LOS ANGELES—You haven’t seen everything until you see a bunch of hockey players taking their playoff beards for a walk on Rodeo Drive. But here are the Blackhawks, killing time before and between games, looking like tourists along one of the world’s most famous shopping strips in Beverly Hills, Cal., 90210.
Hairy and bruised, these young men in shorts show pasty white legs, clearly branding them as different from natives who are either beautiful people or think they are. But besides being fiscally fit, the guys are in shape from working hard instead of being worked on.
Ever seen a fat hockey player? Ever thought about purchasing a pair of running shoes on Rodeo Drive?
“Oh, I might look but probably not buy,” said Marcus Kruger, one of several fashionable Blackhawks. “You can find nice clothing that isn’t expensive.”
When the National Hockey League expanded to Los Angeles and Oakland in 1967, it was met with glee by Original Six rosters composed primarily of Canadian born lads. Sunshine in the winter! But Rodeo Drive was a rumor to the Blackhawks, who stayed at an airport hotel and patronized a couple of smoke-filled establishments to hydrate.
Hockey wasn’t big out here then; Steve McQueen didn’t sit on the glass at the Forum. Now Tom Cruise roots for the Kings, who will sell out Staples Center again for Game 4 of the Western Conference Final. Jack Kent Cooke bought the Los Angeles franchise for $2 million, a fraction of what Wayne Gretzky received when he put the Kings on the front page after being acquired from Edmonton.
So much has changed. The Blackhawks don’t visit smoke-filled watering holes anymore because there are none. Then again, if you want to avoid the ever-present crush of crowds in Southern California, just go outside and light up a cigar. Guaranteed, nobody will come near you.
The Blackhawks and Kings have played only one postseason series, in 1974, and commerce between franchises has been light. General Manager Tommy Ivan swung a major deal, stealing Bill White for Chicago’s blue line beside Pat Stapleton. As previously reported, Cooke coveted Bobby Hull, whose contract talks with the Blackhawks had stalled. Allegedly, Cooke loaded $1 million cash in a briefcase and commissioned General Manager Larry Regan to “go get the Golden Jet.”
It never materialzed. That May in 1972, Hull was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a superstar destined for the Winnipeg Jets. On Wednesday, the magazine showed Kruger on the front, throwing his body around against the Kings.
“My only hit of the year,” joked Kruger, who was also seen on the SI cover a couple months ago. The story hailed the Blackhawks’ record-breaking streak; Kruger was scenery for Daniel Carcillo, who got the big picture.
“Twice I’m on the cover of the most popular sports magazine in America,” groused Kruger, “and they don’t sell it back in Sweden.”
On Thursday night, the Kings will aim for their 16th consecutive victory at the Staples Center, home to three different playoff teams for a second straight spring—an indoor record, for sure. But basketball’s Lakers and Clippers are gone, as are the Bulls. This region has two sub. 500 baseball teams, the Dodgers and Angels. Chicago can match that, no problem. The Bears are idle and pro football is invisible in Los Angeles, so these two huge markets belong to hockey.
Chicago teams have had mixed results in playoffs against California opponents. The Bears lost a conference championship to the Los Angeles Rams in 1950, but trounced them en route to Super Bowl XX. Bears vs. San Francisco 49ers? Not so good. The Bulls were cannon fodder for the Lakers until 1991, when Michael Jordan and company upset Los Angeles for their first of six championships.
The White Sox lost the 1959 World Series to the Dodgers, but beat the Angels on their way to a World Series crown in 2005. Sadly, the Cubs are 0-for-California. They have faced the San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Dodgers in the postseason. The Cubs dropped all three playoffs without winning a game on California soil.
Did you know? Back in the dead puck era, the Blackhawks twice visited here after the regular season. On April 8, 1927, the Los Angeles Times roared: “the greatest ice hockey team ever to visit California, the Chicago Black Hawks, will arrive here tomorrow morning on the Santa Fe Chief.”
The Blackhawks played five exhibition games against local minor league teams at the Winter Garden. In 1930, the Blackhawks returned, starting in the Bay Area, then joining the Boston Bruins in Los Angeles, all in the name of promoting hockey to this region and snaring a few extra bucks.
I did not attend any of the aforementioned games.
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