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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.