Thursday, March 6, 2008

Cow Palace Memories

That front-page story in the Chronicle last week, about the potential demise of the venerable Cow Palace in the not-too-distant future, certainly brought back some great memories of the old arena.

My first trip to the Cow Palace took place in the early 1960s, when I was about 10 years old, either to see Wilt Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors, or to see the San Francisco Seals of the Western Hockey League. Both teams played there, and I saw a great deal of both teams there over the years.

That means not only Wilt, but also Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry, not to mention the Royals' Oscar Robertson, the Lakers' Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, the Celtics' Bill Russell and John Havlicek, the Hawks' Bob Pettit and Zelmo Beatty, etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

My favorite Seals were Charlie Burns, who later went on to play for the Oakland Seals in the NHL, and Ed Panagabko. But I also remember enjoying watching Willie O'Ree with the Los Angeles Blades. I remember thinking how cool it was to see a black player in hockey, and a very fleet and skilled one at that. Little did I know at the time that he had broken the color barrier in the NHL a short time earlier, with the Boston Bruins, becoming the first black player in NHL history.

In fact, I had the great honor of meeting, and interviewing Willie O'Ree a couple of months ago, and he was delighted to reminisce about the old days in the Cow Palace, and was amazed that I remembered that he wore uniform number 10 with the Blades. That's not all I remember about the Blades. I recall the frequent fights between the Seals' Larry McNabb and the Blades' Howie Young, one of which, in fact, took place before the opening face-off. Those two guys skated circles around each other, as their teammates warmed up in both ends of the ice, dropped the gloves and the sticks, and went at it. I had Willie in stitches, telling that story. Great memories.

Otherwise, I remember attending several roller derby matches at the Cow Palace, featuring Charlie O'Connell and the San Francicso Bay Bombers. One particular game featured a "match race" at halftime between O'Connell, and his bitter rival Bob Woodberry. Charlie had him beat, until Woodberry took off a skate and attacked O'Connell over the back of the head with it. The fans were so incensed, with several charging the rink, that the Daly City/Brisbane police were called to restore order.   The smartest thing Woodberry did was get the hell off the rink, and into the dressing room, in a hurry.  

Man, those were the days.