There are some things you might enjoy knowing about the Los Angeles Kings. They are a hockey team. Goal-tender Rogatien Vachon answers to the name "Bono" because of a strong resemblance to Cher's ex. General Manager Jake Milford was once traded for a set of used goal nets. Center Vic Venasky and Right Wing Mike Murphy are brothers-in-law. Center Gene Carr's father-in-law owns a Mercedes-Benz dealership. Carr and six teammates all drive Mercedes. Coach Bob Pulford drives a Mercedes, too. Murphy's father operates a Volkswagen dealership. Murphy drives a new Corvette. Left Wing Danny Maloney is the best pure puncher in hockey. Center Butch Goring travels lightly, usually with only a toothbrush, and is called Seed, short for seedy. Defenseman Terry Harper flies his own six-seat Beech-craft V-35A and is installing a sauna, complete with Tiffany lamps and terrariums, in his oceanfront residence. Defenseman Bob Murdoch built a corral behind his house for his horse. And Defenseman Sheldon Kannegiesser wants to buy up the world's gold supply.
So much for the Rona Barrett report. What you really ought to know about the Kings is that they call themselves Team Castoff because, well, they are a band of discards, sort of the Washington Redskins of the National Hockey League. Sixteen of the 20 players on the roster arrived on the West Coast with "reject" stamped on their foreheads. "Nobody liked us," Murphy says. "We were the expendables, the guys who usually didn't dress for the games." Or as Carr says, "We were the guys who rode the pine. The bench."
But last week there was Team Castoff shredding the New York Rangers—with the Off-Broadway Line of ex-Rangers Carr, Murphy and Tom Williams doing much of the damage—and the Washington Capitals to take a two-point lead over the Montreal Canadiens atop the Norris Division. And then, on Saturday night, came the Canadiens themselves skating into the Forum—not the Forum in Montreal, mind you, but The Forum in Inglewood—to challenge the Kings in the first "big" game ever played on Southern California ice. It was a game big enough to have the scalpers asking $130 for a pair of $8.75 loge seats.
Like most hockey people, the Canadiens were baffled by the presence of the Kings, of all teams, in first place. The Canadiens, remember, were going to clinch the divisional championship no later than Christmas. Back in early December, Montreal began a six-week tear during which it went 21 games without a defeat, but was still unable to shake the dogged Kings. "I thought we'd lose them when they went on the road for seven straight games," said Canadien Coach Scotty Bowman. No such luck. The Kings won six of those seven games, including a 6-3 triumph over the Canadiens in the Forum, and slipped past Montreal into first place.
In reconstructing the Kings by recycling players, Pulford had gone heavily for defensive types. Harper and Murdoch, ex-Canadien defensemen, rarely if ever carry the puck much past the red line, but they rarely leave Vachon or his backup, Gary Edwards, in distress around the goal either. At the same time, forwards such as Bob Nevin, Murphy, Carr and Williams will never challenge Phil Esposito for the scoring championship, but they all check persistently and rarely get caught out of position. As a result, the Kings rank No. 2 in goals-against in the entire NHL, and before the Montreal game they had the fewest losses (eight) in the league.
For "Bono" Vachon and his fellow rejects, the emergence of the Kings as a legitimate hockey power has helped rebuild egos that were shattered when they were dispatched to California by the Sam Pollocks and the Emile Francises of the NHL. "I played on three Stanley Cup winners in Montreal," Vachon says, "but they put my number on the rack when Dryden came up. They never gave me the chance to win my job back." At present Vachon has the lowest goals-against average in the league—1.94, almost a full goal lower than Ken Dryden's average with Montreal—and was a unanimous selection for the recent All-Star Game. "I'm making fewer mistakes now," he says, "because I think I'm concentrating more. And I am more disciplined. One thing about playing out here is that you can leave the game at the rink. If I had a bad game for Montreal, I couldn't stop for a cup of coffee without a couple of people telling me how terrible I was."
Murdoch played for one Stanley Cup champion in Montreal, but he never felt he was part of the Canadiens. "I was one of a cast of thousands," he says. "I never felt significant." Early this season Murdoch beat Dryden, his old roommate, with a shot and then mailed Dryden the puck as a Christmas present. Also a member of the midseason All-Star team, Murdoch was a dominant figure in L.A.'s 6-3 win at Montreal. Late in the game Serge Savard of the Canadiens ran his old friend Vachon into the boards, knocking him to the ice. Murdoch, who had just lost a fight to Montreal rookie Doug Risebrough, chased after Savard, tapped him across the back of the shoulders with his stick, grabbed him by the legs and put him down on the ice. "I bled all over him," says Murdoch. Vachon appreciates Murdoch's gallantry. "We're winning because we're together," he says. "When Bobby went after Serge, he did it to protect me."
Nevin, a 36-year-old right wing, is one of seven former Rangers on the Kings roster. Two years ago he was passed from Minnesota to Los Angeles in something called the reverse draft, which is the lowest and crudest procedure teams employ to inform a player that his days are limited. "I remember telling Pulford at training camp that if Nevin made our club we wouldn't have a very good one," says Milford. So Nevin leads the Kings in scoring with 21 goals and 28 assists, and joins with Butch Goring to form the NHL's leading penalty-killing tandem.
While Los Angeles represented the last chance for Nevin, it was sort of a mystery city for both Murphy and Carr. At one time in their careers they figured in the same trade, with Murphy moving from New York to St. Louis while Carr went the opposite way. The following season Murphy, 24, was traded back to New York, where he assumed he would have a semi-secure future. "Francis told me he had plans for me," Murphy says. "What he didn't say was that he planned to trade me again." Arriving in Los Angeles a year ago, Murphy had what he called a "hard head." "I thought I was better than I was, so I came with a negative attitude," he says. "I tried to let the people here know that I was doing them a favor by playing for them. It took a while, but I finally came around. And now I've learned to keep my mouth shut, too." Murphy and his wife of seven months, Yvonne, have settled temporarily in Marina Del Rey. "We walk on the beach the afternoon of a game," he says. "It relaxes me. My wife didn't know much, if anything, about hockey before we were married, so she doesn't know whether I have played good or bad in a game. I like that. She can't give me hell."
The 23-year-old Carr was considered New York's first flake when he arrived from St. Louis with his flowing blond locks and outlandish attire. He even wrote poetry in his spare time. "I'm really just a rookie," he says. "I wasted three years in New York, never playing more than eight or 10 games. They never gave me a chance." Ironically, New York beat Montreal in the 1972 Stanley Cup playoffs on the strength of Carr's superb checking against Yvan Cournoyer. "I told Francis one afternoon last year that I was going to sign with Vancouver of the WHA the next day. He traded me to L.A. about six hours later." So far this season Carr has played regularly, but not without further frustration, hitting 23 goalposts at last count. He has had five goals and 20 assists, though, while setting up plays for Murphy (the Kings' No. 2 scorer with 17 goals and 26 assists) and Williams, who has 18 goals already. "It's funny," Carr says. "We played together in New York, but the Rangers didn't stick with us. Now, well, let's say that we've proved something to a lot of people back there."
Team Castoff seemed understandably tight before the start of Saturday's game. Vachon, who had injured his groin in Friday's workout, was not cleared for duty until after the pregame drill. Predictably, the Canadiens came out charging. They had spent the previous four days in seclusion at Squaw Valley, thinking, as Cournoyer said, about how the Kings had handled them so well back in Montreal. Unfortunately for the Kings, Carr was ejected from the game in its early moments when he intruded as the third man during a minor altercation between Murphy and Peter Mahovlich. For his part, Vachon had little control of his feet around the net and relied primarily on his glove to foil the Canadiens, particularly Guy Lafleur, who is the most exciting forward in the NHL right now.
Montreal took a 2-0 lead early in the second period, but the Kings rallied to tie the score on goals by Maloney, an ex-Black Hawk, and Bob Berry, who labored in the Canadiens' minor league system for a number of years. Larry Robinson then put Montreal back in front 3-2, but Berry—this time on an artful mid-air deflection at the goal mouth—tied the score once again. Then, in the traditional Canadien manner, Jacques Lemaire broke the tie on a Montreal power play and Serge Savard followed moments later with a shorthanded goal to give the Canadiens a 5-3 victory and move them into a tie for first place with the Kings. Will Christmas ever come for Montreal? Maybe. Maybe not.