LA Kings First Play-By-Play Voice, Jiggs McDonald, Reminisces

Years before the Voice of the Kings, Bob Miller, began his 44 years behind the mic for the Los Angeles Kings, Jiggs McDonald, a Hall of Famer in his own right who will fill in for Miller on February 9 when the Kings skate against the Florida Panthers, called the action for the Kings for their first five seasons in the National Hockey League. In part 1 of this two-part story, McDonald shared some memories from his time with the Kings.

LOS ANGELES — As anyone who follows the Los Angeles Kings knows, the long-time Voice of the Kings, Bob Miller, is practically synonymous with the team. It is virtually impossible to talk about the Kings and their history without, at the very least, mentioning their Hall of Fame broadcaster, now in his 44th season calling the action for the team.

But before Miller, when the Kings first arrived in Southern California, their first play-by-play announcer, John Kenneth “Jiggs” McDonald, who became a Hall of Famer in his own right, was behind the microphone on Kings television and radio broadcasts for the team’s first five seasons.

After the Kings, McDonald’s illustrious career includes stints with the Atlanta Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, three Olympic Winter Games, Sports Channel America, and New York Mets baseball. But he is best known for his 13 seasons doing play-by-play for the New York Islanders—the Isles won three Stanley Cup Championships with McDonald behind the mic.

In 1990, McDonald received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for his outstanding contributions to his profession and the game during his career, making him a media honoree in the Hockey Hall of Fame ten years before Miller would earn that same honor.

During the Kings 2016-17 home opener last October, when they honored the 1967-68 team—the original Kings—McDonald was part of the festivities, which included honoring 13 players from that first team on the ice prior to the game.

The highlight of the ceremony came when, with the players from the 1967-68 Kings already having been introduced by McDonald and lined up on the blue line, the current Kings were then introduced and they lined up directly behind the original Kings, honoring their predecessors.

“That was neat,” said McDonald. “I was standing right by Howie Menard, and he was the shortest of any of the Kings from 1967. ‘Mini’ was his nickname. Here’s Howie, trying to look the current players in the eye, and he turned and looked at me, ‘look at the size of that of that son of a gun! Jeez! And he can skate, too!’”

“The way they did that, with the current team behind the original team, was well planned,” added McDonald. “Well thought out.”

Over the three days that the original Kings were in town, they spent a lot of time reminiscing with each other and a few, like McDonald, took time to speak with the media about their time with the Kings—they were very generous and gracious with their time.

McDonald indicated that his job certainly wasn’t just to call the action on the ice on radio and television.

“Over and above the original, I’m just a guy who did his level best to introduce the National Hockey League to the Greater Los Angeles area, to try and teach the sport to those who weren’t familiar with the game,” he said. “I had to keep in mind that there was a hockey base. The [Los Angeles] Blades had been in the Western Hockey League, and before that, the Los Angeles Monarchs, and so on. But it wasn’t the number one sport.”

“I took an approach where I wasn’t trying to talk down to the audience that knew the sport,” he added. “But I also had to teach on the fly on radio and television, the best I could. What constituted offsides? What constituted icing? The change on the fly—substitutions didn’t happen as they do in basketball, football or baseball. Guys just came flying over the boards. How did they know it was time to change?”

“There was a teaching process that we went through, including the rules of the game. It was a challenge, but I felt comfortable with it. Had I known that all it would take was to get that kid from Branford, Ontario here to make the franchise successful, we would’ve done it at that time, too. But Wayne Gretzky was too young to play in the NHL in 1967.”

Indeed, McDonald’s work extended well beyond broadcasting. In fact, he wore several different hats besides play-by-play announcer, including selling season tickets.

“Every promotion you could think of was tried, like the nights when the New York Rangers were in or when the Chicago Blackhawks were in,” he said. “For example, if you had an Illinois drivers license or birth certificate—some proof you were from there, you could get two tickets for the price of one. But then some very astute fans thought, ‘why am I paying full price for season tickets when I’m sitting among fans who got in for half price?’ They weren’t happy campers.”

“I recall, vividly, selling season tickets during the off-season when I got this gentleman on the phone,” he added. “He said, ‘let me ask you something. How many games are there in a season?’ At the time, I think we were playing 72 games, so 36 at home. He said, ‘do you think Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox—well, let me ask you again. How long is the hockey season?’ I said, ‘5 1/2 to six months, maximum.’ So he said, ‘do you think, for any of those studios, to produce 36 movies in that timeframe that they’d all be worth paying full price for? I’ll look up the games I want to go to and I’ll get tickets for those. I’m not buying 36 games.’”

“This was a businessman, obviously very sharp. He knew that the building wasn’t going to be sold out and the point we were trying to make was that if you didn’t get a season ticket, you weren’t going to be able to get a ticket to the game you want to see, but he said, ‘no, I don’t think it’ll work that way.’ So we had our work cut out for us.”

Then there was the time that McDonald tried to get out of selling season tickets, only to have the whole thing blow up, and not just in his own face.

“One vivid memory I have was getting a guy on the phone,” he recalled. “He asked, ‘who did you say this was?’ I said, ‘Jiggs McDonald.’ He said, ‘say something else. Jeez, it is you. I’ve had Lakers season tickets since the team came here and [Hall of Fame broadcaster] Chick Hearn has never called me.’”

“I thought, ‘here’s my chance to get out of doing this,’” he added. “So I went to Jack Kent Cooke, [the Kings first owner], and told him what the gentleman said. Mr. Cooke replied, ‘did he now?’ The following Monday, Chick was in the office making calls, trying to sell Lakers season tickets, and he cursed me like you wouldn’t believe. ‘Why the hell would you tell the old man that?’”

McDonald indicated that Cooke pushed hard for season ticket sales and offered generous incentives to his sales staff.

“Jack Kent Cooke was very generous to us and he gave us the list of season ticket holders who hadn’t renewed or indicated that they weren’t going to renew,” he explained. “We would get them on the phone and talk to them. If we were able to retain them, we got a higher percentage than we did on a cold call sale.”

“We also had a list of people—at home games, there was a form in the [game night printed] program for those interested in season tickets,” he elaborated. “All that meant was that you were going to get a call from me, or somebody else in the office during the summer months twisting your arm to see if we could sell you season tickets. It was a challenge, no question.”

The environment that the Kings were working in was also a bit hostile, under the circumstances.

“There were a lot of people who were hockey fans—Blades fans—who liked the game,” said McDonald. “But they didn’t like the fact that Jack Kent Cooke got the franchise rather than [Blades owner] Dan Reeves. They resented Cooke and he had a flair about him. He did things his way and he couldn’t make a deal to play long-term at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, so he took the Lakers and the Kings and built his own arena. ‘I’ll show you.’ That was his attitude, and it upset a large part of what could’ve been the fan base here, at the time.”

Lacking stars also hurt season ticket sales.

“Star quality? Being Hollywood, you liked to have that star quality, and I’ve said that about the [Florida] Panthers,” McDonald said. “There’s a lot of alternatives with all the things going on in Los Angeles. Back then, the Dodgers always had a star. The Lakers had a star. You played to that element.”

Selling season tickets wasn’t the only job outside of the broadcast booth that McDonald did for the Kings.

“At training camp, I was the money guy,” he recalled. “I had control of the expense money for the guys who drove to training camp. Per Diem, all that kind of stuff, went through me. Some of the players tried to get as many pennies as they could out of the team.”

Stories abound regarding Cooke and his tight-fisted control of every aspect of the Kings’ operations, often to the detriment of the team.

“Prior to every game, Jack Kent Cooke had us in his office, wanting to know what we were going to talk about and how we were going to sell the game,” McDonald noted. “We were instructed that the Kings always got the short end of every call, that the referees were against us, no matter what. I earned a reputation of being a referee baiter, but I got to know a lot of the referees, and they knew where things were coming from.”

“I remember the last game of the 1967-68 season in Oakland, where we could’ve finished first [in the division],” McDonald added. “The puck was over the line and in the net. We would’ve won the game, but the goal was disallowed. The game ended in a tie, and we ended up one point out of first place. Jack Kent Cooke was livid.”

Cooke is often characterized as being rather miserly in his operation of the Kings, even misguided.

“I remember the first game at the Long Beach Arena, then the first game at the Forum, and the road game that followed the next night in Philadelphia and how bad we were,” said McDonald. “The Flyers flew home on a charter flight paid for by the Kings. We took a red-eye with a lot of guys in the middle seats. We got there around 7:00 the next morning, and lost 9-1 that night.”

Arguably, where Cooke really failed as owner of the Kings was his practice of trading first round picks that, more often than not, became big stars in the NHL, for current NHL stars who were well past their prime, often already washed up.

“I have great recall of the friendship that Jack Kent Cooke developed with George Allen, who was coaching the Los Angeles Rams, at the time,” McDonald recalled. “He is the one who really convinced Mr. Cooke to trade all of the first round draft picks that he did. Cooke was roundly criticized for that, and rightfully so.”

“It’s a proven fact that you build through the draft, but George Allen’s theory was that you built your team by trading the unknown quantity for the known quantity,” McDonald added. “You traded an unknown player who you were going to draft and would have to wait for to develop. You were going to get a Ross Lonsberry, or this guy or that guy, for the rights to that first round pick. We lost what turned out to be some pretty good players because we didn’t have the ability to draft them.”

“[Former Montreal Canadiens general manager] Sam Pollock was a master at that. He would trade a guy who had a year or two of productive years left, certainly not six, seven or ten years, where the incoming top draft pick would have.”

McDonald lamented what could have been, if the Kings had retained their first round draft picks in those early years.

“Was [Hall of Fame goaltender] Terry Sawchuk to be the star? He was in the waning years of his career, in terms of his abilities, and I don’t know that your goaltender is always your star, although Jonathan Quick has proven me wrong on that count,” he said. “But you didn’t have a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita. Later on, there was Mario Lemieux, or today, a Sidney Crosby. You’ve got that kind of player here now, but not back then.”

“The team wasn’t built around star power, which is why the team was picked to finish dead last in the new division,” he added. “Nobody knew who these players were, including when [Cooke] bought the Springfield Kings, [which became their American Hockey League affiliate]. They got Bill White, Dale Rolfe and Brian Kilrea out of that deal, and two or three other players. But they weren’t household names. You’ve got to play to your market and I don’t know that we did that, at the time. That theory certainly didn’t play out with management.”

Despite the ups and downs of his tenure with the Kings, like the players from that time, McDonald is proud of what the Kings have become since that first season fifty years ago.

“There’s a great pride in the guys recognizing what has come to fruition over the fifty years,” he observed. “There’s a feeling that the Stanley Cup should’ve been here before it finally did arrive. The work that went into it, trying to grow the game—I think of the famous Jack Kent Cooke line: ‘there’s half a million Canadians living in Southern California, but then you recognize why they moved here: because they hated hockey.’ We just couldn’t make it go.”

There was a lot more that McDonald shared about his time with the Kings and comparing what the game was like back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s to what it is today. All that, along with what McDonald did after leaving the Kings and his thoughts about filling in for Miller on the upcoming Kings telecast at Florida, is covered in part 2 of this series. Click here for part 2!

LEAD PHOTO: Former Los Angeles Kings play-by-play announcer Jiggs McDonald (right) with former Kings forward Brian Kilrea (left), prior to the team’s 2016-17 home opener on October 14, 2016. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Kings

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