Quest For The Crown--L.A. Kings seek to rewrite history
This story originally appeared in the June 4, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated.
The long, strange trip that might finally bring the Los Angeles Kings to their Stanley Cup destination began in the autumn of 1967 when the expansion team's players—among them "Cowboy" Bill Flett in a ten-gallon Stetson, Réal (Frenchy) Lemieux in a beret, and Bryan (Chief) Campbell in an Indian headdress—staggered off a TWA flight at LAX. (Broadcasters Jiggs McDonald and Ed Fitkin, acting under orders from owner Jack Kent Cooke, had scrounged up the headgear but had been unable to find miniature engines to affix to the ankles of Eddie [the Jet] Joyal, the team's fastest skater. Mercifully.) The Inglewood High marching band struck up tunes of welcome, and 50 members of the Kings' booster club greeted a motley collection of players that had the world on a string but no puck on their sticks.
No one could locate any pucks.
This is sort of a big deal in hockey. You can't score without a puck.
Of course, prior to their spectacular 12--2 run to the finals, during which they averaged 2.93 goals per game, the 2011--12 Kings sometimes seemed as if they couldn't score even with a puck. They ranked 29th overall, averaging 2.29 goals per game. That seems like ancient history.
Now back to really ancient history. As Los Angeles began its first practice at the Long Beach Sports Arena, there was nothing to shoot, stickhandle or save. The practice pucks actually had arrived, but they were buried beneath a mountain of equipment in a storage room. Luckily Saul Ilson, a producer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, had decided to take in that historic practice. (Ilson was Canadian, naturally.) In a tale that nods to SoCal hallmarks—TV, freeways, celebrity and executive assistants—Ilson telephoned a gofer at CBS and instructed him to fetch the puck he kept in his office, a gift from ex-Canadiens star Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, and hustle down to Long Beach. Half an hour later, with a single puck, a franchise began chasing its Cup dream.
Sometimes you wait 30 minutes. Sometimes 45 years. Even if Los Angeles, which entered the finals favored over the Devils, ends the NHL's longest active Cup drought—a dubious honor shared with the Maple Leafs and the Blues—there's no guarantee it will become part of the fabric of the city. As Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille notes, "Thirteen million people here. We're not a city. We're a country." The only universal fabric in Los Angeles appears to be spandex. "The way we make a dent is if we compete [for a Cup] year after year," continues Robitaille, the team's alltime goal scorer. "But our best players"—27-year-old captain Dustin Brown, 26-year-old goalie Jonathan Quick, 24-year-old center Anze Kopitar, 22-year-old defenseman Drew Doughty—"are our youngest players. We should be able to compete for six, seven years."
Defeating New Jersey could change everything for an organization that certainly put the odd in odyssey: dressing garishly; dispensing first-round draft picks the way the Tournament of Roses queen blows kisses; squandering the potential of a historic, potentially franchise-stabilizing playoff win; essentially wasting almost eight years of prime Wayne Gretzky; getting busted for an illegal stick; and ultimately collapsing after the genial huckster who had constructed a Potemkin Village where a solid major-market franchise should have stood went to prison for bank fraud. Winners write history, of course, and the Kings finally have a chance to rewrite their own, to filter the bizarre past through a membrane of success. The dopey purple-and-canary uniforms (excuse us, Forum Blue and Gold); the nearly forgotten Triple Crown line centered by 731-goal scorer Marcel Dionne, who says "a generation that never saw me play doesn't care about me, and that doesn't bother me at all"; even Marty McSorley's illegal-stick penalty in the 1993 final and owner Bruce McNall's scamming will be reimagined if the Kings, an eighth seed entering these playoffs, complete the unimaginable. As with the rehabilitation of the Red Sox' image as autumnal chokers after Boston won the World Series in 2004, the past can be reshaped as well as revisited.
"Good things this franchise did will outweigh the clouds," says Gretzky, who plans to attend Game 3 at Staples Center next Monday. "Winning the Cup ... all you'll hear are the good things about the Kings instead of the shadows."
Kings. Cooke chose the name because of the strong K sound. He had well-defined passions, including hot dogs, the sound of his own stentorian voice and proper English. If a Kings broadcaster pronounced "short-lived" with a short instead of a long i, he would correct him. The men with the microphones would hear from Cooke about many subjects, including defenseman Noel Price. Cooke didn't care for Price, one of his hired hands in 1970--71, apparently because the blueliner was bald. One afternoon Cooke notified McDonald, the play-by-play man, that Price was "going to have the best game of his life that night." Cooke was no Nostradamus. He was trying to trade Price to Chicago, and Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz would be driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, listening to the game. Considering Price played perhaps four shifts, his sublime performance was an even tougher sell for McDonald at the time than hockey in Los Angeles. In 1972, with his team having averaged just more than 8,600 fans per home game over five seasons, Cooke said, "There are 800,000 Canadians living in the L.A. area, and I've just discovered why they left Canada. They hate hockey."
Certainly they love it now. During the 2012 playoffs the A-listers populating Staples Center have included David Beckham, Kobe Bryant and Will Ferrell, which represent an upgrade, TMZ-wise, over the likes of, say, Al Lewis. Lewis, who played the vampiric Grandpa on the campy 1960s sitcom The Munsters, was an original Kings celebrity. He sat behind the penalty box in the Forum. When the team burst onto the ice, Lewis would give Bob Wall, Los Angeles's first captain, a thumbs-up. Wall would reply in kind.
Of course, those early Kings were a horror show: the Munsters of the Wrong Way. Seduced by the philosophy of immediate gratification espoused by George Allen, coach of Cooke's grizzled Washington Redskins, the owner preferred veterans to the unknown of draft choices. From the start of the modern draft in 1969 until Cooke sold the team to Jerry Buss a decade later, the Kings kept and used one first-round pick. In October 1978, they sent a No. 1 to the Bruins for goalie Ron Grahame, who would go 23-32-7 in a little more than two seasons in Los Angeles. Boston spent that eighth overall pick in '79 on a defenseman, Ray Bourque.
There were no tomorrows, and today was lousy, too. L.A. had just four winning seasons in 15 years until, on April 10, 1982, all the tomfoolery vanished in one wondrous night. The Miracle on Manchester, named for the address of the Forum, remains the most remarkable match in NHL playoff history. The Kings, 48 points worse than Edmonton during the regular season, trailed 5--0 after two periods in Game 3 of their first-round series. But Destiny's Doormats scored five times to force overtime, netting the tying goal with five seconds left after Jim Fox pickpocketed Gretzky before he could clear the puck from the zone. Daryl Evans scored the fishes-and-loaves winner 2:35 into overtime. The Kings wound up upsetting Edmonton but capitulated to the Canucks in the next round. Says Evans, a team radio analyst, "Shame on everyone in this organization for not taking advantage of [the Miracle]." Los Angeles missed the playoffs three of the next four seasons.
Indeed, the Kings would win just three more playoff games before Gretzky arrived in August 1988, a coup by the audacious McNall, who had taken full control of the team earlier that year. Overnight, the Kings grew up. They even dressed like adults, switching from purple and yellow to a black, silver and white scheme, the colors of the junior team Gretzky owned. "I hadn't been able to get the model of helmet I wanted because manufacturers wouldn't make it in [the old] Kings colors," says Fox, now a Kings TV analyst. "When Mr. Gretzky came, you could get whatever you wanted. Everything changed. With the fans, the media, the league, even officials, they all looked at you differently."
"There's been this sort of speculation I was traded there to grow hockey," Gretzky says. "Really, there's nothing further from the truth. At 27, I'm not thinking that. I just wanted to be part of a championship there."
The closest he would come was 1993. After surviving a fierce semifinal against Toronto—Gretzky had a Game 7 hat trick in a victory at Maple Leaf Gardens—Los Angeles handily won the Cup opener in Montreal. The Kings led 2--1 with 1:45 left in Game 2 when Canadiens coach Jacques Demers called for a measurement on McSorley's stick. The most popular version of the desperate move centers on industrial espionage. Robitaille says that in the late 1990s a security guard in the new Montreal arena told him he had been instructed to look the other way while the Kings' sticks were measured surreptitiously before the game. Robitaille does not know the security guard's name or even if members of the Montreal organization had done the measuring. Great yarn. Maybe even true. The problem is you can drive a Zamboni through the holes in the tale.
Demers, now a member of the Canadian Senate, is adamant his team relied on nothing more than the sharp eyesight of captain Guy Carbonneau, who spotted a passel of illegal L.A. sticks in Game 1. "I'll take a lie detector test," Demers says. McSorley says that the offending stick was illegal when it arrived from the factory, which is incredibly beside the point. In any case, the Canadiens pulled goalie Patrick Roy and tied the score with a six-on-four power-play goal. According to one Kings player, the dressing room air was thick with recriminations before the overtime. Others say they have no memory of a roiled room. They all painfully recall Montreal scoring in the first minute. The Kings would drop the next three games.
In March 1994, after Gretzky broke Gordie Howe's record of 801 goals, McNall presented his star with a $275,000 Rolls-Royce Corniche at center ice. "There were people in the stands Bruce owed money to—vendors, suppliers," says Los Angeles broadcaster Bob Miller, who has been with the team since '73. "That didn't sit too well with them." Two months later McNall, eventually destined for prison, sold the club. The Kings, forced to declare bankruptcy in '95, would win 14 playoff games over the next 17 years until they clambered into the playoffs on April 5 and then promptly crushed the first, second and third Western Conference seeds, going 8--0 on the road.
Los Angeles plays big-body hockey, suffocating opposing defensemen with a forecheck and sucking the oxygen out of the goalie's crease with screens. Eleven of the Kings' 12 regular forwards scored, a testament to the club's depth. The only red flag was the sluggish power play, which had converted at 8.1% through three rounds.
Perhaps this was the residue of a midseason coaching change—Darryl Sutter replaced Terry Murray in December—but it also can be attributed to the foundation built by former general manager Dave Taylor, Dionne's Triple Crown rightwinger, and now Dean Lombardi. Twelve players in this playoff run—including five first-rounders—are Kings draft choices.
"I've gone to almost all the playoff games," says the 62-year-old McNall, who spent four years in prison. "I'm always mobbed. I swear that when I feel bad about myself, I go to a game, sign autographs, pose for pictures, and I don't feel that bad." He laughs over the phone. "I'm sure some people are still angry. Just not the ones who come up to me."
This is what can happen if you get your hands on a 35-pound silver trophy: Early Kings heroes like Dionne and goalie Rogie Vachon, those purple pros, can again be lionized with purple prose. McNall becomes the man who reshaped NHL geography by bringing Gretzky to Los Angeles, not a felon who played fast and loose with other people's money. McSorley is the player who had a commanding 1993 playoffs—"Without Marty, we don't get past Toronto," Gretzky says—and not a hubristic tough guy who neglected to ditch his illegal stick in the third period of a one-goal game.
"Maybe," Jiggs McDonald says, "the Inglewood High School band could even lead the Stanley Cup parade."