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Canadian hockey Kings

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Posted: Friday, June 13, 2014 3:24 am

As of this writing, the Los Angeles Kings have either already quaffed from their second Stanley Cup or are on the verge of closing out the New York Rangers.

Regardless, there's no question the current edition of the Kings is a hockey powerhouse and likely to be so for some time to come.

At least part of the reason for that, according to colorful (literally, if you've seen his suit jackets) hockey commentator Don Cherry, is that the Kings are stocked with Canadians — as are the Rangers, for that matter.

Whether that's true or not is highly debatable —my losing Leafs, for example, have almost as many native sons on the team — what isn't at issue is that Canadians have a long history of loving shinny in the sunshine, California-style.

I recently had the pleasure, through my job that pays the bills, to speak with a Canadian who was the Kings' first real superstar on the roster.

Marcel Dionne is now 62 and full of stories from his time as a Hollywood hockey hero. He recalls what a thrill it was for him, then playing with the Detroit Red Wings, to arrive in the middle of winter for games against the Kings in the glorious California weather.

Known as the "little beaver," Dionne started his stellar career with his hometown team, the Drummondville Rangers, then became a Detroit property, drafted second after Canadiens (and later Rangers) legend Guy Lafleur in 1971.

A contract dispute with Detroit led to his trade to Los Angeles in 1975. The Kings at the time had been in the NHL for seven years, part of the first wave of expansion.

Dionne recalls that, despite fetching up in a virtually winter-free paradise, he initially resisted getting into a vacation-like between-game routine of golf and beach life. Consequently, the family household became the "Dionne Hilton" with friends and family from the north camping out for extended periods of time.

While in L.A., Dionne went on a nearly 12-year scoring tear that places him in the Top 10 of almost any all-time-points category.

But, as his official biography for his Hockey Hall of Fame entry notes, "Dionne's accomplishments would have been more widely recognized had he not spent the bulk of his career in the relative hockey obscurity of Los Angeles. Hockey was never a top sport in that city, and his yearly excellence was rarely seen on television in the larger markets of the East."

One might argue the obscurity of the West Coast hockey market changed in a spectacular way the year after Dionne, frustrated by the Kings' playoff failure, went to the Rangers. In a trade that rocked the hockey world, the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, was shipped to L.A from the Edmonton Oilers.

Neither Gretzky nor Dionne won a Stanley Cup in Los Angeles before giving it another shot on Broadway. Dionne, though, did get an honorary cup ring from the Kings after they won the championship in 2012, in gratitude for his years of mostly unsung heroism in California.

While on the topic of Canadians and California hockey, I can't help but mention a hometown connection. Long before the NHL came to Los Angeles, there were a succession of minor-league professional teams in the city. One of them was the Hollywood Wolves, a farm team of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

During the few years the Wolves operated, many a player from my neck of the woods in Northern Ontario spent some time on the team.

The most famous of them all is Bill Barilko. The rugged, talented young defenseman moved up to the big team in 1947, and the Leafs went on to win four Stanley Cups in five years.

Barilko scored the winning goal in the last of that string of championships, in 1951. That summer, he disappeared while flying on a fishing trip. The Leafs did not win another Cup until after the crash site was found 11 years later.

One cannot help but wonder whether Barilko's sunny time as a Wolf in California flashed before his eyes.

(For more on the Canadian connection to California hockey see my column of June 15, 2012).

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. Email him: pmblack@videotron.ca.

 

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