If you know me, even just through the site, then you know I’m a huge sports fan. I can pretty much talk any sport at any time to any one – hell, I’m probably the one guy you know who can explain Aussie rules. I’m someone who can appreciate the historic nature of certain sporting achievements, and I’m here to tell you – we’re about to see something epic.
Like most people who’ve spent their life in one place, I’m a homer when it comes to the local sports teams. Sure, there’s that torrid affair I have with the team from South Beach, but for the most part, I pull for the home team. Dodgers, Lakers, Galaxy, Rams, Raiders – all have held my affection at one point or another. At the top of the list, however, have always been the Los Angeles Kings.
Ask anyone who’s been around long enough to remember the gold and purple uniforms, and they’ll tell you how hard it’s been to be a Kings family. From their formation in 1967, most seasons saw the squad not getting so much as a sniff of the playoffs. But there was always a cadre of loyal fans.
Growing up, I was a huge Kings fan. I was a member of their fan club and had the framed certificate on my bedroom wall. We had Rogie Vachon between the pipes and Marcel Dionne leading the Triple Crown Line. There were high points, like 1982′s “Miracle on Manchester” takedown of Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, but they were few and far between.
That all changed in 1988. A new owner, new unit and a new stud named Gretzky meant that hockey in LA would never again be the same. Wayne seemingly brought half the Cup-winning Edmonton squad with him, so success couldn’t be far off, right? Well, as Bill Murray found out in “Groundhog Day“, some corners can’t be cut. The Kings made it to the finals in ’93 but came up short, losing to the Canadiens 4-1.
While it didn’t bring a Cup to LA, the Gretzky Experiment nonetheless changed the face of hockey. New teams appeared in San Jose, Anaheim, Denver and Phoenix – the latter two Canadian teams that, much to the chagrin of those north of the border, fled to warmer climes much like a pair of snowbirds. There was a renewed interested in hockey in America, and both the Ducks and Avalanche would soon hoist the Cup.
Not so the Kings, however. Gretz was shipped to the Blues in ’99, and owner Bruce McNall to jail shortly thereafter, his financial house of cards in ruins. They might not have looked like the Kings of old, but they soon played like them, as the word “hapless” was soon used to describe their play once again. It would be another decade before hope appeared on the horizon.
The hiring of Dean Lombardi in 2006, along with solid drafts throughout the decade, allowed the team to slowly grow, slowly build into a contender. The emergence of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick and other home-grown players meant that hockey fans had reason to be optimistic. The 2011-2012 season looked like the year when it all might come together …
… And then they dropped the puck. Despite the acquisition of Mike Richards from the Flyers and a number of preseason pundits predicting success for the Kings, the team stumbled out of the blocks with a .500 start, leading to the firing of coach Terry Murray in December. Often, such turmoil would lead to a wasted season, but new coach Daryl Sutter brought a new level of discipline to the talented but underachieving team, and a trade-deadline deal for Richards’ one-time scoring partner Jeff Carter left the Kings with 4 well-balanced lines. The team had a big hole to dig out of, but finished strong and clinched the last playoff spot.
Watching this Kings team play is surreal for a long-time fan. We’re used to having our favorite players, people we love but understand are simply not as good as the other teams’ stars. This year’s squad – particularly now – are beasts. They only lost two games while blowing through the numbers 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the Western Conference, winning the first three games in each series. Favored in the Cup finals against the New Jersey Devils, they followed up a pair of overtime victories with a thorough dismantling of the Devils in Game 3. As desperate as you knew they were, New Jersey simply couldn’t stand up against Los Angeles. The Kings are bigger, faster and younger. They beat them on the power play and stoned them as penalty killers. The offense was better, the defense was better, the coaching was better – it was as dominant a performance as I’ve ever seen in a sporting final series, and a signature moment for the team.
As impressive as their performance was in the game, it was afterwards that the maturity and focus of this squad really showed. A big win on home ice in front of the largest sporting crowd in Staples Center history left them a single win away from hoisting the Cup, but there was no sense of celebration or joy – just a few glove touches as they moved on to the challenge of Game 4. Unlike their arena-mates the Lakers, I have no doubt the Kings will close out the series tonight and finally enjoy the celebration they so richly deserve – and have completely earned.
Make room in the rafters, boys – a new banner is on the way!