On the first day of training camp before the 1992-93 season, Los Angeles Kings spine specialist Dr. Robert Watkins announced that Wayne Gretzky would be out indefinitely with a herniated thoracic disk in his upper back. Almost immediately, rumors began swirling that the world's greatest hockey player might miss the entire season, or even retire. Just like that, the Kings' season was potentially over before it even began.
With 36-year old coach Barry Melrose entering his first season behind an NHL bench, the deck was already stacked against the Kings. But the youthful coach came together with a team that blended young talent and veteran experience to work through the adversity. The end result would make a huge impact on both the city and the sport.
"I remember how Barry Melrose handled that and I give him credit. There was no panic at all. His attitude was 'no problem. This is how we're going to deal with this,'" said forward Tony Granato, now an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "We established ourselves as a hard-working, competitive team. I think it made Wayne excited to come back."
"Wayne Gretzky missed most of the season, so expectations weren't really high," said defenseman Rob Blake, now a manager on the NHL's Hockey Operations staff. "But I think that helped some other players play more than they would otherwise."
While much of the pressure on that Gretzky-less team fell on Melrose, the true challenge would be on the team's young defense. L.A.'s forward unit still had household names like Luc Robitaille, Jari Kurri and Tomas Sandstrom. But Blake, then in just his third NHL season, was the leader of a defensive corps that included two rookies in Darryl Sydor and Alexei Zhitnik. With the help of veterans like Marty McSorley and Charlie Huddy, that unit had to come together quickly.
"We became good friends. We hung out a lot together," Sydor said. "The young guys are by themselves, so you have a lot of dinners and hang out a lot compared to the older guys with families. We were a close group."
Before coaching his first NHL game, Melrose made his imprint on the team by handing the captain's "C" vacated by Gretzky's injury to Robitaille, a future Hall of Famer in his own right. Robitaille led a team that learned how to play without the Great One.
"It meant a lot, but I knew it was temporary because I knew Wayne was coming back," Robitaille said of the captaincy. "The fact that we didn't have Wayne, I knew we were only going to do it as a team."
When Gretzky returned in early January, the team was mired in a 0-6-2 slump and the hope was that the world's greatest player could reinvigorate the Kings. But just as the Great One was rounding into form, the Kings confronted a new hurdle. In his fourth season with the club, starting goaltender Kelly Hrudey suddenly hit the worst slump of his career, enduring a 2-10-4 skid at one point. But when it came to rebuilding the goaltender's confidence, there were certain advantages to being in Los Angeles.
"[Melrose] introduced me to [motivational guru] Tony Robbins. Tony really helped me," said Hrudey, now a television commentator. "I went from being an OK goalie to being the worst goalie in the League. If not for the help of Barry and the organization and my teammates, I believe my career would be over."
Hrudey got back on track, and the team ended February with a 27-29-7 record. That's when the Great One took over, starting a nine-game streak in which he collected 21 points. Led by Gretzky's 65 points in 45 games and Robitaille's career-high 63 goals, the Kings finished third in the Smythe Division before embarking on a historic postseason run.
"Once the playoffs started we were really focused," forward Mike Donnelly said. "When I look back, we had a great blend. We had skill, we had toughness. Guys were improving and different guys were stepping up."
The Kings rallied from a 2-1 deficit against Calgary in the first round, with Gretzky's seven points in the last two games clinching the series. Thanks in part to Gary Shuchuk's double-overtime winner in Game 5, they then dispatched Vancouver in round two before meeting Toronto in an epic conference-final battle. It was then that Gretzky cemented his legacy in L.A., scoring the overtime winner in Game 6 before turning in a performance for the ages in the deciding game.
"Charlie [Huddy] and I were sitting together [before Game 7] and he nudged me. He said 'look at Wayne's eyes,'" forward Pat Conacher said. "Wayne's eyes were as big as saucers. Charlie said 'he's going to have a big game tonight.' I remember that moment, knowing we were going to see something we had never seen before."
Gretzky scored his League-record eighth playoff hat trick in the Kings' 5-4 win in Game 7, sending L.A. to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in team history.
"We've got a Game 7 in Toronto and the greatest player in the world has a hat trick," Blake said. "His mom and dad are [sitting along] the glass, and he grew up close to Toronto. How Wayne took charge is something I'll remember forever."
The Kings lost the Stanley Cup Final to Montreal, but the mark they left in California was indelible. With Ronald and Nancy Reagan and a multitude of Hollywood celebrities frequenting hockey games at the Forum, the city fell in love with the Kings.
"Having those people around the rink made every day interesting," Melrose said. "Who was I going to get my picture taken with that day? Which star was going to come over to say hello to me?"
The contribution of that 1992-93 team may be most felt today. Almost 20 years after the Kings' playoff run, hockey has grown across Southern California as local products Beau Bennett, Emerson Etem, and Jonathon Blum have been selected in the opening round of the NHL Draft.
"Back then, kids would play roller hockey on the beach and use garbage cans as nets," said Donnelly, who now works as a Kings scout. "I'm seeing kids from Los Angeles playing college hockey. It's amazing to see how many kids are playing minor hockey in Los Angeles."
This season, another Kings team could make a similar mark on the city. And with the 2011-12 Kings just four wins away from inspiring a new generation of California hockey fans, the 1993 team will be watching.
"It's great to see the team win," Conacher said. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a fan. Hopefully they'll win it."
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