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L.A. KINGS: OUR STORY

by Staff Writer / Los Angeles Kings
Back when the Kings were mere princes of the city, flamboyant original owner Jack Kent Cooke surveyed a sparse crowd at the Inglewood Forum and quickly figured out why 400,000 Canadians had left Canada to live in the Los Angeles area. “They hate hockey,” Cooke cracked.


Things change. While ex-pats from north of the border can still be spotted at the team’s fashionable STAPLES Center home, the Kings no longer hope for displaced Canadians to show up in order to fill seats.

If the Kings are playing, a rabid, engaged crowd of Southern Californians are sure to be on hand. The Kings filled STAPLES Center to 93.6 percent of its capacity last season, drawing an average of 17,313 fans per game.

Those loyalists have gone 44 years without a championship and without dissent. Is there a more dedicated fan base anywhere in sports? The Kings have lost games over the years, but their followers have not lost heart.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter-million fans will rock STAPLES Center over the course of the 2010-11 season, witnessing the continued development of one of the NHL’s best young teams.

For a lot of people in Los Angeles, hockey is king. This is the story of how the Kings established their empire.

THE FORMATIVE YEARS (1967-73)
With their infancy spread out across three distinct Southern California cities, the seeds were sown early for the Kings to grow into perennial favorites throughout the Southland.

The Long Beach Sports Arena was the first home of the Los Angeles Kings.
It all began when the Kings, playing their first season of hockey in what is now whimsically known as the NHL’s “Original 12,” made their debut at the Long Beach Sports Arena. They made one more appearance in the LBC, and then played 15 games at Los Angeles Sports Arena before moving into the brand new Forum.

Cooke, the bombastic owner, saw to it that those early days were colorful, outfitting the team in garish purple and gold uniforms. But Cooke hated the sound of the word purple, so the colors were officially Forum blue and gold.

The eccentric Cooke was a self-made man, earning his money as a media mogul. He was part savvy communicator, part hustler, and he believed that nicknames would make his players more marketable. So Bill Flett, who had participated in rodeos in his native Alberta, became “Cowboy.” Eddie Joyal, who skated like the wind, was christened “The Jet.” And Real Lemieux, a French-Canadian from Quebec, was dubbed “Frenchy.”

With Flett leading the way, the Kings went 31-32-11, good enough to finish second in the six-team Western Conference in their inaugural season. Not bad, until you realize the entire conference was made up of first-year expansion teams (Los Angeles, Oakland, St. Louis, Minnesota, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). They lost their first playoff series to the Minnesota North Stars in seven games.

A year later, the Kings slipped to 24-42-10 but managed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs again, this time with a fourth place finish. They won the NHL’s first Battle of California, defeating the Oakland Seals in a seven-game first-round series. The euphoria of the franchise’s first series win didn’t last long: Behind the goaltending tandem of Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, the Blues made quick work of the Kings with a four-game sweep.

After that early taste of success, the Kings went through some lean years, missing out on the postseason in each of the next four seasons.

The Kings early development was stunted by an uncontrollable urge for the quick fix. Cooke’s penchant for mortgaging their future by trading high draft picks for veteran players doomed them to failure.

Jack Kent Cooke
“Jack Kent Cooke’s philosophy was to get established name players that people would recognize, like Terry Sawchuk and Harry Howell, even if he had to trade draft picks to do it,” Miller said. “Looking back, his philosophy set the franchise back years.”

It also became part of the franchise’s DNA. NHL stars Raymond Bourque and Phil Housley would be selected with draft picks obtained from the Kings. But not every trade engineered by Cooke’s front office failed.

In 1971, General Manager Larry Regan dealt Denis DeJordy, Noel Price, Dale Hoganson and Doug Robinson to Montreal for goaltender Rogie Vachon and the Kings had their first superstar. Behind Vachon, the Kings finished 33-33-12 in 1973-74 and returned to the playoffs. They were ousted by Chicago in five games.

But something special was happening.

COMING OF AGE (1974-87)
With Vachon backstopping them, the Kings’ seventh season was one for the ages.

Vachon spent the 1974-75 season standing on his head, posting a 2.24 goals against average while winning 27 games as the Kings posted a 42-17-21 record.

Kings legend Rogatien Vachon was honored before a game recently for his outstanding career in net.
“Rogie Vachon was the Kings’ first superstar,” Miller said. “In 1974-75, he led the Kings to 105 points, their most ever. The Kings lost only 17 games all year. Rogie was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and he was spectacular to watch. It’s a disservice to the Hall of Fame that he is not in it. If he had done what he did in Montreal, he would have been elected on the first ballot.”

With great goaltending and Coach Bob Pulford’s sound defensive system (to which backup goaltender Gary Edwards’ 15-3-8 record stands as testimony), the Kings seemed poised to make a run at the Cup when they opened the Playoffs with an abbreviated three-game first-round series vs. Toronto.

“The best-of-three format was ridiculous because it allowed a poor team to have a couple of good games and upset a better team,” Miller said. “That’s exactly what happened.”

After Mike Murphy’s overtime goal gave the Kings a hard-fought 3-2 win in Game 1, the series shifted to Maple Leaf Gardens where Toronto goaltender Gord McRae stymied the Kings in a 3-2 Leaf win.

Less than 24 hours later, on a Friday night, the deciding game was played at the Forum in Los Angeles. “Jack Kent Cooke didn’t want to play on a Saturday afternoon,” Miller recalled. “Both the Kings and Leafs were going to fly back Friday morning but at the last minute, Toronto owner Harold Ballard chartered a plane and the Leafs flew back after the game on Thursday night. The Kings didn’t get back until 1:30 in the afternoon on Friday. The Kings had an older team and couldn’t get going after traveling all day.”

That game is remembered for a notorious stick-swinging incident between the Kings’ Dave Hutchison and Toronto’s Tiger Williams. And for a 2-1 loss that eliminated the heavily favored Kings. It remains a bitter loss in the franchise’s history.

“Bob Pulford told me he cried in the tunnel after that game,” Miller said.

During the off-season, the Kings addressed their deficiencies on offense by acquiring center Marcel Dionne from Detroit. Dionne delivered, scoring 40 goals and recording 94 points as the Kings finished 38-33-9 before knocking the Atlanta Flames out in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. A memorable seven-game series with Boston ended the Kings season, but not before Dionne scored six goals in nine playoff games

The Kings would make regular Stanley Cup playoff appearances during the late ’70s, but could never make it past the second round.

Charlie Simmer went on to represent the Kings at the1984 NHL All-Star Game, held in New Jersey.
During the 1978-79 season, an obscure left winger named Charlie Simmer was recalled from Springfield of the AHL and placed on a line with Dionne and right-winger Dave Taylor. The result was magic as the Triple Crown Line became one of the NHL’s most successful combinations ever. During the line’s heyday in 1979-80 and 1980-81, each individual member averaged 51 goals, 61 assists and 112 points per season.

The trio’s brilliance helped Marcel Dionne win the Art Ross Trophy in 1978-79 as the NHL’s scoring champion. “That line had great chemistry,” Miller said. “They would start up ice and you were certain they were going to score. Their passes were like a game of tic-tac-toe. At one time, they had a point in 56 straight games.”

It was also perfectly balanced. “Marcel Dionne was a great goal-scorer,” Miller said. “Dave Taylor was a tough kid who went into the corners to get the puck, and Charlie Simmer had a big body and he would stand in front of the net and a lot of goals would bounce off his body.”

In 1980-81, the Kings went 43-24-13 and once again appeared headed for greatness before Simmer’s year came to an early end when he broke his leg in a late-season game at Toronto. “It was a devastating injury,” Miller said.

The Rangers eliminated the Kings in the first round, another disappointing end to a promising season.

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The Kings celebrate the "Miracle on Manchester"
The following year, Jerry Buss took over from Cooke as the team’s owner. Little was expected as the Kings entered the postseason with a miserable 24-41-15 record, where they drew Edmonton, the league’s best team in the first round. After splitting the first two games, the Oilers had the Kings on the mat with a 5-0 lead in Game 3 at the Forum, a contest that would be remembered as the Miracle on Manchester.

“I’ve watched the tape of that game over and over,” Miller said. “Every time I watch it, I ask myself, ‘How in the world did the Kings win that game?’”

The comeback started innocently enough with a goal from defenseman Jay Wells. Then Doug Smith scored before Simmer cut the lead to 5-3.

“When Simmer scored,” Miller said, “the atmosphere in the building changed. People began to believe the Kings might actually come back.”

Mark Hardy brought the Kings to within a goal a before Steve Bozek scored with five seconds left to force overtime.

“The Kings tied it when Jim Fox made a great play to take the puck from Wayne Gretzky,” Miller said. “All Gretzky had to do was clear the puck and the game was over. But Jim got the puck to Bozek who tied it up. The atmosphere in the building was frenzied between periods.”

At 2:35 of overtime, Daryl Evans blasted the winner past Grant Fuhr to cap the surreal comeback. Five games later, the King’s season was ended by Vancouver.

The rest of the mid-to-early-’80s were characterized by the Triple Crown Line’s excellence being undercut by subpar goaltending.

Luc Robitaille arrived in Los Angeles in 1986 and earned the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year.
The 1986-87 season represented a crossroads for the Kings. The arrival of Luc Robitaille gave the team a Calder Trophy winner who would go on to become the franchise’s first homegrown Hall-of-Famer. But when Dionne, Robitaille’s boyhood hero and mentor, was traded to the Rangers, it symbolized the end of an era.

In 1987, Bruce McNall became the Kings’ third owner when he purchased the team from Buss and quickly put his stamp on the Kings.

With Dionne gone, Robitaille and Jimmy Carson combined for 108 goals, and the Kings were on the rise again.

“Jimmy Carson had 37 and 55 goals in his first two seasons,” Miller said. “He was intelligent and wise beyond his years. I remember one year, my contract was up and he was giving me advice on how to handle it. He was only 19 years old at the time.”

While Carson had a conservative, buttoned-down wisdom about him, Robitaille arrived with the boyish charm and natural charisma he still displays today.

“Luc was so personable with fans,” Miller said. “He is still that way as the Kings President of Business Operations. Robitaille’s goal-scoring touch and ever-present smile spoke to everyone. The thing about Luc is that he always had such a joy of playing the sport.”

The Kings finished the 1987-88 season in fourth place before being dismissed from the playoffs by the Calgary Flames in five games. A few months later, McNall engineered a deal that would make Los Angeles the center of the hockey universe.

THE GRETZKY ERA (1988-96)
On Aug. 9, 1988, Kings owner Bruce McNall became hockey’s ultimate rainmaker, obtaining Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton in a landmark trade.

The deal wasn’t just a game-changer; it also changed the Kings’ identity. No longer an afterthought, the Kings were now one of the NHL’s glamour teams. With McNall, who was assuming a posture as hockey’s answer to George Steinbrenner, and Gretzky, anything was possible.

“The Kings went from obscurity to the top team in merchandise sales,” Miller said. “People would hang around the bus. On the plane — we didn’t have a charter in those days — people would be lined up in the aisle for Gretzky’s autograph. The Kings sold 4,000 season seats in the first week. Celebrities like President and Mrs. Reagan, John Candy, Michael J. Fox, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn started coming to games.”

It took five years, but Gretzky delivered, carrying the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. It was Gretzky’s greatness that enabled them to win the Campbell Conference Finals. First, Gretzky scored an overtime goal in Game 6 in Los Angeles, giving the Kings a 5-4 win and evening the series at 3-3. Then, The Great One played what he calls his greatest NHL game ever, scoring a hat trick to lead the Kings past Toronto, 5-4, in Game 7 of the Campbell Conference Finals.

“That series was a classic,” Miller said. “It was physical and emotional. Both Gretzky and Toronto captain Wendel Clark stepped up.”

Three nights later, Robitaille scored twice and Gretzky iced the Kings first Stanley Cup Finals win with an empty net goal to seal a 4-1 Game 1 win at Montreal’s storied Forum and the Kings’ destiny seemed pre-ordained.

But with the Kings holding a 2-1 Game 2 lead late in the third period, Montreal Coach Jacques Demers called for a measurement of Marty McSorley’s stick that would live in infamy.

The stick was illegal and there ought to be a law against what happened next: Demers pulled Patrick Roy, giving the Canadiens a 6-on-4 advantage and Eric Desjardins scored to force overtime. Then Desjardins scored 51 seconds into the extra session, completing the hat trick and changing the series. The Canadiens won the next two games in Los Angeles on overtime goals from John LeClair before wrapping up the series in five games.

No fans ever handled adversity better. Consider these two improbable, intertwined facts of the franchise’s history: 1. The Kings best shot at winning the Stanley Cup got away from them on McSorley’s penalty; 2. Seventeen years later, McSorley remains one of the most beloved players in Kings history.

A year after their Finals heartbreak, the Kings got a glimpse of their immediate future as they finished behind the first-year expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Pacific Division standings. It would mark the beginning of a long post-Finals hangover in which the Kings would go four straight years without a playoff appearance. Although the Ducks would go on to win a Stanley Cup in 2006, the Kings would remain the team of choice in Southern California.

In May of 1994, Joseph Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff purchased the team. At the end of the 1995-96 season, the Kings went through bankruptcy. The franchise bottomed out when Gretzky was dealt to St. Louis in exchange for Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson and two draft picks.

By October of 1995, current owners Philip Anschutz and Edward Roski stepped in and took over ownership of the club, guiding it toward a future in a grand new home in the heart of the city.

A NEW BEGINNING (1997-2005)
By the spring of 1998, the Kings found their way back to the playoffs. Rob Blake became the first King to win the Norris Trophy, but it wasn’t enough to keep St. Louis from sweeping the Kings out of the first round of the playoffs. A year later, the Kings closed out the 20th Century by missing out on the playoffs.

The Kings bid farewell to the Great Western Forum on Sept. 20, 1999.
THE STAPLES CENTER ERA
The Kings said goodbye to the Forum in Inglewood in a raucous 8-1 exhibition game win over the Mighty Ducks on Sept, 20, 1999, then moved downtown to the futuristic STAPLES Center for the 1999-2000 season. In their inaugural campaign in the state-of-the-art facility, the Kings met the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

A year later, the Kings’ second campaign at Staples would culminate with an upset win over the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In one of the most dramatic series in franchise history, the Kings dropped the first two games in Motown to fall in a 2-0 hole before rallying to win four straight. The series turnaround was highlighted by overcoming a 3-0 third period deficit in Game 4 to force overtime.

“Nothing was going on,” Miller recalled. “I never got the feeling anything was going to happen, then all of a sudden the Kings scored three goals in the final 5:15. Then Eric Belanger won it overtime. It was the first time the Staples Center really went crazy.”

The team piles on Adam Deadmarsh after he eliminated the Detroit Red Wings in overtime.
Belanger’s overtime goal capped one of the wildest games in franchise history, stirring memories of 1982’s Miracle on Manchester. The Kings won the next game in Detroit to take a 3-2 lead in the series, and then back at STAPLES Center, Adam Deadmarsh scored an overtime goal to eliminate the favored Red Wings, in a game that is still known as the “Frenzy on Figueroa.” The Kings then took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Avalanche to seven games before being eliminated in the second round.

The Kings and Avalanche became regular dance partners with the two teams meeting again in the opening round of the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs. For the second consecutive year, the Kings rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to force a seventh game before bowing out of the playoffs.

Just as the Kings were rounding into a contender in the Western Conference, injuries sidelined both Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh, dashing playoff hopes. The following year, Allison and Deadmarsh were unable to overcome concussions and Ziggy Palffy missed a large portion of the season with a shoulder injury. The injuries got the best of the Kings, keeping them out of the playoffs for the second straight season.

After a season lost to the lockout, the Kings returned to the ice in 2005-06 with a roster makeover. But veterans Jeremy Roenick and Pavol Demitra were unable to get the Kings back in the playoffs.

BUILT TO WIN (2006-2010)
An off-season shakeup left Dean Lombardi in charge of all hockey decisions while Marc Crawford replaced Andy Murray (who had been briefly succeeded by interim coach John Torchetti the previous year) behind the bench to start the 2006-07 season. But the new regime was unable to solve the club’s longstanding goaltending woes (Dan Cloutier began the year between the pipes; Sean Burke finished it) and the Kings missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.

Goalie Jonathan Bernier made his career debut overseas when the Kings kicked off the 2007 season in London, England.
The 2007-08 season began with 19-year-old goaltender Jonathan Bernier making a successful debut in leading the Kings to a 4-1 win over Anaheim at the 02 Arena in London, England. Bernier was eventually sent back to his junior team in the Quebec Major Junior League as the 21st Century Kings set their sights on building for long-term success rather that looking for a quick fix. The strategy would try the uncommon patience of the organization’s long-time fans but it wouldn’t be long before the prudence of the team’s new build-through-the-draft blueprint would come into focus.

By 2008, the Kings had a core group of young players that rivaled any in the league. Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick all began to make an impact. With the 23-year-old Brown wearing the captain’s “C” the Kings finished just three games under .500 (34-37-11).

A year ago, the Kings future revealed itself.

En route to returning to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Kings reeled off a nine-game win streak and topped the 100-point plateau (46-27-9= 101 points) for the third time in their history. In the postseason, the Kings jumped out to a 2-1 series lead before the Canucks rallied behind Henrik and Daniel Sedin.

“Everywhere we went last year,” Miller said, “we would have scouts telling us how good the Kings would be in a year or two.”

The Kings figure to be very good very soon. And when the Kings arrive, they figure to be around for a long time.

“This team is built to be good for a long time, not just for one year,” Miller said. “I equate it to the New York Yankees, who always had someone to step in. When (Joe) DiMaggio left, there was (Mickey) Mantle. That’s what Dean Lombardi wants to do here. He has a plan and is sticking to it.”

After 44 years, hockey in Los Angeles is more compelling than ever.

“The Kings,” Miller said, “are doing something they’ve never done before.”

- Doug Ward

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