third for ad, mission to the Forum Club — “the j most elegantly designed bistro in America.”
Down there in the centre of all this ! opulence is an ice surface not noticeably different in size or composition from those in San Francisco, Min' neapolis. Philadelphia. Pittsburgh, St.
I Louis. Toronto. Montreal, Boston.
Chicago. Detroit or New York. And I if Cooke by any chance has assembled j a hockey team, what goes on on that ice surface could conceivably compete ! for attention with the Forum's other enticements. ★