Normally, the typical Los Angeles sports fan can find plenty of reasons not to segue into his ice mode—that is, take in a Kings hockey game. But normally means when the Kings are losing, which has been the case the last three years and in all but six of their 17 NHL seasons. Fans have been scarce, a little murky on the rules—to most folks an icing call is an order to freeze the margaritas—and have tended to cheer goals, fights and little else. But last week 36,559 showed up at the Forum to watch the surprisingly resurgent Kings beat Calgary 5-4 and New Jersey 8-1 and then saw L.A.'s seven-game winning streak broken in a 9-5 loss to Winnipeg Saturday night. L.A. fans may be ambivalent about hockey, but they're crazy about winning.
"They've got the itch again," says Kings general manager Rogie Vachon, architect of what is shaping up as something of a miracle. Rebounding from its worst start ever (0-6-3), L.A. had, by week's end, moved to within four points of second-place Calgary in the Smythe Division and was tied for sixth in the overall standings, after finishing 19th in the 21-team league last season.
"This is a town for winners. You've got to fight for your place in the sun," says Kings owner Jerry Buss. Buss is the man who made the move that galvanized the Kings. Last January he elevated Vachon—a superb Kings goalie of the '70s, whom Buss calls "the only hockey legend to come out of Southern California"—from goalie coach to interim coach to interim G.M. and finally to official G.M. at the end of the season.
Vachon's first decision was a good one—and long overdue. He promised to stop the franchise's habit of trading first-round draft choices in search of a quick fix. Under previous G.M. George Maguire, the Kings traded away four No. Is, three of which were used to select eventual All-Stars Ray Bourque and Tom Barrasso and the outstanding defenseman Phil Housley. That sort of trading brought out the FIRE MAGUIRE signs, and Maguire was kicked upstairs to the club presidency, opening the door for Vachon.
"Now we're building for five years down the road and for a long time after that," says Vachon. "But we're also a little greedy. We want to make the playoffs this year."
To those ends, Vachon used his 1984 No. 1 pick—actually it was Chicago's pick because the Kings and Black Hawks swapped places in a deal that brought minor league goalie Bob Janecyk to L.A.—to claim defenseman Craig Redmond. Both Redmond and another rookie defenseman, Garry Galley (who has the weirdest nickname in the league: Ga Ga) can rush and shoot the puck and have been important figures in the Kings' turnaround. "In our division you've got to be mobile if you want to compete with Edmonton and Calgary," says Vachon.
"You don't get Kevin Lowes or Paul Coffeys," says L.A. assistant coach Mike Murphy, referring to Edmonton's speedy young defensemen, "if you don't bring them up and give them a chance." Vachon was widely criticized for dropping from third to sixth position in the draft in exchange for the unproven Janecyk. But, before falling victim to the Jets on Saturday, Janecyk had been 6-4-2 with a 3.12 goals-against average in his previous 12 starts. "I was just being bounced around in the minors, and Rogie stuck his neck out for me," Janecyk says. "He took the heat and gave me the chance I needed."
Vachon also gave a chance—a second chance—to ex-Philadelphia coach Pat Quinn. luring him out of Delaware Law School and putting him behind the L.A. bench. After achieving an extraordinary 141-73-48 record, including an NHL-record 35-game unbeaten streak, Quinn was fired late in the 1982 season after an eight-week slump in which Philly dropped from first to third in its division. Yes, he's bitter.
"There was a lot of ego involved in my decision to come here," he says. "It's a chance to prove again that I can coach." Quinn has L.A. winning with improved defense—after Sunday's games the Kings were tied for ninth; last season they allowed 376 goals, third-worst in the league—and balanced scoring. The trade of left wing Charlie Simmer to Boston on Oct. 23 broke up the Kings' Triple Crown line of Simmer, Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor, but Simmer's replacement, Brian MacLellan, has scored nine goals, including a hat trick against the Devils last week. By week's end, the Dionne-Taylor-MacLellan line had scored 29 goals, while Terry Ruskowski, Bernie Nicholls and Jim Fox, now the No. 2 line, accounted for 27, including Nicholls's team-leading 15. With a goal Saturday, Nicholls extended his point-scoring streak to 18 games, the longest in the NHL this season.
Early on, Quinn's major disappointment was a power play that couldn't find the goal with a metal detector. But four power-play goals against the Devils, including one by Steve Shutt, acquired three days earlier from Montreal in exchange for a middle-round draft pick, suggest that the Kings' performance when they're a man up may soon rival their fifth-in-the-league penalty killing. Shutt, a sniper, averaged 33 goals a season for his 12 years with the Canadiens, and one year had 60.
The main difference between Quinn, a self-proclaimed "teaching coach," and his predecessors has to do not with X's and O's but with sun and surf. Quinn is the first L.A. coach to try to debunk the myth that you can't play hockey in Beach Boys country. "That's a crock. It's a crutch for a losing team," he says. Long gone is the old rule calling for a $500 fine if a King gets sunburned. In its place is the philosophy that "this is a nice climate and there's no reason not to enjoy it, as long as you're professional enough to get your game face on when it counts. Let it be a distraction for the teams coming in from the cold and the snow."
Though he almost always has his game face on, Dionne, who ranks fourth on the NHL's alltime goal-scoring list, has been frustrated in L.A., where he has performed brilliantly for teams that have gone nowhere. "The last two years you won for no reason and you lost for no reason," says Dionne. "Now if we win, maybe we reach the playoffs, and if we lose we learn from it." Dionne, a notorious one-way player, has learned from Quinn how to work at both ends of the ice. "Marcel's coming back deeper and helping out more in our zone," says Quinn, "and he's still getting his points." But Dionne would get his points if he were performing with the Belmonts. The difference is that this season those points are winning hockey games, and those wins are drawing fans.
"Marcel's like our fans. He sees the light," says Vachon, who, so far, has been shining it.