Standing behind the Kings' bench, little emotion evident behind his conservative glasses, neatly but modestly dressed, Coach Tom Webster looks like a schoolteacher who got lost on the way to his desk.
People think of a rough sport like hockey and they expect the coach to be a cross between Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Mike Ditka. Webster resembles neither.
For years before his arrival, there was a seemingly endless stream of quickly forgotten coaches blending with a long line of mostly forgettable players. In a town where image is everything, the Kings had a definite image problem.
So when Webster came along, people kept hoping he would duck into a phone booth, rip off those glasses and somber clothes and re-emerge in tights and cape, wearing a big "S" on his chest.
He has ripped off those glasses, all right, but out of the phone booth has come not Superman but the Incredible Hulk.
Suddenly, the man, who seemed so suited for a job at the library, is punching opposing players, hurling insults and hockey sticks and leaving stunned players, angry officials and startled sportswriters in his wake.
Is \o7 this \f7 the real Tom Webster?
"I prefer to stay in the background," he says.
Whether it's accurate or not, his players are in favor of the new image.
"I like to see a mean streak in the coach," goalie Kelly Hrudey said. "It shows me he's competitive. When he's fiery, he really takes command and can be tough on us. But he's also flexible. He knows when to bend and give us a day off."
There are certainly no complaints from the front office. Not after one of the most successful seasons in King history. The club won its first division title, had team-record totals of 26 home victories and 46 overall and exceeded 100 points for only the second time in its 24-year history, finishing with 102.
Perhaps more important, the Kings, under Webster, have avoided their postseason curse of recent seasons of having to face both the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
If, as expected, the Kings get by the Vancouver Canucks in Round 1 beginning Thursday at the Forum, they will have to beat the winner of the Calgary-Edmonton series to advance beyond the division for the first time. That will be no small feat, but it would be better than playing one after the other.
There are plenty of Kings who can take bows for this season, starting with owner Bruce McNall and General Manager Rogie Vachon, but perhaps the biggest move they made was none at all.
After the Kings finished another mediocre season last year, winding up with 75 points and again being swept out of the second round, McNall and Vachon decided they would try something new--the status quo.
They didn't fire the coach. They didn't make a lot of trades. Instead, they decided to build on the foundation they had.
Webster took it from there.
"He was really determined last summer," Vachon said. "He and the assistant coaches (Rick Wilson and Cap Raeder) put in many hours in the office viewing tapes."
What Webster saw only reinforced what he already knew: Scoring would never be a problem for the Kings with their offense. Winning would always be a problem with their defense.
So he vowed to turn things around by implementing a conservative, patient, defense-oriented strategy.
He announced to reporters and the players that the team would cut opponents' goals by 50 this season.
Hadn't it been said before, by nearly every other King coach.
From the first day of training camp, however, Webster got tough. Rather than separate the rookies and veterans as in the past, he mixed the squads to make them more competitive. And he stressed defense.
"Right away from training camp you could tell that Webby was ticked off every time we didn't play defense," defenseman Steve Duchesne said.
And when the season ended Sunday, Webster's goal turned out to be modest. The Kings, after giving up a Smythe Division-high 337 goals a season ago, finished with a division-low 254, fewer by 83.
In his playing days as a wing, Webster was known for his offense.
He played for the Oakland Seals of the NHL under owner Charlie Finley until back surgery sidelined him, the first of many medical problems that seem to continually point Webster in new directions.
When Webster returned, Finley had some bad news. He could come back only if he would agree to a pay cut--from $17,000 a season to $13,000.
But Webster had an alternative. The New England Whalers of the rival World Hockey Assn. were willing to sign him for a guaranteed $50,000 for each of the next three seasons.
"So my decision was very simple," Webster said.
He flew to see Finley at his Chicago office. The flamboyant owner used to cook his own hamburgers in his office, and he made one for Webster as the forward explained his opportunity.
"I think you should take it," Finley told him. "But remember, if this league doesn't go, you're coming back to me, and your contract might be much less."