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Kings of the bungle

L.A.'s hockey team is in the midst of another bad season, and poor decisions have their fans at a breaking point

January 26, 2007|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

Marc Saenz was captivated by Kings hockey when an ice age gripped Los Angeles. It was spring 1993 and the franchise was sizzling.

He hung on every slap shot as Wayne Gretzky's Kings plowed through the playoffs, only to have their Stanley Cup hopes derailed by a crooked stick.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Hockey: A chart that appeared in Friday's Sports section detailing the Kings' record against selected teams, both winning and losing, reflected only road games. A chart showing road and home games against those teams appears on Page D4.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
The Vikings: A graphic in Friday's Sports section on teams that have never won a championship listed the Minnesota Vikings as never winning an NFL title. They have never won a Super Bowl. They won an NFL title in 1969, before the AFL and NFL merged.

The Kings, never so close before, have not been close since.

"The hardest thing about being a Kings fan is always waiting until next year," said Saenz, who lives in Temple City. "And the next year after that. And the next year after that."

This season marks 40 years of wandering in the NHL wilderness for the Kings, whose current 16-28-6 record puts them at the bottom of the Western Conference and 29th among 30 teams. The Kings, in fact, have played more games without winning the Cup than any other NHL team.

That giddy stretch in 1993, when the Kings reached the Cup finals, is the only time they advanced past the second round.

In four decades, the franchise has gone from "win now" to "youth movement" to "win now" and back again.

Last season, Tim Leiweke, who oversees the Kings for parent company AEG, all but predicted an end to the team's wandering.

The lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season was over, and the new collective bargaining agreement with its salary cap, Leiweke said, would level the playing field and allow the Kings to compete with the elite teams who had bankrolled success.

"We have waited five years for this season," he said.

His words would come to haunt him, because the Kings' second-half collapse left them 10th in the conference, prompting another housecleaning.

In looking back, Leiweke now regrets the path AEG took after buying the bankrupt club in 1995.

"If we would have absolutely reeked the first couple years," he said, "we'd be winning now.

"It was L.A. and we tried to build on the fly," he added. "If we had to do it all over, it would have probably been better to be awful for two or three years and had top draft picks instead of being competitive and getting the 10th or 11th or 15th pick."

Meanwhile, the team's small but fanatical fan base collectively tapped their toes and closed the checkbook this season. Ticket sales have hit a five-year low.

The Kings have six announced sellouts. Last season, they sold out 26 of their 41 home games.

One scalper, who asked not to be identified, said recently, "When a bad team is in town, I can't give tickets away."

*

Overall, there have been eight general managers, 21 head coaches, 527 players and one constant.

"Nothing ever seems to come to fruition," Saenz said.

The brightest moment, of course, came in those '93 finals. Owner Bruce McNall's blueprint to win the Stanley Cup with his checkbook, which included acquiring Wayne Gretzky in a 1988 trade, seemed to be working.

The Kings held a 1-0 lead in the series against the Montreal Canadiens. But late in the third period of Game 2, Marty McSorley was given a penalty for using an illegal stick. Montreal scored on the power play to tie the score, won the game in overtime and swept the next three.

McNall's dream then turned into a financial nightmare. He had spent more money than he had and eventually was sentenced to prison for his admitted role in a scheme to defraud banks, a securities firm and the Kings of more than $236 million.

He was forced to sell the club. Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joe Cohen became the new owners, but they too were short of money. The club fell into bankruptcy until AEG rescued it.

"I tried to bring pizazz to the game," said McNall, who regularly attends games and is an unofficial ambassador for the team. "There is some misconception that if you put a good team out there, people will come. This is L.A. You need an identity. We had movie stars and pretty girls coming into the Forum Club after games, mingling with the fans. It was like a nightclub."

Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Lakers and the Washington Redskins, also saw great potential when he paid $2 million for the new franchise in 1966.

"The NHL was trying to make a statement that it was more than just a regional league," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

"It's the same reason that NASCAR is running races in Southern California and is trying to build a track in the Northwest. They were establishing a national footprint that seems the hallmark of being a major sport. The NHL was considered part of the big four, which was remarkable given the reality of the business the last 10 to 15 years."

Cooke did things his way.

"Mr. Cooke was a pretty dominant guy," said Bob Berry, a former player and coach with the Kings. But "there was so much transition in management and I don't think there was any long-term plan."

There were flashes of greatness, though:

* Rogie Vachon, acquired in a trade with Montreal in 1971, was among the NHL's best goaltenders. His six seasons with the Kings marked one of the few times the team's goaltender situation was stable.

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