Not long after Al Gore invented the internet, I started listening to Los Angeles Kings games on a red transistor radio.
The mid-70′s were tumultuous times. Gerald Ford had just assumed the presidency. Disco was beginning to sweep the nation. Cap’n Crunch’s controversial eyebrows-on-hat placement was sparking anthropomorphic debate. Most notable of all, the Los Angeles Kings had just completed arguably their most successful regular season, ending the 1974-75 campaign with 105 points (42-17-21). The team finished second in the Norris Division, eight points behind the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens, and fourth overall in the 18-team NHL. Although they lost in the first round that year to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the future looked bright for a franchise still in its infancy, having just joined the league in 1967. Beginning the following season and with the shining promise of things to come, I became a Kings fan.
36 years later, having been repeatedly beaten down by season after season of abject futility, the promise remains unrequited.
There have been moments. The 1978-79 team saw the assemblage of the Triple Crown Line (Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Charlie Simmer), one of the highest-scoring line combinations in NHL history over the next six years. The world will always remember the trade, which sent shock waves reverberating throughout the NHL by bringing Wayne Gretzky to Tinseltown. There was the 1990-91 Smythe Division crown, (the club’s only divisional championship), and of course the 1992-93 Stanley Cup Finals loss to the Montreal Canadiens. The Kings had a few epic comebacks: the “Miracle on Manchester”, the “Frenzy on Figueroa” and the “Stunner at Staples”. Great players such as Luc Robitaille, Bernie Nicholls, Butch Goring, Ziggy Palffy, Adam Deadmarsh, Jason Allison, Rob Blake, Rogie Vachon, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick have donned the crown.
There have been others, of course: a moment here, a player or two there. Small victories and successes sandwiched between long stretches of irrelevancy, relative anomalies within the temporal realm of a largely-unsuccessful franchise. Even the team’s two playoff appearances in 2009-10 and 2010-11 after an absence of seven seasons barely registered on the league’s Richter scale, as the Kings finished 6th and 7th in the West and were quickly ushered out of the playoffs each time.
Despite high expectations coming into this year, the team went through an epic scoring drought, a forced coaching change, and on February 22, sat at just 27-21-13 after a dispiriting 4-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. With the trade deadline approaching fast, debate at the team’s official fan community LetsGoKings.com centered around not if they should be sellers, but whom should be sent packing. Longtime Kings’ captain Dustin Brown was rumored to be on the block, with the looming threat of yet another rebuilding effort — seemingly the franchise’s 45th in 45 years — rapidly approaching like storm clouds along the horizon.
On February 22nd, 2012, three days before the trade deadline, the Kings bucked the rampant speculation and became ravenous buyers, acquiring prolific forward Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman Jack Johnson and a conditional first round draft pick. For reasons only the hockey gods know for sure, that trade was the final piece of a very problematic puzzle. Starting the very next game, the team clicked immediately into high gear. Including their stunning playoff run, Los Angeles has gone 25-7-3 since the Carter trade, earning a berth in what we Kings fans consider something far too distant a goal to be attainable in our lifetimes: the Stanley Cup Finals.
Admittedly, a part of me is still in deep denial. This is the Kings, dammit. We don’t even make the playoffs most years, and when we do, it’s one-and-done. If by some miracle we make the second round, we’re scheduling a ticker-tape parade. There’s no such thing as the third round. Our media doesn’t even know who the team is (read this excellent piece by Meesh Shanmugam: http://thehockeywriters.com/for-love-of-the-la-kings-its-time-for-las-media-outlets-to-wake-up/). It’s more likely the Sacramento Kings rise to prominence than the Los Angeles Kings.
And yet, the non-autonomous side of my cerebral cortex is beginning to realize that it’s actually true. Somehow, and in some way, the jigsaw puzzle pieces finally fit together. The offense has averaged over three goals per game for the past three months, while the defense has surrendered less than two. The top line has become perhaps the most explosive in the game, exemplified by the team’s much-maligned captain Dustin Brown, who has matured into a leader right before our eyes. His erasure of both Henrik Sedin and Michal Rozsival with monster hits in the Vancouver and Phoenix series put exclamation points on seminal Kings victories, the second leading to the clinching goal twelve seconds later. Anze Kopitar has played the best hockey of his career. Dwight King has assumed the role of unlikely hero with five postseason goals. Drew Doughty’s ten points and +10 plus/minus in fourteen playoff games demonstrates why the team was willing to sign him to a seven year, $49 million contact last offseason. After just 17 points during the entire regular season, Dustin Penner has ten during the playoffs. Jarret Stoll is clutch. Justin Williams has been steady as a rock. Jonathan Quick is a rock, one the size of a mountain.
It’s surreal that even during the St. Louis series, pundits were starting to label the Kings favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings! Three months earlier, they were the NHL’s most disappointing club. Easily. And now, they’re the smart money to win it all.
Darryl Sutter deserves a tremendous amount of credit for turning the culture around. Lost in the coaching change is the defensive DNA laid down by former head coach Terry Murray, who played his part in the team’s rise but was ultimately unable to get past his own rigid, restrictive offensive system. General Manager Dean Lombardi’s full-rebuild teetered on the edge of collapse, but was vindicated by the incredible record after his bold deadline deal. And, of course, the players themselves should receive the lion’s share of the kudos for putting together a truly magical run to the Finals.
Bring on the Devils. Bring back disco and Cap’n Crunch’s eyebrows, for that matter. It’s time the Kings fulfilled the promise they showed so long ago, embers which have been fanned a few times over the years but never fully ignited. Do it for Bob Miller, and do it for that little boy. He has less hair today and relies much more on Al Gore’s invention than Marconi’s, but deep down, he’s still listening on that red transistor radio.