8:06 A.M. Larry Robinson, coach of the Los Angeles Kings, is
having breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. He reaches for the
cream and pours it into his mug of steaming coffee. The cream
Robinson shrugs. He doesn't believe in omens. He will take
forechecking over foreshadowing any time, including on this
crisp day in San Jose, where in 11 1/2 hours his Kings will play
the Sharks, the only team in the NHL with a worse record than
L.A's. Robinson simply asks for a fresh cup. "The only thing
lower than the prime rate is our power-play percentage," he
says. This is a good line (Alan Greenspan 7.75%, Los Angeles
7.3%), one that suggests that this is a man with a sense of
humor and a sense of the world beyond hockey. These are
essential attributes when your team is getting creamed. The
Kings have lost four straight and are winless at home in seven.
Their best player, Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Rob Blake,
and their No. 1 center, Jozef Stumpel, are hurt, but every team
has injuries. It's all the paranormal stuff, like having more
shorthanded goals than power-play goals, that wears on Robinson.
Fueled by Raisin Bran and bemusement, he starts ticking off a
list of the weirdnesses the Kings have encountered: Their No. 1
(Stephane Fiset) and No. 2 (Jamie Storr) goalies got hurt in the
same game; one of their steadiest defensemen, Doug Bodger,
tripped on a puck in warmups and broke his hand; defenseman
Steve Duchesne hurled himself in front of a centering pass, and
the puck deflected off his stick, over the shoulder of No. 3
goalie Manny Legace and into the net; in another match the puck
hit a glove that Kings center Ian Laperriere had dropped, and
changed direction, allowing the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Paul
Kariya to pounce on it and score an empty-net goal. "I guess we
just have to stay away from black cats and not walk under
ladders," Robinson says.
10:15 A.M. Kings center Ray Ferraro wheels into the visitors'
dressing room at the San Jose Arena and glances at the board on
which one of the L.A. coaches has written this evening's lines
and defensive pairings in a blue grease pen. Ferraro's eyes go
straight for the middle of the board ("I don't even check the
wingers," he says) and within seconds he knows he's not playing
tonight. Ferraro is a garrulous man with a sharp mind, and
tongue, but he takes the news with a vexed grace befitting
someone with 334 career goals in a 15-year NHL career. "Now I've
got nothing to do for the next 75 minutes," Ferraro says,
gesturing to the TV mounted on the near wall, "except watch
ESPN2 workout shows--soft porn in the morn--and call my wife and
tell her she doesn't have to watch the game tonight."
10:47 A.M. Legend has it that the morning skate was created in
the 1960s by Chicago Blackhawks coach Bill Reay, who figured it
was a splendid way to get his players out of bed and to sweat
out any excesses of the previous night. All of the Kings had
observed their 11 P.M. curfew, and while the morning skates
still serve as a brisk wake-me-up, they have become increasingly
didactic. The Kings have a lot of meetings. Robinson says, "We
had a meeting this year to decide when we were going to have a
December 7, 1998
Los Angeles's four coaches--Robinson and assistants Rick Green,
Jay Leach and Don Edwards--will have three meetings this
morning: with the power-play units, the penalty killers and a
new line Robinson wants to use tonight. He has cobbled together
a checking unit of center Nathan LaFayette and wingers Russ
Courtnall and Eric Lacroix to match against the Sharks' top line
anchored by right wing Owen Nolan. The players assemble in the
coaches room, which is down the hall from their cramped dressing
room. Leach and the power-play units are watching tape of San
Jose penalty killers Nolan and Jeff Friesen, while Robinson uses
a red laser pointer to identify players. The coaches remind the
guys on the power play that when they dump the puck, they must
do so quickly and put it in a corner, away from goalie Mike
Vernon, who's a capable puckhandler.
"Stay ready at the [Sharks'] blue line, and I'll hit you coming
across," says Duchesne, to Luc Robitaille, the 13-year left wing.
"What?" asks Robitaille.
"Stay ready at the blue line, and I'll hit you coming across."
"Pret, 'stie," shouts Robinson, which, loosely translated from
the French means, "Be ready, damn it!" The players giggle.
Robitaille is just one option Duchesne will have on the power
play tonight. Robinson grabs a small board that bears the
configuration of the rink and starts diagramming. Duchesne, in
his own zone, can wait for winger Glen Murray on the right side
or, if Sharks defenseman Bryan Marchment forces the play along
the left boards near the red line, Duchesne can chip the puck
off the wall past Marchment to center Olli Jokinen, who should
be in the neutral zone behind Marchment.
This is the only time anyone mentions Marchment, whose penchant
for dangerous knee-on-knee hits has made him the most talked
about No. 4 defenseman in the NHL. "Don't have to," Robinson says
of this scant mention. "They all know he's there. They already
all hate him."
11:34 A.M. During a standard drill, in which Legace goes from
post to post and then skates out to stop a shot, a lazy slapper
by Robinson nails Legace in the forehead. At best Legace has a
throbbing headache, at worst a mild concussion. The Kings won't
be sure until a doctor examines him again, an hour before the
Despite what a 2-7-2 record would seem to indicate, Legace has
played well since Fiset and Storr were injured on Oct. 18. His
.928 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average are pleasant
surprises from a player who was lightly regarded when he was
acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in July for a conditional
Legace is a nicely rounded 5'9", and a hint of a second chin
lurks beneath his blondish stubble. He has the lived-in, Gumper
look of goalies from two generations ago, and his teammates tease
him about his physique. He's honored, not by the teasing but by
the fact that they know his name. "I love coming to the rink and
putting on this sweater," he says, pointing to his uniform. "Even
the practice sweater."
How's the headache?
Are you going to play tonight?
12:46 P.M. The buffet in the hotel meeting room consists of
green salad with three kinds of dressing, two fruit salads,
potato salad, rolls, broccoli, carrots, spaghetti, rice, baked
potatoes, steak, vegetable soup, fresh fruit, cookies and angel
food cake, but Craig Johnson is holding out for chicken. The
empty platter that used to hold chicken is between the steak and
the spuds--and one of the waitresses said it would be
replenished in two minutes. That was five minutes ago, and
Johnson, a left wing, is a creature of habit. "I ate chicken at
my first NHL pregame meal four years ago," Johnson says. He also
knows that this is the last substantial meal he'll see until he
gets on the team plane after tonight's game, so he reluctantly
throws a steak on his plate.
The meal is quick and quiet. The only sounds are the clicking of
forks against plates and an occasional muffled laugh. Within 20
minutes, the room has cleared except for Johnson and his
roommate, Jokinen, the Finnish rookie whose porcine features
have earned him, much to his delight, the nickname Babe. They
are a strange pair. Jokinen is preternaturally quiet, getting
his daily quotient of noise from The Jerry Springer Show.
Johnson is a talker who dabbles in stocks and wonders about the
ethics of owning shares of Philip Morris. Jokinen, 19, will be a
star. Johnson, 26, will always be a plugger, a fact brought home
by his coach when he was with the St. Louis Blues, Mike Keenan.
"We'd tied Calgary 1-1 the night before, and Keenan called a
meeting the next day," says Johnson. "Keenan's going around the
room, ripping every guy until he comes to me. He says he really
respected the goal I scored and my effort and that I was our
best player. Then he says if I'm our best player, we're in deep
1:14 P.M. In room 666 of the Doubletree Inn, Lacroix and
defenseman Garry Galley are trying to sleep. Lacroix, acquired
three weeks earlier from the Colorado Avalanche, is Galley's
temporary roommate, replacing Bodger, who might be using his
injury as an excuse to get away from Galley, who leads the NHL
in snoring. The new roommates have reinforcements in case
slumber eludes them: Galley has a crossword puzzle by his bed;
Lacroix has sleeping pills.
The biggest enemies of game-day naps, a ritual for hockey players
on the road, are vacuums in the hallway, shouting maids and NFL
games on Sunday. To make sure they awake at 3:45--there will be a
snack downstairs at four o'clock and a bus to the rink at
5:15--Galley requests a wake-up call and sets an alarm, clearly
As Lacroix draws the drapes, Galley says, "I've always told
people that when I'm done with hockey, the two things I'll miss
most are the pregame meals and the naps."
5:34 P.M. The day's languid rhythms are gone now, replaced by
heavy-metal blaring from a speaker eight feet from Legace's
stall. His headache is no better, and Metallica isn't helping.
Legace says nothing. Indeed he will say almost nothing for the
next five hours. When he isn't on the ice, he will sit with his
face down, eyes closed, a towel draped over his head so that he
looks like a turtle that has withdrawn into its carapace. This is
Manny's world, and he's the only one in it.
5:46 P.M. The acrid smell of a propane torch on wood lingers in
the corridor outside the dressing room, where players are
heating the blades of their sticks and reshaping them to suit
their fancies. Center Yanic Perreault has already finished
working on his sticks, which are leaning against a wall in the
corridor. Numbers on strips of tape around the nobs identify
them as sticks 7, 4, 9 and 1. Perreault is going to start the
game with number 2, which is in the dressing room. Perreault
estimates that half his sticks violate the NHL's size
regulations, an arithmetical impossibility considering he has
five. When the shoddy math is pointed out to him, he revises his
estimate to one stick that would be illegal.
Illegal sticks are a touchy subject with the Kings. Their last
stab at glory came in the 1993 Stanley Cup finals against the
Montreal Canadiens. That series turned against the Kings when
Marty McSorley was caught in the waning moments of Game 2 with
an illegal stick and assessed a two-minute penalty. Montreal
tied the game on the ensuing power play and won it in overtime
to knot the series at 1-1. The Canadiens seized the Cup in five
Perreault has labeled each stick based on the curve of its blade
and the stiffness of its shaft, so he can ask equipment man
Peter Millar for the right stick at the right time, depending on
the game situation and his whim. The confounding part is that
Perreault keeps changing the numbers: stick number 7 tonight
could be number 5 tomorrow. "He never goes past nine," says
Robitaille, the only player who professes to understand the
system, "because he can't count any higher."
6:36 P.M. The clock on the far wall of the dressing room is
ticking down the final 19 minutes before the players take the ice
for pregame warmups, when the chatter starts, like the first
birds chirping at the coming of dawn.
"All the little things right, boys. Smart plays. Things add up."
"Let's drop this piano that's on our backs, boys."
"It's going to turn around for sure, guys."
"Work hard and have fun, guys."
The words come in bursts, Tourette-like sputterings of
conventional wisdom. Laperriere, Galley and Lacroix are the most
vocal, but maybe two thirds of the players join in, rising above
the ripping sound of tape being applied to their socks.
"This is a team we can beat."
"Let's use that f------ Ricci. He's slower than me, boys."
6:59 P.M. Robinson, a Hall of Fame defenseman who won six Cups
with the Canadiens, sits on a folding chair in the corridor
outside the dressing room, blowing big pink bubbles with his
gum, ignoring the generic sounds of arena rock that filter down
to the belly of the building. He's not jittery in the way he was
as a player, but in the way of a father who's going to see the
school play and hopes his kid doesn't blow his well-rehearsed
lines. "Now it's as if I'm nervous for 20 guys," he says. "I
backcheck for them, I shoot for them, but in the end, it's in
Robinson usually knows by warmups if his team is ready. He thinks
7:42 P.M. Eighty-seven seconds into the game Sharks wing Joe
Murphy converts a three-on-one after Galley is trapped up ice.
It's the only goal of the period. ("Good road period, boys, ahead
or tied after one," the defenseman had shouted as L.A. got ready
to start the game.)
In the dressing room Robinson turns the color of a basketball,
his voice bouncing off the walls as players reach for drinks and
change their shirts. The Kings had ceded the battles for loose
pucks along the boards, had played with a casualness that made
the pregame dressing room exhortations ring hollow. All those
meetings, all those power-play options would not matter without
a sense of purpose. In the coaching room moments earlier, the
word tossed around when describing the Kings' play was careful.
It wasn't a compliment.
9:20 P.M. The mood is considerably brighter. The hockey is ragged
in the second period, but the Kings' improved effort is
unmistakable. Twice they rally from deficits to tie the score,
the second time at 3-3. The bravado is back.
"Ran the piss out of their D."
"Good passes, Vish. [Mark Visheau, a rookie defenseman whose
previous NHL experience had been one game with the Winnipeg Jets
in 1993-94, set up two goals.] You look like Bobby Orr."
"The blue lines are ours!"
Robinson enters the dressing room with 5:22 to go before the
start of the third period. He comes bearing a clipboard and
encouragement, reminding his players to cut off San Jose's
cross-ice passes. He stays no longer than two minutes.
"How we doing?" asks Leach when Robinson ducks into the coaches'
Robinson smiles and reaches into his pocket for a coin: Heads or
10:22 P.M. Tails. With less than eight minutes to go and Los
Angeles on a power play, defenseman Philippe Boucher tries to
thread a pass to Perreault streaking through the neutral zone.
Instead, the puck strikes referee Terry Gregson in the leg. The
Sharks grab the puck, and Tony Granato scores the shorthanded
game-winner. San Jose, 5-4. The Kings find another way to lose.
Now only Duchesne's cry--"Get mad. I know we've got to stay
positive, but that's enough"--pierces the silence of the
10:23 P.M. Robinson strides in. "No moping around here," he says.
"We've got to be in the air by 11 o'clock. You can mope when you
Two police cars are waiting to escort the Kings on their
10-minute trip to the tarmac, and soon they will file onto the
team bus, knowing that tomorrow can't possibly be any worse.
Which, of course, it will be. They'll learn the ankle that
Courtnall hurt--he was struck by a puck in the third period--is
broken, and then they will lose at home to the New York Rangers
5-1. Moreover, enforcer Matt Johnson will be suspended for 12
games for sucker punching New York's Jeff Beukeboom.
THE CHATTER STARTS BEFORE WARMUPS, LIKE BIRDS CHIRPING AT THE
COMING OF DAWN
"THE TWO THINGS I'LL MISS MOST," SAYS GALLEY, "ARE THE
PREGAME MEALS AND THE NAPS"