CALGARY – That handshake.
It’s what commanded the attention of anyone who ever met Ken King.
It dwarfed the hand of most, and was almost always accompanied by a devious smile and tug towards his formidable frame.
It demanded your respect and was held just long enough to let you know he was in control.
That’s just the way the pride of Hanley, Sask., always liked it – with him setting the terms of any encounter from the start.
His were the hands that guided the Calgary Flames for two decades, until he passed away following a lengthy cancer battle Wednesday at 68.
Through endless crises and celebrations on and off the ice, he was a man of tremendous passion and dedication, who was never shy to raise his fists in celebration or fury.
They were also the hands that authored the demise of anyone who ever teed it up with him on the golf course.
“Anyone who golfed with Ken knows, he had the scorecard, and it took scientists to figure out all the dollars that changed hands at the end of the day,” said Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation President and CEO John Bean, before adding a rare claim
“I took money from him, absolutely. And I was proud to do it. And he knows it.”
He might have been the only one.
Every game started with a carefully crafted dissertation from King on how many strokes every player would get or give him, with a blatant disregard for the handicaps offered up.
A wordsmith whose speeches around town were as eloquent as any in the province, the former newspaper publisher would punctuate the receipt of post-game payment with little more than that grin.
For many years he wore that smile ever-so-proudly into the Flames dressing room after games, slapping the backs of journalists as he walked in, exchanging small talk with everyone.
He had a line for everything.
“I remember my first interview I went to shake his hand and he drilled me in the side of my arm and almost knocked my arm off – that was Ken,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving.
“One of the things I always admired about him was he was a wonderful public speaker. I’d call him on it sometimes and say, ‘that’s not even a word.’ He’d show me that it was.’”
King long showed the way for a Flames ownership group that wanted nothing to do with the spotlight. King was their frontman – their eyes, ears and their mouthpiece, prompting him to take endless bullets from frustrated fans over various team shortcomings.
As the publisher of both major dailies in Calgary over the course of almost three decades, and as the Flames boss, he had a reputation for being hard to work for.
“You talk about an explosive personality – he was a sight to behold,” said Treliving, who saw every side of King.
“But he’s a foxhole guy. When bleep was rolling downhill, he was a guy you wanted to be in a foxhole with.”
I met King in 1994 when, as the publisher of the Calgary Sun, he invited me out from Ontario for a job interview.
Greeted by the handshake and the western charm, he took a chance on me as a sports scribe.
The ultimate jock, he loved talking and playing sports, and knew their importance in Alberta.
After working tirelessly behind the scenes to support a Save the Flames campaign, he was hired in 2001 by the Flames owners to run the team.
It was the perfect gig for a man who could both charm the masses, while also clamping down on the type of hard, internal decisions that needed to be made. His business acumen was as legendary as his dedication to the city.
The owners loved him for all he did on their behalf, including his tireless work as the driving force behind the new arena that took him 14 years to nail down.
The last handful of those frustrating years came while he was quietly battling cancer that ultimately spread to his brain and his spine, forcing him to a wheelchair his last few months.
He survived many years longer than doctors expected, thanks in the end to experimental drugs he knew bought him more time to complete his legacy project – the event centre.
“It’s an amazing thing, the human body and brain, and he was totally focused on a new event centre to the city,” said Bean.
“He was integral right up until December, whenever we signed all those documents, and provided unbelievable advice and guidance to all of us to get it done. It was one of those projects for him he was so passionate about. He had an unbelievable drive on every aspect he undertook. He was a large man of stature – almost larger than life – and commanded the room whenever he walked in. With that energy, he tackled so many things.”
The man who worked a room better than anyone I ever saw was forced the last three or four years to abandon the handshake he was so proudly known for.
It was replaced by fist bumps, as he worried his increasingly rare public appearances would expose his immune-deficient body to dangerous viruses.
The day Jarome Iginla had his number retired King shared with me his rare nerves, as his leg wasn’t cooperating fully, making the very public step up to the luncheon podium for his speech a scary one. He endured. He always did.
While many in and around the organization know of his valiant battle, he wanted it kept quiet, telling me one day, “I’m not letting this define me in any way.”
Over an emotional lunch between the two of us almost a year ago he told me of his newfound love of dropping into local casinos to play poker.
His rule, there was no hockey talk – just cards, and all the wonderful games within the game it involved.
At lunch he pulled out a fat billfold, proudly declaring the windfalls he so often enjoyed on the golf course were still possible.
Despite his severe weight loss and radiation treatments, he swore he played some of the best golf of his life last summer. I shuddered at how much that would cost me.
When he missed the Flames recent poker tournament I knew he had to be in bad shape, as he loved gatherings like that more than anyone.
Last week, King rolled into the Scotiabank Saddledome to make his final visit, taking the time to chat with the coaches and several players.
“He always loved coming down and seeing the guys,” said Treliving.
“I know that meant a lot to the guys. He knew a little tidbit on each guy. He liked that – he was a guy’s guy.”
His love for wife Marilyn and daughters Amanda and Jocelin were rivalled only by his four grandchildren, who he strived to spend as much time as possible with after receiving his diagnosis.
Commissioner Gary Bettman saluted King as a champion of all Calgary sports.
“His staunch advocacy for the arena project that will guarantee the Flames’ long-term viability in Calgary will serve as a legacy of his devotion to the city – Ken was a friend and I will miss him greatly,” said Bettman.
“He was a trusted confidant to all of the Flames owners, both past and present, and we all learned so much from him,” added Flames co-owner Murray Edwards.
“My partners and I will miss our frequent conversations with our dear friend.”
As will I. I’ll miss his advice, his wit, his handshake, but most of all his friendship – he was always happy to take my money any time we teed it up.
“He could be intimidating, but at the end of the day he was just a big teddy bear,” said longtime Calgary publisher Guy Huntingford.
“For me, he was so thoughtful, which you might not expect from somebody who ran his organizations as a tough customer. But my god, if he was in your camp he’d go to the end of the world for you.”