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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kings are closing in on a Stanley Cup, and Los Angeles is finally taking notice

Wait, so Devils were playing in Los Angeles and it wasn’t a home game? (I really could have used a response from a sidekick like Ed McMahon for that one.) It’s almost official. The L.A. Kings are having their name removed from a rather lengthy list of teams never to have won a Stanley Cup. In response to the team’s meteoric rise, most of the city has come to realize that there is no monarchy within the city limits but indeed a pretty good hockey team.

Los Angeles and hockey is a funny concept. Think about it. The closest thing to icy the city ever gets is the daily interaction between fellow drivers on the 405. Vulcanized rubber? Sure, if you’re thinking about the constituency of a starlet’s face, not a hockey puck. Fighting and violence have traditionally been confined to Chavez Ravine, a few miles north. However, since the beginning of the 2012 NHL annual marathon postseason, Los Angeles has been the center of the universe for the so-called “fastest game on earth.”

Since the Los Angeles Kings ascended to the throne in 1967, the team has been more of a veritable peasant in a sports market saturated with more popular sports. For many years, the running joke in the league while the Kings played in the Forum was that the folks across the street had a better chance at the Cup than did the franchise. (The team’s former home was situated next to a cemetery.) The latest slapshot in the face was when the Los Angeles-area NBC affiliate tried to show a graphic celebrating three simultaneous playoff runs with the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings all in the postseason for the first time since the opening of Staples Center, where all three play, in 1999. The only problem was that the Kings logo was portrayed as the Sacramento Kings. Perhaps, one can chalk this up to a lazy graphics editor, not realizing the fundamental fact that Sacramento (scrawled across the top of the logo) is not Los Angeles, or the fact that double-checking wasn’t all that necessary because no one would care. One would highly doubt that such an error would happen in hockey-crazed markets like Detroit or Boston.

Still, though, despite the existence of a professional ice hockey team in the second-largest sports market in the country, most folks in the city couldn’t tell you about the Miracle on Manchester in 1982, when the team stunned the almighty Edmonton Oilers in the opening round of the playoffs by rallying in Game 3, down 5-0 no less. Anyone who has ever attended a Lakers, Clippers, or- gasp- Sparks game over the last decade-plus probably would be compelled to point quizzically at the dusty old Smythe Division championship banner that hangs alongside the Campbell Conference one, marking the only time the Kings had previously reached the championship finals. On the off chance that one remembered the five-game defeat to Montreal, there was probably mention of the name Marty McSorley, a curved stick (which had nothing to do with the medical condition that some late-night infomercials would have you believe), and then an outpouring of obscenities.

The Kings were a team that plunged into bankruptcy in 1995 after the shady dealings of former general manager Bruce McNall. At least by the ‘90s, one would have expected a King to be able to hawk his crown and scepter on the Internet for some trinkets/free-agent schmoes. The Kings, though, became the Forum’s version of an unwanted roommate for the Lakers: someone who couldn’t really afford to pay the rent, didn’t really take care of themselves, messed up the place, yet would still help themselves to all the amenities. The February 1996 trade of the beloved Wayne Gretzky could be looked at as the franchise’s nadir (or at least one of them).

Nearly two decades passed without many positive memories, other than a playoff run here and there, and a stunning playoff upset of the Red Wings in 2001 and taking the heavily-favored Colorado Avalanche to seven games but losing one round later. Anytime the team showed signs of life, fans would shrug and wait for the bottom to fall out. Those ardent fans who filled Staples, fueled with hope and water-downed spirits, would be looked upon with pity by the rest of the NHL’s populace as a sorrowful group no different than the poor schlub trying to make his riches playing blackjack.

Consecutive playoff appearances in 2010 and 2011 appeased much of the fanbase who expected the team’s brass to do nothing more than to turn water into boxed wine. Even the few harboring the unrealistic expectation that the team could pull off a miraculous championship run must have tempered expectations when the team fired head coach Terry Murray after a lukewarm start to the season, then just hanging on at the end of the year to secure an 8th seed.

What the Kings have accomplished since is the stuff of a clichéd Hollywood script. They took out the top-seeded Canucks in 5 games, swept through number-two St. Louis, and beat the Phoenix Coyotes, the third-best team in the Western Conference, in five games. Now, they are up three games on the New Jersey Devils, becoming the first team to take a 3-0 lead in each series since the league went to the seven-game format in all rounds.

In the process, fans around town have been finding reasons to wear heretofore unseen garments. In the past, you’d have a tough time convincing a large swath of the City of Angels’ populace that Vachon was one of the great goalies in Kings’ lore and not the name of some brand of rejuvenating eye cream. I still have yet to see many Marcel Dionne shirts; though, the team’s fans are ostensibly not self-effacing enough to sport an article of clothing worn by a guy nicknamed “Little Beaver,” no matter how much of a Hall of Famer he is. Kids on the street are even getting the proper phonemes right to make Slava Voynov and Anze Kopitar’s names sound mellifluent.

The Kings are only an L.A. rush-hour-traffic sojourn away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. Millions of Los Angelenos will rejoice at the first ever NHL championship won by the team. A vast majority of the rest will be too distracted to realize that the crease, butt-ending, and faceoff are not necessarily concepts only a doctor wielding a scalpel would know.

Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE



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