In the grand Hollywood tradition of the overnight sensation, the Los Angeles Kings spent the better part of two months playing the part of the ingenue, perched on the soda fountain stool at Schwab’s, waiting to be discovered.
The Kings are a hockey team, or, more precisely, an ice-hockey team, which is how they are still occasionally referred to in these parts.
Maybe that will change now.
Some 45 years after Jack Kent Cooke, a Canadian publishing scion, paid $2 million to place an NHL expansion team in the City of Angels, the Kings won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history on Monday night, defeating the New Jersey Devils 6-1 to win the best-of-seven series 4-2.
Los Angeles came close to winning a championship once before – in 1993, during the Wayne Gretzky era, with a team that oozed star power, and perfectly fit the local sensibilities.
The 2012 edition of the Kings was a different and far more anonymous group, led by the NHL’s one-and-only Slovenian star, Anze Kopitar; and coached by Darryl Sutter, who had previously led the Calgary Flames to the 2004 Stanley Cup final, but had been out of hockey for more than a year when he got the call as a mid-season replacement.
Twenty years earlier, Sutter had received his first head coaching job with the Chicago Blackhawks. Now, he was hoisting the Cup for the first time in his life, after just missing out with the Calgary Flames in 2004.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Sutter. “Obviously when you have a three- or four-goal lead with five minutes left, you know what these guys are capable of doing. Then you start seeing it on the bench. It’s the feeling of seeing them so happy, the work that you go through.
“The first thing you think about as a coach, these guys are all young enough, they’ve got to try it again.”
Their goaltender and most valuable player was an American, Jonathan Quick, the latest in a long line of quirky personalities to play the position, a player so deliberately bland that he makes the Tim Robbins’ character in Bull Durham seem like a charismatic Magic Johnson. Quick sat at the podium, after winning the Conn Smythe Trophy, with his daughter Madison in his lap.
Quick kept the Kings in the playoff race with an exceptional regular season that earned him a nomination for the Vezina Trophy, as the NHL’s top goaltender. Without him, they might have missed the playoffs altogether. The Kings were 12th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference when Sutter took over from Terry Murray as the Kings’ coach.
However, Quick said there was no panic, even when the club was adrift earlier in the year.
“You know what, it was December,” said Quick. “There’s four months left in the season. I think everybody in the locker room knew what kind of players we had in there.
“At our lowest moments, I think the biggest thing is nobody ever turned on someone else. Everybody stuck with it. Go through five-, six-game losing streaks, whatever it was, and guys are still encouraging, still competing in practice.
“You just can’t say enough about resiliency that it took to get through those times during the season and still make the playoffs.”
No team lower than a fifth seed had ever won the Stanley Cup since the current playoff format was introduced in 1994. In October, Las Vegas oddsmakers actually thought highly of their chances that they were installed as a modest 14-medium shot, and the fourth choice in the Western Conference. But the Kings quickly fell into a win-one, lose-one pattern that in December, general manager Dean Lombardi replaced coach Terry Murray with Sutter, with whom he’d had a previous association when both worked for the San Jose Sharks.
It was 28 years between Stanley Cup championships for the Sutter family, or back to 1984 when his brother Duane won for the fourth time and Brent for the second with the New York Islanders.
“Dog and Brent got their name on it six times,” said Sutter. “I wish each one of my brothers could have been on there. Take a run at it again, that’s the next thing.”
Sutter, from one of Canada’s first families on hockey, installed a more aggressive fore-checking system which permitted the Kings, one of the most physically intimidating teams in the league, to take full advantage of their size. Eventually, Lombardi tweaked his roster to promote two more hulking wingers from the minors, Jordan Nolan and Dwight King, and then capped off his in-season remake with a major deal at the NHL trading deadline, adding Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets. In the final month of the season, the Kings started to score, on average, about one more goal per game. Combined with their already stingy defence, they finished on a 9-2-3 run in the final 14 games and were seen as an intriguing dark horse heading into the playoffs.
The Kings raced out to 3-0 leads in all four of their best-of-seven series, something that had never happened before in NHL history. They also went 10-0 on the road in the playoffs, another record, before losing last Saturday night in Newark to the Devils. In doing so, they became the first team to win on home ice since the 2007 Anaheim Ducks, a team that included Kings’ forward Dustin Penner, who now has two championships to his credit.
“It’s one of those things you dream all your life for as a player,” said Kings team captain Dustin Brown. “The city of Los Angeles has been dreaming of this for 45 years.
“There were about 20 million dreams coming true tonight.”