Only now, instead of being a place veterans hope to score one last retirement contract in a favorable climate, the Kings have become a team journeymen -- and stars alike -- join in hopes of enjoying their day in the sun.
The Kings have made victory parades seem almost routine, winning two Stanley Cups in the last three years. But the Kings and their fans both know better. Stanley Cups don’t come easy, and several members of the Kings organization – and their fans - spent some of their best years chasing the Cup before finally rendezvousing with it in what once seemed an unlikely place: downtown Los Angeles.
Robyn Regehr knows that among the assets required to play defense in the NHL, patience ranks near the top. He also learned that the same could be true of winning a championship. The 34-year-old rearguard played 12 seasons of shutdown defense without a whiff of the Stanley Cup.
Then Regehr was dealt to the Kings in April of 2013, and a little more than a year later he was skating with the Stanley Cup.
Regehr, in fact, was the first player Kings captain Dustin Brown handed the Cup to after receiving it from Commissioner Gary Bettman following the Kings’ 3-2 double-overtime win in Game 5 of last June’s Final. Regehr, who had not played since sustaining an injury in Western Conference Semifinal against Anaheim, earned that honor by virtue of being the senior member of the Kings never to win a Cup.
“It was an emotional moment,” Regehr said.
Regehr isn’t the only veteran player who has had his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time after coming to the Kings late in his career.
When the Kings won their first Stanley Cup with a 6-1 win over New Jersey in Game 6 of the Final back in 2012, it was defenseman Willie Mitchell who had the honor of being the first player to receive the silver chalice from Brown in the postgame celebration.
“I was in shock,” Mitchell said. Mitchell was 35 at time, a veteran of a dozen NHL seasons whose career had been in doubt due to a concussion before he finally won his first Cup. It was worth the wait.
“You hold it for 30 seconds,” Mitchell told Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. “It feels like 30 years.”
Mitchell’s path toward the little piece of hockey immortality that comes with having your name engraved on the Cup began in New Jersey, before winding through Minnesota, Dallas and Vancouver. But it was his decision to sign with the Kings as a free agent in August of 2010 that ultimately put him on a collision course with his hockey destiny.
“The Kings hadn’t had a ton of success yet but made the playoffs and you could kind of see that things were starting to change and turn,” Mitchell told LaKingsInsider.com. “Now, yeah, it’s definitely a unique situation where you’ve got a team that’s been to the Western Conference Final three years in a row and has won two Stanley Cups.”
In 2011-12, 11-year veteran Simon Gagne came to Southern California with a sterling resume that included two All-Star game appearances and a pair of 40-goal seasons with the Flyers. What Gagne did not have was satisfaction.
“I did get close (to the Stanley Cup) a couple times when I was in Philly,” Gagne told LaKingsInsider.com. “I played in the Final one time and at one point it was 2-2, so you’re two wins away from the Cup and you try to not think too much about it, but when you’re in the hotel room before the game you kind of think about what you’re going to do with the Cup if you win it.”
In order to get his day with the Cup, Gagne needed to join the Kings. He signed as a free agent before the 2011-12 season and his timing couldn’t have been better. Although Gagne was sidelined with a concussion for the second half of the season, he returned to the Kings’ lineup in Game 3 of the 2012 Final against New Jersey.
“The season was not easy and to be able to come back when my teammates gave me a chance to get back in the Final, it was amazing,” Gagne said.
And that long-awaited day with the Cup? Gagne took it to his hometown of Saint-Foye, Quebec. After several stops, the Cup was the focal point of his annual golf tournament at La Faune Golf Club in Charlesbourg, Quebec.
Darryl Sutter had been close the Stanley Cup before becoming the Kings coach in 2011. As a member of hockey’s first family, Darryl had seen brothers Duane (four) and Brent (two) win multiple Cups with Islanders. And Darryl himself had made it to the Conference Final as both a player and a coach with the Blackhawks. But his name didn’t join those of brothers Brent and Duane on the Cup until he led the Kings to the first championship in franchise history in 2012.
Sutter has a reputation for being a contrarian in a news conference setting, but you won’t find anyone more gracious in victory. At the STAPLES Center rally celebrating the Kings’ first Cup in 2012, Sutter shared the credit with his players and the team’s fans.
“I want to congratulate our great hockey fans on their first Stanley Cup in Los Angeles Kings history,” Sutter said. “That’s an awesome, awesome accomplishment for all you people. When we had that 5-1 lead, with three or four minutes left, just to see the look on the players’ faces is something I will remember the rest of my life. I want to thank them publicly from the bottom of my heart.”
After spending sevens seasons building the San Jose Sharks into a Stanley Cup contender that was unable to cross the final threshold, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi came to Los Angeles in 2006 with unfinished business. Soon after arriving, Lombardi came to realize he and his players weren’t the only veterans of the NHL scene whose life’s passion revolved around winning a Stanley Cup: there would be 18 thousand like-minded fans in the STAPLES Center stands every night.
At the Kings’ Cup celebration last June, Lombardi spoke about the realization that he had landed in one of hockey’s most passionate markets when he the accepted the Kings’ job.
“Seven years ago, when I came to this franchise,” Lombardi said, “I was gripped by an incredible fear. A fear of failure. Because I quickly realized I had inherited a franchise with an owner, Mr. Philip Anschutz, committed to winning and a passionate, resolute fan base that was starving for a championship.”
Lombardi was able help Kings’ fans realize their dream, while Kings fans played a role in helping him achieve his. The contribution of the fans was not lost on Lombardi.
“So many of you have been on this journey from the start, and you never lost faith in your beloved Kings,” Lombardi said. “Myself and my staff, we sincerely thank you for instilling in us the passionate resolve to give you the championships you truly deserve.”
Then there’s Bob Miller. The Kings’ TV play-by-play announcer has a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and a recent documentary, “Voice of the King,” devoted to him. But would his incomparable broadcasting career have been complete without calling the action for a Cup winner?
The answer, in all likelihood, is yes. But more tellingly, the Kings winning the Stanley Cup wouldn’t have been quite the same without Miller’s voice attached to it. Though Miller’s call of the team’s first Cup win in 2012 was not broadcast live, it will forever be linked to the moment thanks to a DVD produced by the team.
Miller’s words that memorable night not only sum up the team’s first Cup conquest, but also summarize the organization’s current place in the hockey hierarchy. They could also double as a recruiting slogan for any player, administer, or fan looking for a team to help them attain their lifelong hockey dreams.
“The Los Angeles Kings,” Miller said, “are indeed the Kings of the National Hockey League.”