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Stanley Cup FINALS : For This Longtime King Fan, Tonight Will Be a Lovefest


Get ready, Los Angeles, for the ultimate lovefest standing O.

If you want to know what playing for the Stanley Cup means to long-suffering King fans, tune in early to tonight's game and hope Prime Ticket has the dramatic flair to turn its cameras on the Forum crowd.

Long before the first skater steps onto the ice, a cheer will begin among the old-timers in the upper colonnade. A wave of sound will thunder down, sweeping everyone to their feet. For a while, no beer will be sipped, no hot dogs eaten. I'd even bet some tears will flow.

And why not? Reaching the Cup finals, against no less a sports icon than the Montreal Canadiens is more than a chance for King fans to party.

This is an exorcism. Although I'd love for the Kings to parade the Stanley Cup around the ice next week, for me, simply being here watching hockey in June is enough to chase the demons of past humiliations out of the old rink.

Begone Dale McCourt, a star of the 1970s who refused to play in Los Angeles. Begone Pat Quinn, the coach who in the midst of the 1986-87 season signed a secret deal to join bitter rival Vancouver.

Begone Ron Grahame and Glenn Goldup and the other ghosts of bad trades that sentenced the Kings and their followers to second-rate status in the hockey world.

Begone, too, Jack Kent Cooke, the curmudgeonly first owner, who thought he could sell the game to L.A. by Anglicizing the names of his players. At its most absurd, Juha Widing (Yoo-ha Veeding), a Finn, became Whitey Wide-ing.

The roster is still cosmopolitan--Canadian, Finnish, Ukrainian, a few Americans--but if anybody cared before, no one does now. The Kings' high level of play against the bigger, tougher and maybe even better Toronto Maple Leafs was more than a whole lot of fun.

It gave us some respect--finally. For 26 years, L.A. has been seen as the end of the hockey line and a haven for aged, weak or infirm players.

Most painful about that reputation for fans, of course, was its truth. Each October, we would burst into the Forum to begin a new season, full of hope that this was the year Wayne Gretzky or Marcel Dionne--and before them Butch Goring and Danny Maloney--would be given enough supporting cast to be taken seriously.

Every April, we would trudge back out to the parking lot, always disappointed, sometimes embarrassed.

Major humiliations included eviction from the playoffs five times by the Edmonton Oilers, one of those former World Hockey Assn. teams that didn't even exist until the Kings' sixth season.

The merely low points were the years of unreliable radio broadcasts (even now the games are broadcast from Tijuana) and the non-hockey of such thugs as Randy Holt, who set records by taking 67 minutes in penalties in one period of combat with the Philadelphia Flyers. Gretzky has never been penalized that much in an entire season.

In this sorry litany, it rates as only annoying that Canadian teams used trips into L.A. to take mid-winter vacations in Palm Springs and Las Vegas. Or that we had to get our inside scoop on the team from the Toronto Globe and Mail or the Sporting News because few local sportscasters and writers knew icing from frosting and didn't care anyway.

As an L.A.-born hockey fan, I've had to explain this a lot: I came to the sport by accident, taken to a game by a college buddy. The players had longer hair than I did--few wore helmets then--and the acrobatics of a tiny goalie named Rogatien Vachon had the Forum rocking every game with chants of Ro-gie! Ro-gie!

Ro-gie fled to Detroit, but I was hooked. The sport was fast and complex, the games intense, the crowds loud and exuberant. You could buy a cheap ticket and sit wherever you wanted. The fans were like a small community--though some would say cult.

Hockey fans talk to the ice a lot during games and I soaked up their wisdom: Play the man not the puck, defense wins playoff games, never leave a game early because anything might happen. I learned about forechecking and cutting the angles and digging in the corners by listening to fans screaming at the Kings, who usually did none of those things.

If the Kings lacked the skating elegance of Montreal--and they surely did--high-scorers such as Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Bernie Nicholls were capable of winning 30 to 40 games a season. But half the game is stopping the puck, and they couldn't play a lick of defense. Slippery-sticked defenders such as Jerry Korab and Rob Palmer came and went, chased out of town by the boos. After Vachon defected, the Kings burned up 16 goalies--from Lessard to Healy--before finding Kelly Hrudey.

The class acts, Dave Taylor and Dave Lewis, all but anonymous in Southern California, lent credibility. Characters like John Paul Kelly, who as a brash rookie checked 50-year-old Gordie Howe into the penalty box, and tough guys Tiger Williams and Jay Wells made the down times more interesting.

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