Road trips are an accepted aspect of a hockey player’s life, part of the schedule that takes teams from coast to coast a number of times during the long NHL season. Most road trips are uneventful, you win, you lose, you tie, you go home. But sometimes the road hits back, presenting a team with challenges and difficulties that it would have never faced in their home arena. Chronicled below are the details of two trips the New York Rangers made to Los Angeles during the 1969-70 season, the circumstances of which were anything but routine.
On Saturday November 8, 1969 the Rangers were scheduled to play the Kings in Los Angeles at 8pm. However, unbeknownst to the Blueshirts or the NHL, the Kings had moved the starting time of the game up to 2pm that afternoon because their owner Jack Kent Cooke had scheduled The Rolling Stones for two performances at the Forum that evening. The concerts were expected to rake in over $250,000 for Cooke and the Forum. The Stones were booked in October but in the excitement, Cooke and the Kings had failed to notify the league of the time change.
Rangers General Manager and Coach Emile Francis discovered the change when preparing for a three game road trip which would take the Rangers to Chicago, Oakland and then Los Angeles in the span of four days. The problem for the Rangers was that they were playing in Oakland the night before the Kings game and would have to make a scheduled flight to Los Angeles at midnight. It also meant playing an afternoon game 15 hours after a night game, which Francis would never had agreed to considering how taxing the west coast trips were for teams from the Eastern Division.
The NHL had by-laws against teams arbitrarily changing game times and Francis knew that he could force the Kings to forfeit the game. It would have been the first pre-game forfeit in NHL history, but he played his hand carefully.
On Monday, November 3rd Francis sent a wire to Kings GM Larry Regan requesting ice time for an 11:30 practice the day of the game, which is standard procedure for a visiting team looking to get a workout in before a night game. The Kings did not reply. A few hours later Francis sent another wire. Still no reply. He then sent another more strongly worded message to the Kings that read ”Evidentially a visiting team doesn’t mean anything to you. Look under the bylaws. Under no circumstances would we consider any other time to play the game.”
The Kings were shocked. Didn’t Francis know about the re-scheduling? Did they forget to notify the Rangers or the league?
Regan immediately called Francis and pleaded for him to be understanding. Cooke got on the phone and admitted that they had made a horrible mistake. Francis listened but told Cooke that he would have to think about it and hung up the phone. He wanted to make Cooke sweat.
On Friday morning, Cooke called Francis and asked what he was going to do. Francis playing his cards to the end, told Cooke that he didn’t know. The problem was that midnight flight from Oakland to Los Angeles. “If we make that flight, I’ll play you”, Francis told Cooke. “But if we miss it, we might not show up until 8 o’clock”. Cooke then offered to charter a plane to bring the Rangers to L.A. Emile readily accepted the offer but he wasn’t finished with Cooke. He told the Kings owner that the flight had better be on time and that he should make sure that there are steaks and refreshments on board for the Rangers.
The chartered flight stocked with steaks and refreshments cost Cooke over $5,000. Later after the Rangers 4-1 victory over the Kings, Francis told reporters, “That plane was so damn big we ran a practice!”
An even more compelling drama played out the next time the Rangers visited the Kings in L.A. on January 28, 1970.
The Kings were leading the Rangers 4-3 very late in the third period when Bob Nevin scored with 71 seconds remaining to tie the score.
As the seconds ticked away the Kings Ross Lonsberry launched a desperation 25-foot drive just as the buzzer sounded to end the game. The puck entered the net just as the green light came on signifying the end of the game. The goal judge, ironically former Ranger Dutch Hiller, pressed the button signaling a goal. But the red goal light which should have been disabled when the green light was activated came on anyway. That’s when the fun started.
Emile Francis rushed out onto the ice yelling at referee Bob Sloan that the lights had malfunctioned and the goal should not be allowed. Both teams mobbed Sloan and Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke and GM Larry Regan also somehow made it onto the ice and were talking to the referee, which upset Francis even more.
After 14 minutes of discussion between the official’s, Ed Giacomin heard Sloan tell his linesmen “Let’s call it a tie and get out of here”. But then Sloan reversed himself and allowed Lonsberry’s goal giving the Kings a 5-4 victory. This set off a wild scene as Giacomin rushed at Sloan, pushed him against the glass and threw a punch at him. Sloan had been assured by Cooke and Regan that the lights were wired properly, so the red goal light had to have been turned on before the green light came on.
Later in the arena parking lot, Francis called Ranger President Bill Jennings and told him that he is going to appeal the ruling. Protests are not allowed in the NHL but Francis thought that an appeal based on the rules was his only recourse.
Francis knew that the lights were not wired correctly and was upset that it took Sloan 14 minutes to make a decision. If the referee wasn’t sure, he should have called it a tie. Emile was also upset that Cooke and Regan were also on the ice talking to Sloan.
Jiggs McDonald was broadcasting Kings games back then and he remembers that evening very well.
Jiggs McDonald: It was a nightmare that night. By the time I got downstairs, the screaming and yelling was still going on. Emile was just livid. They had to close the door in the hallway between the dressing rooms which was very seldom done. But Jack Kent Cooke convinced the officials that the scoreboard and clock were wired so that when the clock hit triple zeroes the red light couldn’t come on. And so it was a goal.
However Emile wanted that checked. But Mr. Cooke said, ‘Emile, calm down. Come back tomorrow morning and I’ll show you exactly how it works.’ He did a masterful selling job, ‘come back in the morning Emile’. So Emile settled down and left the building. But in the meantime, Cooke sought out the building engineer and the electrical people and they spent the night making sure it was wired properly. They worked all night to make sure that the next morning when the clock hit zero, there was no chance of that light coming on.
However, according the Gerry Eskenazi’s book “A Year on Ice” which followed the Rangers through the 1969-70 season, the lights still weren’t wired correctly. Francis was in the Forum bright and early the next morning with assistant trainer Jim Young testing the system that ran the red and green lights. As the clock wound down to 00:00, the green light came on as it should, but when Young pressed the button to signify a goal, the red light which should have been disabled came on as well.
At the same time, Ranger executives were in the studios of WOR-TV in New York reviewing the tape of the game. The frame-by-frame review of the tape revealed the same sequence of events, but it also showed the puck entering the net with one-sixth of a second remaining in the game. The goal was legitimate! The puck crossed the goal line before the game ended but with no video replay, Sloan could not have known that at the time.
The Kings were forced to fix the goal light system and for his part, Sloan did not mention anything about Giacomin’s punch in his game report. So Eddie was spared a hefty fine and a lengthy suspension.
Thankfully the Rangers final visit to Los Angeles that season on February 11th was an uneventful 6-2 victory for the Blueshirts.