In June of 2008, long before their 2012 Stanley Cup championship season, back when the Los Angeles Kings were a last-place NHL team trying to find a winning path, general manager Dean Lombardi went to the annual entry draft armed with the No. 2 overall pick. The consensus that year was that the Tampa Bay Lightning would grab Steven Stamkos first overall and then the Kings would be left to choose from among a handful of top-flight defensive prospects – Tyler Myers, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn, Zach Bogosian and the one almost everybody raved about, Drew Doughty.
Doughty wasn't exactly the fittest of specimens when he showed up for the predraft interview at the combine with Lombardi and the team's scouting staff, so the Kings were doing their "Drew diligence," looking for answers.
This was the scene: Lombardi sitting at a desk, Doughty in a chair facing him, and in the back of the room, the rest of the team's front office and scouting staff, including Jack Ferreira, special adviser to the GM. Lombardi asked Doughty to complete his list of four ways to categorize Wayne Gretzky. Lombardi gave him the first three – a player, a star and a superstar – and wanted him to name the fourth. Doughty tried "icon," then "champion." Nope, wrong.
Like a game-show contestant without a lifeline, Doughty seemed stuck.
But Ferreira, sitting behind the GM, discreetly bailed Doughty out. In large block letters, Ferreira printed the word on a sheet of paper and, out of Lombardi's view, held it up for Doughty to see. It read: WINNER.
Doughty, without blinking an eye, finally answered "winner," and Lombardi was satisfied. Days later, Ferreira let Lombardi in on the secret, autographing the paper and handing it to his boss. The two, old friends dating back to their San Jose Sharks' days, had a good laugh. The Kings left the pre-draft combine 85 per cent certain they would take Doughty ahead of Bogosian, and in the end, of course, they did.
It's funny how a decision that seems so obvious in retrospect can turn a franchise around. Happy endings sometimes have the most unusual beginnings.
Since arriving in the NHL full-time, Doughty has built his own reputation as a winner. In a season when he also helped Canada repeat as Olympic gold-medal champions, he has been a force in the third NHL playoff round against a Chicago Blackhawks team that last year eliminated the defending-champion Kings in the playoffs. L.A. has a chance to return the favour in Game 5 of the Western Conference final Wednesday night in the Windy City: The Kings currently lead the series three games to one.
A year ago, Doughty played the Chicago series on a bad ankle. One teammate described it as "playing on one leg." Against a team with the Blackhawks' offensive skills, it was sometimes impossible to do the job well. The biggest difference between the current Kings-Blackhawks series and last year's? Doughty is healthy again.
"If you're healthy, you have no excuse but to be on top of your game," Doughty told me in an interview prior to boarding the Kings' charter flight to Chicago. "Mentally, it's on you to put yourself in the right place. I feel good right now. I know how much I mean to our team and how much I mean to this series if I want to win it. Even though I'm playing against a guy like [Jonathan] Toews every single night, it's a tough battle, and I just know I have to out-compete him. He's still getting his chances, he's still going to get his opportunities. But I just got to do everything I can to minimize them."
Kings' rookie forward Tyler Toffoli is just getting used to playing with Doughty, who approaches the game with a fearlessness and bravado that few have.
"When the big games come, he's always the best player on the ice," said Toffoli. "I think, for sure, he's one of the best defencemen in the league. He's just an incredible player. He knows what to do, he makes all the little plays. It's great to have him on our team."
Doughty acknowledged that it took a long time for him to get over last season's loss to the Blackhawks, which ended their Stanley Cup reign.
"That stuck with me," said Doughty. "That was a frustrating time. I wanted to win that Cup again so bad, along with all the other guys on my team. It hurts when you can't get what you want, and what you want back at that point when we got eliminated, we were no longer the Stanley Cup champions. It stuck with me the whole summer. It really gave me the drive and even more of the want to beat this team, just because they did take our season away last year. And now it's our turn to do it back to them.
"We knew we would have to face Chicago at some point throughout these playoffs, and we knew how hard it would be to get by them. But we believed in ourselves that he could. We've still got a lot of work to do. It's 3-1. This [Blackhawks] team is a winning team. It's not even close to being over."