Terry Sawchuk, the mercurial goaltender who has been known to shun reporters and friends even after his most triumphant games, talked freely and cheerfully with everyone who came near his locker in the Los Angeles Kings' dressing room. Coach Red Kelly ventured as close to profanity as he ever does, shouting, "You guys played a hang of a game." Owner Jack Kent Cooke rushed around the room congratulating his players and insisting, "I never doubted that my boys could do it."
What the Kings (see cover) had done was trounce the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2 to move into a tie for the lead in the West Division of the National Hockey League. Within a few days they were to drop back into second as the Flyers, although dispossessed from their home arena for their final seven home games, held on to win the division title. But for one giddy evening, a week before the end of the regular season, Cooke and the Kings acted as if they had already become NHL champions. The only thing missing from the scene was the large silver Stanley Cup, filled with champagne—and Cooke was brash enough to suggest that his team could win that ancient trophy, too.
The idea that one of the new clubs might win the Stanley Cup in this initial season of expansion should, of course, sound ridiculous. As play begins this week all four of the East Division contenders are obviously better teams than any of the expansion clubs. Not one West team managed to finish the regular schedule with a .500 record (the Flyers were .492). And anyone who has watched the Kings stumble helplessly against teams like Minnesota and St. Louis during the season would have to laugh at the suggestion that Los Angeles might upset a power like Montreal in a seven-game series with the Stanley Cup at stake.
Yet the Kings do have an outside chance to win the cup, and that possibility, however remote it may seem, is one of the most intriguing aspects of the playoffs. No one can claim that Los Angeles has a solid, consistent or even a very good team. But Stanley Cups are seldom won by solid, consistent play, and sometimes they are not won by superior teams. They are won on brilliant efforts in a few key games—especially brilliant efforts by goaltenders. Last year the Toronto Maple Leafs lost 10 straight games during midseason and showed glaring weaknesses. Then they took the cup—because they rose to the occasion and received sensational goaltending from Sawchuk and Johnny Bower. The Kings have lost as many as eight straight in a very erratic season, and their weaknesses are even more striking than were those of the Leafs. But they, too, have shown an ability to rise to occasions—and now they are the team with Terry Sawchuk.
The NHL's controversial playoff schedule enhances the possibility of an upset by an expansion club. Instead of setting up interdivisional playoffs, the league decided that East and West would have separate playoffs, with the two survivors meeting in the final. The playoffs in the East promise to be highly competitive and extremely rough. Even if they lose, big, strong teams like the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins will surely leave many bruises on anyone who beats them. The East winners may be battered and exhausted going into the finals, and they will have difficulty avoiding at least a vague feeling that a series with Philadelphia or Los Angeles is an anticlimax. The West challengers may be in somewhat better shape, and they will have no trouble at all getting up for the final. They will also have the advantage of opening the series on home ice. Even with these factors going for them, the expansion winners will need a lot of luck to achieve an upset; but then, luck has been known to play a part in hockey games.
If any expansion team can accomplish all this, it is probably Los Angeles. Kelly, the rookie coach, clearly learned a lot while playing for Punch Imlach, that master psychologist who goaded the Maple Leafs to four cups in 10 years before his aging team finally fell apart and missed the playoffs this season. Kelly has had his inconsistent players at their best against established opponents, and the Kings compiled a respectable 10-12-2 record against East teams; in contrast, Philadelphia was only 8-15-1 in inter-division play.
In recent weeks the Kings had two games they felt they had to win. One was in New York against the streaking Rangers, the other at home against the Flyers with the lead at stake. Los Angeles won them both. The Kings also managed to blow many games that they had figured to win, but the fact remains that they won the biggest ones. "The players are getting over some of the feelings of inferiority they may have had," Kelly says. "They're forgetting that they were once a bunch of individuals who played against one another in the minors and are finally playing as a team. They're beginning to understand what winning means."
It would be hard for them to forget what a Stanley Cup can bring, Kelly has posted a huge sign on the dressing room wall in the Forum, explaining: "What First Place and the Playoffs Mean to You." The sign lists the various league bonuses for winning; the total comes to $9,750 a man. That's an awful lot of money," says Bill White, who has become the team's best defenseman after five years in the minors at Springfield. "In the American League the most bonus money we could hope for was something like $1,700."
"Some of us haven't made that much in a whole season before," adds Bob Wall. "It's a hell of an incentive."
"The money is a big part of it," Kelly says. "But these guys have another kind of spirit going for them. Don't forget, the fans are really getting behind them, and that's a big help." Playing on a temporary home rink in Long Beach and in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the Kings attracted little support through the first half of the season. But since Cooke's Forum—by far the best of the new NHL arenas—opened three months ago, crowds have gotten larger and much louder. Paid attendance in the Forum has averaged almost 10,000 a game, bringing the Kings' season average up to about 7,000 and averting serious trouble for the franchise. "The fans are getting to know what they're watching," says Forward Ted Irvine. "It's even nice to hear them get on our backs when we play badly. At least they're showing that they care."