Skating out of the smog, palm trees and stifled yawns of Southern California, the Los Angeles Kings over the years have been prime examples of the harmful effects of beachfront living: all style and no substance. Sure, the Kings put a lot of goals on the scoreboard, but they maintained a freeway defense that led to late-season collapses and early exits from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Now, however, the Kings have cast off the Future Is Yesterday program of their previous ownership and launched a three-year plan that started last July with a restructuring of their operation from top to bottom. The early results: for the first time L.A. has talent that is not only young, but productive and eager, too, and the Kings have the third-best record in the NHL. This heady turnabout has caused the club's neophyte owner, the flamboyant Dr. Jerry Buss, to stick a Kings bumper sticker on his baby blue Lincoln Continental limousine and to warn fans they should start thinking about making Stanley Cup reservations.
Finding a seat for hockey never has been a problem in L.A., which in 14 years has taken to the Kings with what might be termed bridled enthusiasm. Trouble was, the cold-front refugees among the local population weren't eager to support a loser. Says Gordon Franks of Santa Monica, a transplanted Canadian and a Kings season ticket-holder, "If you want to talk hockey here, you better be prepared to call long distance."
Buss' three-year plan was running well ahead of schedule even before the Kings ran off a 10-1-1 record in their first dozen games this season. After taking a crash course in hockey by studying game films with Los Angeles Coach Bob Berry, Buss, who bought the Kings along with the Lakers, The Forum and miscellaneous other properties from Jack Kent Cooke in May of 1979, went to work. He began to stockpile draft choices—not give them away, as the Kings had done over the years; he traded for veteran defensemen—Dave Lewis and Jerry Korab in particular—to stop the traffic jam in front of the Kings' goal; he signed scoring champion Marcel Dionne to the biggest contract in NHL history—a six-year, $3.6-million deal; he remedied the Kings' lack of depth by acquiring the services of veteran Center Garry Unger; he gave Berry a bevy of rinkside assistants; he organized a farm club in Houston; and he redesigned L.A.'s uniforms.
The most significant change, though, was eliminating the Kings' graybeard image. Last season the Kings added rookies Dean Hopkins, Mark Hardy and Jay Wells, a player brash enough to date one of Buss' daughters; his teammates now call him "Dr. Wells." Last summer L.A. signed two first-round draft choices, Forward Jim Fox and Defenseman Larry Murphy, and a second-round selection, Forward Greg Terrion, and all play regularly. In the 12 seasons before Buss owned the Kings, they had only one first-round pick, having traded the other 11.
While dealing himself a new hand, Buss was careful not to throw away his aces. The Kings' Triple Crown line of Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor was 1-2-3 in league scoring before Taylor suffered a shoulder injury two weeks ago; he will return this week.
Taylor's absence has again served to discredit the theory that the Triple Crown line should be dismantled to change the Kings from a one-trick pony. Last season when Simmer went out with a knee injury, the Kings had only two wins and a tie in their next 17 games and fans sang "Goodby Berry." This year after Taylor's injury, L.A. lost four of five. "The sum of them together is greater than three hockey players," says Berry.
Simmer leads the NHL scoring race with 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points. That's some accomplishment for a man who three years ago was without a team, after being released by the now-defunct Cleveland Barons. "It was sort of fend for yourself." recalls Simmer. "I decided I'd go with anyone who wanted me." L.A. called. Simmer went—that is, to the Kings' farm club in Springfield, Mass.
Simmer remained there for a year and a half before finally joining L.A. in January of 1979. He scored at least one point in each of his first nine games as a King and put away his travel guide forever. Now Simmer lives in Manhattan Beach, a single man's idea of heaven, drives a reconditioned 1965 Corvette, roller-skates and plays volleyball, racquetball and golf. He seems to have adapted pretty well. Asked about his hometown of Terrace Bay, Ontario, Simmer says, "There's five feet of snow there now."
Simmer is 6'3" and 200 pounds, and his style is to park himself in front of the net like an oversized bulldog; his chin is scarred from the sticks of players who have tried to move him out. Earlier this season he scored four goals in a game against the Islanders, and last season he set a modern NHL record by scoring at least one goal in 13 straight games.
Buss, a marketing whiz who likes to play Monopoly without a board, has instituted a sort of community chest, an incentive plan designed to get all the Kings to pull together. If the team amasses 88 points in the standings—a total they have exceeded only once in their 13 seasons—the players will be rewarded with an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii, presumably sometime after the Stanley Cup finals. Also, for every shutout, each player gets a $200 gift certificate, while limiting the opposition to one goal is worth $100 apiece. So far the Kings have had one shutout and two one-goal games. "It's like finding money," says Berry.
One King who relishes the new attitude is the 29-year-old Dionne, who is often applauded for his personal successes but has never been highly regarded as a team player, perhaps because his club has usually been a laggard.
Dionne was heading into his option year and briefly considered jumping to another team, but Buss convinced him to stay, as much with a guarantee that he would produce a winner as with the rich new contract. Of Buss, Dionne says, "He's given me life because he cares so much. It hurts to lose, knowing how much he hates it. At times I wish I could have about four arms and four legs."
In the past Dionne used to keep a schedule alongside his locker, and as each game was played he would mark off the date as a man in prison might. Now the schedule is gone. Last Wednesday after Montreal came into The Forum and beat L.A. 8-4, Dionne was snappish in the locker room even though he'd scored a hat trick. He groused about mistakes and generally was a none-too-subtle thorn in his teammates' sides.
The next day Berry put the Kings through a rigorous two-hour workout. "Punishment," Dionne called it. Five minutes before the trial by ice ended, Berry sent Dionne and a few others into the locker room early. The message was clear to those left behind.
When the rest of the team, tired, angry and a bit rebellious, went to the locker room, one of the late practicers said derisively, "That was fun." Said another, addressing those who got off early, "Way to go, prima donnas."
On a TV set a video tape played and replayed Montreal's eight goals from the previous night. Mario Lessard, the goalkeeper who had given up the goals to the Canadiens, sat there somberly, his face chalk white.
"Do we have to look at this?" asked Hardy.
"Look at it, you might learn something," said Dionne.
"We can't all score hat tricks," Hardy muttered.
"Take a look at it," Dionne said, his arms spread in a gesture of despair.
"You do your job and I'll do mine," snapped Hardy.
Across the room, another King said in a mocking voice, "Is this the start of dissension on the Kings?"
Although the Kings lost to St. Louis 5-3 on Saturday night, Buss was not discouraged, and the size of the crowd at The Forum—14,353—didn't hurt. "It's a long road," Buss said. "We're talking millions of dollars, not thousands. We're shooting to be up 30% in revenues each of the next three years. Then we'll be able to compete. Until then I'll just have to subsidize it."
Buss pointed out that the Canadiens probably outgrossed the Kings by $3.5 million in each of the last seven years. "You give me $25 million more than them and we'll beat Montreal," he said. Buss also said he thought it was a good sign that the players were pointing fingers in the dressing room. "They realize that with me it's, like, win."
It is also, like, no longer a country club. The ocean and sun and palm trees are all still there, but the Kings are a different team. They figure that when it comes to stretching out on the beach they'd rather it be in Hawaii.