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."