[LOS ANGELES — 50 years ago, the Los Angeles Kings were a brand, spanking new National Hockey League franchise, one of six added when the NHL decided to expand from its Original Six teams in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto.
Six expansion teams joined the league in the 1967-68 season, including Jack Kent Cooke’s Kings, who had players such as Bill Flett, Eddie Joyal, Lowell MacDonald, Ted Irvine, Brian Kilrea, Gord Labossiere, Wayne Rutledge and Terry Sawchuk leading the way.
Their leader, the Kings’ first captain, was defenseman Bob Wall, who scored five goals and added 18 assists for 23 points in 71 regular season games in that first season.
But before that first Kings team could begin to play in games, they had other problems to overcome.
“When were first arrived here, it was an, ‘OK, now what’ type of thing,” Wall recalled. “Our team was in utter chaos after we left training camp. It wasn’t a great experience here. When we first landed at [Los Angeles International Airport], we went to the Holiday Inn near the airport, but there was no one there to greet us or tell us what was on the agenda. It was, ‘where do we go from here?’”
To illustrate just how poorly organized the Kings organization was in its earliest days, they didn’t even think to have pucks available for their first practice sessions.
“We practiced at Long Beach when we first started,” said Wall. “[Head coach] Red Kelly asked if we had pucks—we had no pucks on the ice. We didn’t have any pucks. I think it was Larry Regan, our general manager—he mentioned to Jiggs McDonald [their play-by-play announcer] to get some pucks. Jiggs talked to somebody who had one or two pucks in the glove compartment of his car. That’s what we started with.”
“There were a couple of times, right off the get-go, the puck went over the glass and we had to scramble up into the seating area to get it back on the ice,” added Wall. “That was our welcome to California, I guess.”
“We sort of had to try to make ends meet right away. But those days are long gone now. It’s just something we look back at, not with regret, but for the experience.”
But even before they had to have someone chase after pucks in the stands during their earliest practices, the players all had to move to Los Angeles from faraway places, and Wall was no exception.
In short, they all suffered from some initial culture shock.
“It sure was,” he said. “I’d been to California once before. I played for a Western Hockey League team [the Edmonton Flyers in 1962-63]. Then we realized that we were [going] out to California for a length of time. It was a brand new experience for me and my family. Actually, I looked forward to it and when we got here, it was, ‘wow’—that kind of attitude.”
“I didn’t know Jack Kent Cooke from the get-go, but I have to respect the man for giving me a chance to play hockey in California,” he added. “It was an opportunity to play in the National Hockey League on a steady basis and I was happy to be given the chance to do that.”
But once Wall and his teammates put on their Kings jerseys for the first time in a game—their first home game was played at Long Beach Arena (the Forum in Inglewood, California did not open until December 30, 1967, when the Kings suffered a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers), they had to work to sell the NHL to Southern California and it was a tremendous struggle.
“It was hard just to get 6,000 people into the Forum [which seated 16,005 for hockey],” said Wall. “The odd time we played against one of the Original Six teams, we’d get 7,000, or maybe a little over 7,000, and we thought, ‘oh my gosh, what’s happening here?’”
“It seems too, though, that when we played the Original Six teams, we were out to prove that we belonged in the National Hockey League,” added Wall. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I sensed that we wanted to prove something to those teams—that we could play with them, and I think we won a fair number of games against them. I remember that we beat the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal, one time. We thought, ‘this is a good omen.’”
Despite all the adversity, Wall emphasized that he was proud to play for that first Kings team and to be their captain.
“We had something to prove here, being the first NHL team in the Los Angeles area,” he noted. “I was pretty happy to be a part of it. If you look back at it now compared to what’s happening today, there’s a total evolution of hockey here in California.”
After the Kings, Wall played in the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings organizations before finishing his professional career with four seasons in the World Hockey Association—two years with the Alberta Oilers, which became the Edmonton Oilers the next season, and then two seasons with the San Diego Mariners.
“Leaving Los Angeles, I got traded to St. Louis, and then, back to Detroit,” Wall reminisced. “I got tired of being shuffled about. When the WHA started out, they were offering a lot more money than I was accustomed to making, so I thought, ‘here’s another chance,’ so I signed a contract with the Alberta Oilers. I played a couple of years there, and I started enjoying hockey again.”
“I had a no-trade contract, but they said they were trading me to San Diego,” he added. “I had already been to California, and I balked at it, a bit. Then they said that they’d add another year to my contract if I’ll go, so we thought why not? We loved California, so my wife packed up the kids and we moved to San Diego.”
Life and hockey were very different in the WHA.
“It was totally different from the NHL,” said Wall. “There were a lot of guys who weren’t NHL-caliber. But there were a lot guys who were, and they were given a chance to play in the National Hockey League, so that gave the league some credibility at the start. If it wasn’t for guys like Bobby Orr, Bernie Parent—they signed big contracts to play in the WHA. There were big names like Gordie Howe.”
If you thought Wall and the original Kings had it tough when they first arrived in Los Angeles, it was a lot worse in San Diego.
“In San Diego, the first year, right near the end of the season, we were missing paychecks, which were very important to us,” Wall noted. “We threatened not to play anymore, but the league helped us. I guess we decided, for the love of the game, to hang in there. It wasn’t fun, but it was something I knew that I could do.”
“Some of the [WHA] teams did well, but San Diego wasn’t one of the top teams,” Wall added. “We had some fairly good talent, but you competed against Gordie Howe with Houston, or Winnipeg—they had some Swedes, [Kent Nilsson and Ulf Nilsson], and were pretty powerful.”
Wall and his family now live in Minden, Ontario, a town located northeast of Toronto and not far from his hometown, Elgin Hill.
“I went back home and opened a Tim Horton’s doughnut franchise,” he said. “Those are very big in Canada. We opened that in 1987, so we’ve been at that for 28 years. We still own them, but we don’t run them anymore. I’ve got a son and daughter who run them. Our daughter and her husband own five stores now, too.”
Many years passed before Wall would have contact with the Kings again, but when that finally happened, it could not have come at a better time.
“In 2012, the Kings flew my wife, Marg, and I down to Los Angeles [during] the Stanley Cup Final,” he recalled fondly. “That was unreal.”
“I was in their box [during the Stanley Cup Final] and they introduced me at the end of the first period,” Wall added. “They introduced me as, ‘our first captain.’ I had tears in my eyes. I waved to the people. It was simply awesome.”
“Then, this past February, [Kings President/Business Operations] Luc Robitaille got in touch with me about meeting the team in Boston for the 50th Anniversary of the Kings being accepted as an NHL franchise. Marg and I were in Florida for the winter, so we flew up to Boston for the game, and we were treated royally. We were treated like a King, and before we left, Luc said to keep the October 13-14, weekend open [for the opening night festivities honoring the 1967-68 team].”
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Kings brought Wall and twelve of his teammates back to Los Angeles to be honored as part of the team’s 50th Anniversary celebration during their 2016-17 home opener on October 14.
That weekend, the Kings honored these players as pioneers of NHL hockey in Southern California.
“It’s mind-boggling and spine tingling,” Wall beamed. “That’s the best way to describe it. I’m so proud to have worn the Los Angeles Kings sweater and being part of the start-up of a franchise that has become as strong as it is. It’s very gratifying. I’m very proud to say that I was one of the original Kings.”
“It was great and satisfying to be part of the original Kings team and plant the seed,” Wall added. “Let’s hope that it grows into something that’s good and solid.”
LEAD PHOTO: 13 players from the 1967-68 Los Angeles Kings—the Original Kings— were honored by the team during their 50th Anniversary celebration on October 14, 2016, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.< Their first captain, defenseman Bob Wall, is in the first row, third from the left. Photo: Dave Joseph/Los Angeles Kings.
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