General manager Dean Lombardi also remembers the bad old days after Gretzky left and before the Kings became competitive again, a period in which they missed the playoffs for six consecutive years between 2003 and 2010.
“I’d scout games here when I was working for Philadelphia, and there was unbelievable rabid passion in that upper bowl,” said Lombardi. “I thought, ‘these people are crazy, because the team wasn’t very good, and yet the people there were still going nuts.’ “So there was clearly a niche of hard-core fans here – and when I first came here and did the town halls and such, it was clear they knew what they were talking about and they’d had enough and so you weren’t going to fool them talking about this, that and the other thing.
“But I think what you see now, you go down to Manhattan Beach and the bridge is already decorated in Kings’ colours. Even my neighbours, who didn’t know who I was, they now know our players’ names. The guy at the gas station comes up and says, ‘man that (Tyler) Toffoli’s a good player.’ That’s different from when we won it.
“But it still comes down to what we always say, ‘you have to give them a good product.’ Even the Gretzky era, it never had any staying power. After that one year (1993), it went down in a heartbeat.”
The trick will be to sustain their current level of excellence, which has seen them win 38 playoff games over the past three years, most in the NHL over that span. But the nucleus of the team – Kopitar, Quick, centre Jeff Carter and defenceman Drew Doughty are all still in or approaching their primes and signed to long-term contracts.
The only downside to their increasing popularity is that the Kings’ players can no longer move around town with the same sort of anonymity as before, which was one of the perks of playing in a non-traditional market.
“That’s changed drastically – and I don’t know if I like it better or not,” said Doughty, who paused to think and then added: “I for sure don’t like it better, actually. We’ll go out for dinner – the beards we all have don’t help – but back in the day we could just pretty much roll in anywhere, and there’s no way anyone would know who you were, no possible way.
“And now it seems like everywhere we do go, we are getting recognized. It’s kind of more like Canada, when you’re back in home in Canada. It’s great because we’re bringing more fans to the game; we’re making hockey a presence in California. That was kind of the bonus of playing here too – you could do what you wanted and not get in trouble for it.”
Still, given the alternatives, this is better than before.
“I’d rather have the problem and be a winner,” concluded Doughty, “than not have the problem and lose.”