With sirens wailing, motorcycles roared up on both sides of the cab. The driver eased over on the busy Los Angeles street, and in the back seat Dick Bielous, trainer for the Philadelphia Flyers, and Joe Kadlec, the team's publicity man, wondered if they had run a red light. Then they saw a gun thrust at the window, and a policeman ordered them outside. The cops said the cab had been stolen and used in a robbery the day before. They shoved Bielous and Kadlec against the side of the car and frisked them. Kadlec tried to explain who he was. A cop told him to keep quiet. For several minutes the two men stood still, watching the cops and their guns and clubs. Finally Bielous broke into a laugh. "This," he said, "must be another Jack Kent Cooke production."
In fairness to Cooke it must be said that the incident turned out to be a Los Angeles police production. The stolen cab actually had been recovered and put back in use; the alarm for it had been left out by mistake. But if Jack Kent Cooke hasn't gotten around to staging cops-and-robbers scenes for visiting teams yet, give him time. He has been in the Los Angeles sports business less than three years, but already owns three franchises—hockey's Kings, basketball's Lakers and soccer's Toros—and a $16-million building called the Forum. On Saturday the Forum, the most striking of all Cooke's achievements, opened with a game between the Flyers and Cooke's Kings. Before the game Cooke walked out to center ice, proudly beamed at the 14,366 people around him and said, "This is the happiest day of my life."
Philadelphia won 2-0 to break a first-place tie with the Kings in the West Division of the National Hockey League and take a little of the excitement away from Cooke's triumphant moment. But only a little. His detractors had scoffed at the spectacular Forum he had envisioned; hockey people had predicted that his Kings would be the weakest club in the NHL. Now the Forum is a reality, and the Kings are near the top of the standings. Cooke, who has never been known for modesty or understatement, could have been excused if he had gloated a bit Saturday. He didn't because, as he said later, "I think this is one time when I can let things speak for themselves."
The Forum is certainly an expression of its owner—unique, dramatic and full of small touches of luxury and convenience that give it Cooke's personal stamp. For the Lakers and Kings it is a nice new home arena; for Cooke it is a monument. Architecturally, it is one of the few sports buildings worth talking about, an imposing circular structure with 80 huge white columns that give it kinship with the ancient Roman Colosseum, as Cooke is seldom hesitant to point out.
A few of the Forum's details smack of Forest Lawn or Beverly Hills, but its overall simplicity and grandeur make it more Roman than Southern Californian. It would be a landmark even in an area that had more architectural competition to offer.
The interior, with its carpeted lobbies and upholstered seats, resembles a comfortable, if congested, theater. Cooke personally supervised everything down to the distinctive Bodoni lettering on rest-room doors and telephone booths. "The Forum has class," says Cooke, "and it will be an exciting place. Take one example. Ever since I was a kid in Toronto, I wondered why a goal, the biggest moment in a hockey game, should be signaled by a 60-watt bulb in a funny red cylinder that stays on for only a split second. Here the goal light is the kind you see on police cars. But it spins twice as fast as a police light, giving a sparkling effect for five seconds."
Cooke is not merely bringing sparkling lights to the staid old NHL, he is also working hard to develop a champion. Winning the Stanley Cup will take more time and money than Cooke has plowed into the Forum, but certainly his progress so far has forced his rivals to take him seriously.
Six months ago they were more inclined to laugh. The Kings drafted what appeared to be the worst of all the expansion teams. Cooke, however, had two little-appreciated things going for him. One was the minor league club he purchased in Springfield, Mass. Several of his key players have come from that team, and now hockey men emphasize that a strong minor league base is essential to a new NHL club. The only clubs that bought farm teams—the Kings and the Flyers, who own the Quebec Aces—are leading the new division. Cooke's other asset was Larry Regan, who scouted for him last year and is now his general manager.
In his first executive job in the NHL, Regan has been independent and daring. When he went to games last year he even refused to sit with other scouts. "They pass on too many old ideas," he said. "One scout may form an opinion about a player, and others may agree just to be safe. Soon the guy gets stereotyped, and he never gets a fresh look. I wanted to give everyone a fresh approach." Regan's method led him to men like Eddie Joyal, who was labeled by some as strictly minor league but is now the Kings' flashiest forward.
Regan had the courage to select unknowns in the draft, even though he knew the veteran managers at other tables were criticizing him. He avoided the fringe big-leaguers who seemed to be "logical" picks and instead concentrated on youth and speed. When the draft ended he had a big, fast squad. But nobody had ever heard of its members. "Sure the criticism makes you think," he said. "When I went home from the meetings I wondered if I was the village idiot. But then Mr. Cooke told me he was 100% behind me, and I figured that we would do all right."