Out one window Santa Catalina, the Island of Romance, was clearly visible in the blue Pacific, and out the other Terry Harper could see Little Leaguers practicing to become DPHs, housewives and stewardesses trying to imitate Billie Jean King and a collection of bleached beach bums playing basketball with a volleyball. For Harper, the view from his oceanside bungalow in Manhattan Beach, Calif. is a thousand sights better than the tons of snow that surrounded him during the 10 years he played and lived in Montreal; nevertheless, he has a mild complaint. "How," Harper asks, "do you get yourself in the mood to play hockey when you can spend the afternoon romping around the beach? It doesn't make much sense."
In a valiant attempt to obliterate the pleasures of a rare smogless afternoon from his mind and, instead, psych himself up for the game the Los Angeles Kings would play against the New York Rangers last Wednesday night, Harper collected a few logs and started a crackling blaze in his fireplace. "Sure is cold around here," he said to his wife Gladys, who nodded in agreement.
Cold? It was 68°. But the fire soon flamed out, and then Harper got up, put on his bathing suit, strolled down to the beach and did his psyching during a long, barefoot walk along the shore.
Before Coach Bob Pulford took over this year, flexing a whip, and Harper showed up with some Canadien charisma, the Kings generally spent more time at the beach and on the golf course than they did on the ice, and they easily managed to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs the last three seasons. The Kings were probably driven to the surf by the terrible trades concocted by Owner Jack Kent Cooke and General Manager Larry Regan, not to mention the turnstile arrival and departure of King coaches. Besides disposing of such dependable players as Bill White and Dale Rolfe, Cooke and Regan also contrived to trade away every No. 1 draft pick the Kings have had in the last five years.
Last summer, though, Cooke and Regan finally made a couple of shrewd moves. They persuaded Pulford, the former Toronto forward who played out the last two years of his career with the Kings, to become coach, and lured the 33-year-old Harper west. And now the team seems headed for the playoffs in the madcap West Division. After letting the Rangers escape with a 4-4 tie and then splitting with Vancouver and Toronto last week, the Kings had a firm hold on fourth place. Better yet, the NHL schedule now turns in their favor.
"We'll be all right, because starting in February we play 18 of our last 25 games in California, and we're a warm-weather club," says Ralph Backstrom, another former Canadien, who already has scored 18 goals for the Kings. Indeed, the Kings have lost only four of 21 games at home. But they have squandered 17 of 25 in colder climates. "We travel more than 80,000 miles this season, at least twice the distance of the teams on the other side of the Rockies, and it gets to you," says Harry Howell, still another veteran who is finishing his career in Los Angeles. "It's so cold back East we never leave the hotels."
To prepare for his coaching duties, Pulford spent 10 days last summer with George Allen at the Washington Redskin training camp in Carlisle, Pa. "George taught me that you don't go anywhere by the seat of your pants," Pulford says. "I learned that a little positive psychology will go a long way. After all, what's so wrong with saying that you've got the 10th best something-or-other—even though it may also be the sixth worst."
Like Allen, Pulford concentrates on every little thing. He is the only coach in the NHL who takes a clipboard onto the ice for practice sessions. "When I was with Montreal and we played the Kings it usually was a pretty wide-open game because they weren't very well organized," Harper says. "Pulford has put in a system that emphasizes back-checking by the forwards, and if you don't play his way, then you don't play."
For Harper, who was on five Stanley Cup championship teams during his decade as a defenseman-bouncer for the Canadiens, it has been an unexpectedly satisfying season. For one thing, he was voted to the All-Star team for the first time in his career. More important, his experience has helped the younger Los Angeles defensemen, particularly Gilles Marotte, eliminate mistakes that used to result in goals for the opposition. Marotte has played so well that he also was voted to the All-Star team. "Someone like Harper can help turn your whole club around," Pulford says.
Nevertheless, Harper was hardly thrilled last summer when Sammy Pollock, general manager of the Canadiens, called and asked if he would talk to Cooke on the phone. "I wasn't happy in Montreal and I wanted to get away," Harper says, "but I didn't want to get 3,000 miles away. I was in a position where I could call my own shots, too, because if the Canadiens did not send me where I wanted to go I was planning to jump to the WHA." Harper told Pollock the Kings were "too bad a team" and that he was not interested in talking to Cooke. Then Cooke called Harper and invited him to Los Angeles.
"I went," Harper says, "and by the time Cooke finished talking and I finished listening I was sold completely." Once the season began, though, the Kings lost six of their first seven games and Harper asked himself, "What have I done to deserve this?" But then the Kings set off on a winning streak, moving temporarily into first place in the West—and Harper has had no doubts since.
Like Howell, Backstrom and Pulford, Harper has had difficulty adjusting to the California life-style. "My clothing bills are way down because the kids wear sneakers, jeans, T shirts and no socks everyplace they go, including school," Harper says. "But it's such an undisciplined life for the kids. Jeffrey, who is seven, was one step from being a devil back in Montreal but now he complains that his teachers aren't strict enough with him." Jeffrey plays hockey a few days a week at the rink in Culver City where the Kings normally practice, but he and his older brother Greg, 11, have discovered there are other sports—like swimming, surfing, basketball, tennis and volleyball. Harper has, too. "See those courts over there," he said last week, pointing to an area about 100 yards from his rented bungalow. "Gladys and I play tennis several times a week. In Montreal I used to ski up in the Laurentians, on my off-days only." Gladys laughed. "And you weren't supposed to do that, either, because it was against club rules."
Harper suspects that only his immediate neighbors know who he is and who the Los Angeles Kings are. "It's so different, especially after playing in Montreal," he said. "We can go to a restaurant out here and dine in peace. In Montreal you didn't bother to go out very often, because it was a hassle."
"Oh, you've had the glory already, don't worry about it," Gladys said. "I feel sorry for the young kids on the Kings, though. It must be tough on them. They are something big back home, but out here nobody knows them. They have never had the glory." Maybe not, but if the Kings do make the playoffs Los Angeles hockey could develop the snob appeal it has never had, even though the Kings are averaging almost 10,000 fans a game. "What we need," Harper says, "is a great playoff series against one of the old teams. Then everyone out here would know what hockey is all about."