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LA Kings Insider Goes Inside the Kings

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Thomas Hickey skated off the ice, his chin bloodied during the first shift of the game, and suddenly the Kings' bench had the look and feel of an emergency room.

A trainer rushed over to apply pressure to Hickey's face as play continued. Coaches adjusted for Hickey's absence by barking out the nicknames of players -- "Mully!'' "D.K.!'' -- for new defensive pairings while bodies hopped on and off the bench at a frenetic pace.

Less than a minute into the Kings Sept. 14 rookie game against prospects from the Phoenix Coyotes, the staff behind the bench was fully engaged. The next two-plus hours would lend themselves to few moments of calm reflection, until the game had ended.

During that game, which the Kings won 5-4 in a shootout, the coaching staff allowed a reporter to have unprecedented access to the locker room and bench, before, during and after the game, in order to get a glimpse of what game day in pro hockey is really like.

So what is it like?

It's fast, far faster than it appears on television and faster, even, than it might appear from lower-level seats at STAPLES Center. It's intense, for everyone involved, from the time the players leave the team bus and enter the locker room.

The time is 4:10 p.m., with the opening faceoff less than two hours away.

There will be fewer than 1,000 fans in the building -- Phoenix's Arena -- for this exhibition game featuring two rosters full of young prospects, but the attitude is serious.

For these young men, many of whom are just beginning their professional careers, this is an opportunity, a chance to play well and have their names stick in the mind of NHL coaches, even if they're not destined to make the NHL roster this season.

The locker-room area includes a who's who of Kings staff, from assistant coaches Jamie Kompon, John Stevens and Bill Ranford to assistant general manager Ron Hextall to co-scouting directors Michael Futa and Mark Yannetti and their entire team of scouts.

For many players, this will be their first time playing in an NHL arena, but if there are nerves, they are well-hidden. The players file into the locker room to change into workout gear and prepare their equipment, while the coaches and staff bunker down in a room down the hall.

This being a rookie game, it's the domain of the coaches from the Manchester Monarchs. So while Kompon, Ranford and others mill about, this night belongs to head coach Mark Morris, assistant coach Scott Pellerin and hockey-operations director Hubie McDonough.

Pellerin, 40, played 840 NHL games and is entering his fifth season as a Monarchs assistant. McDonough, 45, is a nine-year veteran with the Monarchs who has the thankless task of overseeing player movement among the Monarchs and Kings and other affiliates.

While the other coaches converse, and set up video equipment, Morris sits quietly in a corner, reviewing his lineup, until he leads the coaches into the locker room at 4:30 p.m.

Corey Elkins, one of the Monarchs' team leaders, turns off the stereo and players settle into their locker stalls. This is Morris' pre-warmup talk with the players, and while it's brief (less than five minutes) it covers a lot of ground. Morris quick-hits a number of talking points, including focus, short shifts, clean changes and awareness of physical play.

"I could talk about Xs and Os, but you know what you're doing out there,'' Morris said. "I don't need to kick that around.''

With a sharp "OK, get yourselves ready'' from Morris and a quick burst of applause, the meeting ends. A handful players head into the hallway to kick around a soccer ball, and the coaches retreat to their office for more preparation.

Back in the office, Morris acknowledges that he doesn't know exactly what to expect. He has looked back at the two rookie games against the Coyotes from last year, and watched one of the Kings-Coyotes regular-season games, but an hour before this game, he has concluded that the Kings' best strategy will simply be to thrive at their own style of play.

Exactly an hour before the game, and with no particular pomp and circumstance, Morris calls out the starting lineup to his coaches. "We'll go with Hickey and Mullen,'' Morris said, adding that the line of Andrei Loktionov, Kyle Clifford and Brandon Kozun would start up front. It had already been decided that goalie Martin Jones would play the entire game.

"If there's a dust-up, Cliffy will be out there,'' Morris added, referring to Clifford's penchant for physical play and the likelihood that, in a game featuring a few dozen prospects eager to get noticed, there will be at least one or two fights in the early going.

Pellerin's main task during a game is managing the defensemen and, as an aside, Morris lets Pellerin know that if he wants to adjust the defensive pairs during the game, he should.

As the assistant coaches tend to their lineup cards, Morris spends several minutes drawing an elaborate series of diagrams on a whiteboard. Upon finishing, Morris flashes the board to an observer, smiles and says, "So much for my fine-arts degree from Colgate.''

Morris, 51, is, in many ways, like his counterpart with the Kings, Terry Murray. Morris is calm, patient and never seems to take himself too seriously. He's entering his fourth season with the Monarchs and nearly led them to the AHL championship series last season.

He's already pretty familiar with these prospects, many of whom played at least part-time for the Monarchs last season, so when the players hit the ice at 5:30 p.m. for warmups, Morris and his staff spend time watching the Coyotes, trying to determine their line combinations.

Warmups end at 5:45 p.m., and five minutes later, Morris is back in the locker room for his final pregame chat, this one focusing more on strategy, with a little motivation mixed in.

"These guys are trying to win jobs, just like you are,'' Morris tells his players, and 10 minutes later, they're on the ice for the opening faceoff.

The speed of the game is break-neck, even though these aren't yet NHL players, and even though many of these prospects have never played together before, the level of communication and teamwork, on the bench and on the ice, is at a high level.

It is all thrown into flux less than a minute into the game, when a bloodied Hickey returns to the bench. The defensemen sit, as a group, on the side of the bench closest to their goalie, in order to facilitate more efficient changes, and Hickey is a big part of that defense.

While the medical staff tends to Hickey, Pellerin has to adjust his defensive pairings, a task made more complicated by three penalties within the game's first 4 minutes, 18 seconds.

Hickey misses only one shift, though, and announces his return to the ice with a goal at the 4:44 mark. Hickey, during 4-on-4 action, jumps into the play and scores on a sharp wrist shot from the side of the net. When Clifford scores with 6:05 remaining in the period, the Kings look well on their way, but the Coyotes make it 2-1 with a goal with 3:34 remaining.

That goal sticks with Morris, who enters the locker room and admonishes his players lightly about momentum. Morris doesn't talk for long, but works off a short sheet of notes and makes quick-hit points to the players about what he wants to see in the second period.

"We won that period,'' Morris said. "Now it's a fresh slate. It's nothing-nothing.''

The message seems to stick. The Kings take a 3-1 lead at the 6:09 mark after a nice pass from Linden Vey to Jordan Weal, and Clifford pummels a 6-foot-6 opponent in a fight.

On the bench, the Kings click as well. David Kolomatis, a 21-year-old defensive prospect who played 76 games for Manchester last season, thinks he spots something critical in the Coyotes' attack and calls out to Pellerin in order to pass it along.

During a quick break in action, Pellerin thrusts his lineup card in front of Kolomatis and has the player trace, with his finger, the movement of the Phoenix forwards as Kolomatis sees it. Satisfied, Pellerin returned to his spot behind the bench and Kolomatis again hits the ice.

The Kings close the second period with the 3-1 lead intact, leaving Morris little room for criticism between periods. Instead, he delivers a warning, essentially telling the Kings that life won't be as easy for them in the third period against the desperate Coyotes.

"What was the first thing I said when I came in the room before the game?'' Morris asks.

After a moment of silence, Kozun speaks up. "It's about how you respond when it gets messy.''

"Exactly,'' Morris said. "Let's come out ready. They're going to make a hard push. We're going to make a harder one.''

That's not how it turns out. The Coyotes tie the game with two goals within the first four minutes of the third period. Behind the bench, Morris remains calm. No yelling, only short bursts of encouragement and direction in order to keep his players focused.

At the 6:35 mark, the Kings take the lead again with a goal by Robbie Czarnik and, for a while, it appears the lead will hold up, even as the Coyotes kept up the pressure.

"Everybody strong, from here on in,'' Morris implores at the 10-minute mark.

The Kings even kill a penalty in the final four minutes, but with less than 90 seconds remaining, Jones makes a save and kicks the rebound wide to his right. The Coyotes knock in the rebound to tie the game and the Kings' bench falls silent.

Again, calm prevails, and after a scoreless five-minute overtime, a shootout looms.

On the bench, as the coaches huddle behind them, the defensemen play a game among themselves, trying to guess which players will be selected for the shootout.

"Kozun, Lokti and Weal,'' Hickey offers.

Moments later, Morris announced his decision.

"Kozi, Mully and Lokti,'' Morris said, referring to Kozun, Patrick Mullen and Loktionov. Hickey shares a laugh with Mullen, who had been seated directly to his left.

Kozun, a dynamic skater and shooter, had failed to score on two breakaways during regulation, but in the first shootout round, Kozun takes a wide angle, makes a nice move to the net and scores easily.

"Third time's a charm,'' a relieved Kozun said as he returned to the bench.

Jones makes Kozun's goal stand up by making three saves, and making them look easy. After the third save, there is some confusion on the bench as to how many rounds the shootout would go.

"Is that the game?'' one player asks, and indeed it was, with the Kings taking the 5-4 win.

Players filed onto the ice for celebratory greetings and head pats, then hit the locker room. Morris followed shortly behind, shaking the hand of every player in the room and giving some brief thoughts on the game.

Afterward, there was plenty of time for decompression. Players stretched, rode stationary bikes, showered and dressed, while coaches and staff met in the hallway and coaches' room and dissected various parts of the game and the efforts of various players.

"It’s always nice to win,'' Morris said. "I was encouraged. I think the guys learned some things tonight, about the nuances of the game at the pro level, some of the newer players realizing how big and strong guys are and how the clock dictates how you need to play, whether it’s chipping a puck in or chipping it out or just making an easy play and keeping the high-risk plays to a minimum.''

The game, more than anything, was about learning. There would be another rookie game the following afternoon, and the start of training camp was less than four days away.

With a full season ahead of them, players and coaches didn't have much time to dwell on one game. There would be plenty of goals, penalties, line changes and busted chins to come.

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