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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

Kings Not Well-Known Enough to Be Anonymous

December 29, 1996|Bill Plaschke

All this talk of fatigued power plays and absent defense, all these theories of post-Gretzky stress syndrome--none of them addresses the Kings' biggest problem.

Which is:

Nobody has heard of any of their players.

You think this an overstatement. You think, a professional sports team in a major sports league in America's second-largest city and nobody knows any of their players?

You think, heck, this is a team that has been in town 29 years--who doesn't know the Kings?

Fine.

Name one.

Besides Rob Blake, who is out because of a broken hand.

We're waiting.

We're waiting.

"That big guy with the beard stubble whose helmet is always falling over his eyes?"

Doesn't count.

"That Russian guy with all the silent consonants?"

Unacceptable.

"That defenseman whose last name sounds like the large retail store where I just returned my Christmas sweater?"

Nice try.

Ian Laperriere recently met someone in town who asked his occupation.

He said he played for the Kings.

"They looked at me like, 'The Kings?' " Laperriere said.

He told them he played hockey.

They looked at him again.

"Sometimes, you have to say, 'Ice hockey,' " Laperriere said.

On a the cover of the program for their game against Phoenix on Thursday night, there were snapshots of seven players.

The only one even remotely recognizable was the guy with "Yachmenev" visible on the back of his jersey.

No promises, but I think that was Yachmenev.

Everybody knew that the beginning of the Kings' new era would be bad.

But nobody knew it would be this bad.

Everybody knew that this team would be paying the price for the recklessness of the Gretzky era. From 1985-93, for example, the organization did not have one first- or second-round draft choice who is currently playing with the team.

But who would have known that the 10 months since Gretzky's departure would seem like 10 years?

Those who don't understand the league's third-worst save percentage, fourth-worst power play, 30% fewer goals than Gretzky's New York Rangers, maybe they will understand this:

The Kings have several aging journeymen, a couple of bright young stars, and little chance to make the playoffs.

They have a tough, proud coach who is aging like a young father of twins.

They have a general manager many hockey folks think should be doing something else.

They have a new president pleading for their dwindling number of fans to be patient, and to trust that the new owners will not be patient.

"I can live with this, but not for long," said Tim Leiweke, team president. "It doesn't hurt you--it kills you."

Their new plan is to repent for the live-for-the-moment sins of Bruce McNall by rebuilding the franchise slowly, and with kids.

Good idea. But do they have the right people putting this idea to paper?

First, the coach. It is hoped that one day, Larry Robinson doesn't look in the mirror at those graying hairs and gaunt face and decide to quit.

"It's hard some nights. . . . I've never lost at anything," he said last week.

Second, the ownership. Although Philip Anschutz and Edward Roski are far too absent and silent, Leiweke is the most honest front man in town, and his plans sound honorable.

The Kings are going to change their uniform colors, shed the gang-overtones silver and black. They are probably going to lower their ticket prices. And here's betting they will be in a new arena in a couple of years.

Finally, the general manager. Sam McMaster is under fire around the league, and perhaps he should be.

It is said he didn't get enough for Gretzky--none of the three main players acquired in the deal have contributed yet.

It is said he never should have paid such a price for struggling Kevin Stevens.

There is no reason fan favorite Tony Granato is no longer around.

Both of his last two first-round picks are in the minor leagues.

McMaster could be redeemed by fine play from his touted prospects, center Roman Vopat, defenseman Aki Berg, and goalie Jamie Storr. But they have to be recalled from minor league Phoenix first.

He could be redeemed in June, when the Kings could have two of the top 10 picks in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. But how long will it take to judge that?

Anschutz and Roski are facing tough credibility decisions involving their hockey team during the rest of this already interminable season.

In the meantime, whether long-suffering fans want to get with the program, they had certainly better buy one.

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