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June 04, 2012
The hapless Kings have rarely risen above second-banana status in L.A., but closing in on their first title, they have a chance to rewrite history
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June 04, 2012

Quest For The Crown

The hapless Kings have rarely risen above second-banana status in L.A., but closing in on their first title, they have a chance to rewrite history

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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.

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