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."
Cooke himself knows hockey and takes great interest in the club, although he insists that he never interferes with his manager or Coach Red Kelly. "Of course I stay close to the team," he said. "That's half the fun. I get goose bumps just thinking about some of these guys and how they've come through for us."
Although the Kings have been steady and surprisingly good, they are not yet Cooke's kind of team. They lack a leader as well as a big scorer, and they have remained colorless and virtually faceless in a town that abhors anonymity. The front office, in an attempt to produce instant heroes, even resorted to assigning nicknames to many players—Cowboy Flett and Jet Joyal head the list—but it could not make them colorful. In fact, Brian Kilrea, who was dubbed Killer, proved so docile that he was sent to the minors last week. Even instant heroes, it appears, are born, not made. So the Kings must go on depending on steady, lackluster men with names like Bill White and Brian Smith. And the fans may keep staying away.
"I'd be kidding," said Cooke, "if I claimed we weren't disappointed in our attendance so far." The Kings' performance before their first crowd in the Forum did little to encourage people to rush back for more. They played their positions fairly well and had some good scoring chances, but they checked poorly and failed to come up with big plays. The Flyers came into Los Angeles without three key men, including their top defenseman, Ed Van Impe, and high scorer, Bill Sutherland; but they still hit hard enough to win, with the help of a brilliant goalie who almost left them only a week earlier.
Doug Favell had been playing well, but not too often, in the Philadelphia goal this season, largely because teammate Bernie Parent was having an exceptional year. Recently Favell got fed up with sitting on the bench and, although he is only 22, threatened to retire if he couldn't play. "I didn't want to go to the minors for more work," he said. "I was almost leading the league in goal-tending and still not playing. I figured if I couldn't make it the way I've played, I might as well get out."
Favell even set a date for his departure—December 26—and thereby missed a chance to play one game. Coach Keith Allen had planned to use him on the 25th, but no coach can appear to be playing someone just because of an ultimatum. On the 26th Favell had a four-hour session with General Manager Bud Poile and decided to stay around.
The Kings would just as soon see Favell go away. The shutout Saturday was Doug's second straight over Los Angeles and the victory a typical one for the Flyers. Ed Hoekstra scored the game's first goal—Philadelphia has scored first in 15 of its 16 wins—and then the Flyers settled down to a game of hard checking, good goaltending and very little shooting. The Flyers have taken more shots on goal than their opponents in only five games this year. Saturday they managed 19 shots, while Favell stopped 25. Doug made one unbelievable save on a shot by Brian Smith that would have tied the score in the second period and added several good stops on Joyal. Afterward he did not sound like a man about to quit hockey. "I guess I did jump the gun a little about retiring," he said, "but maybe it was good to remind them I was around."
Lou Angotti, the hustling team captain, was asked if the Flyers were the best expansion team. "I don't know," he said, "but we sure are the toughest. We have a good basic team, and we make fewer mistakes than the others. Like the Green Bay Packers."
The Flyers, who have lost their last five games against the older NHL clubs, are not readily mistaken for the Packers or, indeed, the Chicago Black Hawks. But as they routed the Kings 9-1 Sunday night in Philadelphia to go four points ahead, they were tough enough. The Kings may settle for second, but they are the youngest team, entitled to look ahead. Cooke is looking, first of all, for bigger crowds, then for first place, then for a Stanley Cup. "I think," he said, "that a favorite phrase of Mr. Branch Rickey applies to all those goals: 'It's as inevitable as tomorrow. But perhaps not as imminent.' "