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MIKE DOWNEY

Stanley Cup FINALS : Why, We Even Have Our Own Blue Line

June 05, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

When you think of Los Angeles, hey, you think of ice hockey.

They go together like Paris and baseball, like Honolulu and dog-sled racing, like Beirut and pro beach volleyball.

We love this game.

I mean, we breathe hockey out here. (That's why our air is the color of a puck.)

We appreciate hockey here. (Having admired all of the Boom Booms, Rockets, Golden Jets, Great Ones, Gordies and Gumps this great game has given us.)

We understand hockey here. (A player receives a two-minute penalty unless a corpse is discovered, in which case he gets five minutes.)

And, we know hockey here. (Even though we tend to pronounce surnames like Hrudey, Potvin and Roy phonetically.)

That's what makes L.A. so cool.

Which is why it seems almost inconceivable that there has never been a Stanley Cup championship series game played here in southwestern North America, home of Les Kings.

So, here we go.

Tonight: At a Forum where no National Hockey League championship banners obstruct your view.

Presenting, for your amusement, the very first Stanley Cup championship series game ever played in the contiguous United States of America west of downtown Minneapolis.

Welcome to hockey night in California.

Grab your rinkside seat. It's the Habs vs. the Hab-Nots, Part Trois.

Two games already have been contested between the Montreal Canadiens and the Kings, who have combined to win 23 Stanley Cups in a century of professional hockey, the Canadiens contributing 23 of them to that total.

Please be sure to provide a warm West Coast welcome tonight for all of Montreal's fine players, Daigneault, Damphousse, Desjardins, Brisebois, Carbonneau, Chardonnay, Chevrolet, St. Tropez and Escargot.

The Canadiens will be the ones in the dark clothing, for those attending their first game.

OK, enough kidding around.

Two minutes for high-shticking.

Let's get serious now about Los Angeles and its long love-hate--no, actually more like love-apathy--affair with the sport of Kings.

For more than a quarter-century now, L.A. has supported hockey with loud and loyal attendance, augmented in 1988 after the acquisition of a player, Wayne Gretzky, most of the population had actually heard of.

The team was created in 1967, when professional baseball hadn't even been in California for 10 years.

The owner was Jack Kent Cooke, who at the time owned everything in Los Angeles except the airport, the ocean and that big doughnut place off Manchester near the freeway.

The goaltenders were Terry Sawchuk, who was born during the Depression, and Wayne Rutledge, who was thrust into one. Even though the Kings lost only 15 of the 41 games Rutledge worked in goal, they ended that first season with a losing record.

And yet, they placed second in their division. The future was unlimited and bright. Eddie Joyal scored 57 points in 74 games. Bill Flett led the team in goals. Bill White racked up opponents and penalty minutes by the dozens. Lowell MacDonald, Ted Irvine . . . not a bad little club this was. The Kings even had two players named Lemieux. One was Jacques and the other Real and neither was nicknamed "Super," but what the heck, if you're going to play hockey, it never hurts to have a Lemieux.

Oh, that first season. The Kings were so happy, they should have been owned by Disney. They didn't lose until their sixth game (4-2 at Toronto). First time they played the Montreal Canadiens of legend and fame, Nov. 19, 1967, the Kings beat them, 4-2, at home before 9,849. Two weeks later, L.A. traveled to Montreal and won again, 3-2.

As of Christmas Day that first season, the Kings had a winning record.

Then came the chill.

So how does a team start with a second-place finish and then spend the next 25 years skating uphill?

Los Angeles lost games and lost interest. The Kings won 24 of 76 games the next season. Dedicated souls continued to come to the games, but soon Cooke was going around telling his new favorite gag: "Now I know why 300,000 Canadians moved here. To get away from hockey."

Within two seasons, the Kings' record was 14-52-10. A winning season didn't occur until 1974-75, with Bob Nevin scoring the goals and Rogie Vachon preventing them. But first place in their division? Not until 1991.

The NHL kept adding teams, and the Kings kept subtracting players. They tried everything. They traded for Garry Unger, for Jerry Korab, for Terry Ruskowski, for Ron Duguay, even for Steve Shutt, the once-upon-a-time Montreal star, grotesquely discounted to be worth a 10th-round draft pick. He stayed around L.A. long enough to score 16 goals.

The Kings traded and waited. Then came 8/9/88, when Edmonton's Peter Pocklington agreed to part with a national monument.

Wayne Gretzky of Los Angeles? It was like hearing Magic Johnson of Winnipeg.

But that day led to this day--the coolest thing ever to happen to California--and who would have guessed?

Next thing you know, we'll be having, oh, I don't know, World Cup soccer or something.

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