June 15, 2012

Canada's link to the Los Angeles Kings


---- — The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup this week, and that made me think how Timmins, my home town in Northern Ontario, played a key role in making that happen.

This summer, Timmins is celebrating the centennial of its “founding” as a more or less permanent gold mining camp. To mark the occasion, a local weekly newspaper conducted a poll asking the question: Who is the most notable person ever from Timmins?

Not surprisingly, country-music superstar Shania Twain topped the list by a long shot. No surprise either that a pair of hockey stars from different eras — Steve Sullivan, currently with Pittsburgh, and Frank Mahovlich, a legend in Toronto, Detroit and Montreal — should make the list. (A local Croatian Catholic church has installed stained-glass windows in tribute to Frank and brother Peter, also a hockey star).

What is surprising is that after all these years, the poll flushed out an enduring collective memory of one Jack Kent Cooke, the man who brought the National Hockey League to Los Angeles. Even though it’s been more than 60 years since Cooke, who died in 1997 at age 84, set foot in Timmins, his passage in the town was such a turning point for the business world that folks back home still remember him.

The signal moment in Cooke’s amazing rise in the media, sports and entertainment worlds came in 1936, when he was a hustling young toiletries-product salesman in the wilds of Northern Ontario, traveling from one Depression-stricken town to another, his pregnant wife, Jean, in tow. Harboring an interest in the then-budding business of radio, he decided to pay a visit to another man who would become a global media titan.

Cooke drove to Timmins to meet Roy Thomson, who by then had acquired a few radio stations and newspapers in Northern Ontario. As legend has it, Cooke so impressed Thomson with his energy, charm and salesmanship that the elder businessman agreed to hire him to run one of his struggling radio stations in southern Ontario. Thus began a partnership that would strengthen and expand on the basis of a Timmins-centred radio and newspaper enterprise.

By his early 30s, Cooke was getting rich and on a roll. Striking out on his own, he acquired a big Toronto radio station — with the financial backing of Timmins mining magnate J.P. Bickell, an early owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and builder of the fabled Maple Leaf Gardens (a replica of which he built in Timmins, where it’s still in service).

His success with the radio station led to his investment in a floundering Toronto baseball franchise and thus began Cooke’s entry into the world of sports entertainment.

In 1960, feeling confined in Canada, Cooke moved to the United States and became a citizen (by a special Act of Congress). He bought a stake in the Washington Redskins NFL franchise, a property he would expand and hold until the day he died.

But Cooke had always loved hockey. He had been offered a scholarship from a U.S. college to play hockey but his restlessness at school sunk his marks. Still, having brought the L.A. Lakers into the NBA in 1965, the next year Cooke seized the opportunity of the NHL’s planned expansion to win a franchise for Los Angeles, based on his promise to build a new arena: the Forum.

The early years of Cooke’s ownership of the Kings are legendary for the consummate salesman’s attempts to fill seats for the team’s games. But crowds were often sparse, and Cooke often joked that “There’s half a million Canadians in Los Angeles, and they all moved here because they hate hockey!”

Never doing anything small time, in 1979, Cooke sold the Lakers, the Kings and the Forum in what was the biggest sports transaction to date. With the proceeds, he bought the Chrysler Building in New York City and completed the never-realized lighting of the tower’s top.

Back in Timmins, Cooke’s brief but timely passage obviously lit up a place that had seen more than its share of colorful business characters.