Kings forward Dustin Penner celebrates with thousands of fans after teammate… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Sheri Patko plans to visit her father's grave in Costa Mesa and thank him for introducing her to the sport. Charles Kinninger aims to fly with his family from Guadalajara to Los Angeles to witness history. And Blake Kidder might get a tattoo memorializing the unprecedented event.
Los Angeles Kings fans have endured 45 seasons without ever winning a championship. While that futility can't match the drought baseball's Chicago Cubs have experienced, hockey supporters finally believe that the Kings' turn has arrived. The prospects of a first-ever Stanley Cup now have the team's longest-suffering fans struggling to come to terms with how redemptive, if not still incomprehensible, a championship could be.
Like North Korean rocket scientists who keep trying despite years of failed launches, wary Kings fans hope for success but fear that the object of their affection will go down in flames. In a city where the Lakers and the Dodgers are expected to triumph and often have, the Kings at best have shown occasional flashes of mediocrity. But hard-core fans remain hopelessly loyal.
"It feels like you're in a dream, that you're waiting to wake up, that somebody is playing a trick on you," said Kidder, 34, who works in advertising and recently relocated to Boston from Los Angeles. She became a Kings fan when she was 12.
"You just don't expect that things are going to work out the way you hope they are going to work out. It's like the Clippers, but for longer," said Mike Skrable, a 41-year-old high school math teacher in San Carlos. Skrable attended his first Kings game at age 4 and has been a fan ever since.
Since Wayne Gretzky led the team to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, the Kings have not advanced past the second round in the playoffs until this year. In a league where more than half of all teams make the postseason, the Kings didn't qualify for the playoffs in six of the last 10 seasons.
This year was different. After barely making the postseason, the Kings overwhelmed the three top-seeded Western teams — the Vancouver Canucks, the St. Louis Blues and the Phoenix Coyotes — and set an NHL record for consecutive playoff road wins. The Kings defeated the Coyotes on Tuesday night to take the Western Conference title and will play the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers.
Inside Staples Center, the noise and energy at playoff games rivals a U2 concert. "It's just electric. The noise level has been deafening," said David O'Connor, 54, a Brentwood talent agent. He has followed the Kings for nearly 30 years and has been a season ticket holder since 1988. "It's so exciting. It's so much fun."
Kings fans pray the fun lasts and that their team will shake off what seems to be a curse. The memory of 1993 still stings. In the championship finals that year, the Kings were about to go up two games to none in Montreal, only to have the Canadiens catch Kings defenseman Marty McSorley using an illegal stick near the end of regulation. A penalty was called against Los Angeles. Montreal tied the game on the ensuing power play, won in overtime and took the next three games to collect the cup.
"We've been snake-bit even when we've had great teams," said Doug Roberts, a Los Angeles engineer and a Kings fan for 38 years. Roberts, 62, named his dog after the team's goalie in the 1970s, Rogie Vachon. His son Chris is flying from Vancouver so they can watch the finals together at home.
Like jilted lovers, Kings fans can readily recount their heartbreaks. In past decades, the team traded away high draft choices for washed-out veterans, only to see other teams use the Kings' picks to select future Hall of Famers and all-stars Raymond Bourque, Tom Barrasso and Phil Housley.
"You sort of get used to the losing," said Skrable, the math teacher. "It is so weird now. It really doesn't feel like the way I'm used to feeling about the team."
It's not surprising that some fans have become superstitious. Scott McDonough, 44, a salesman in Lakewood, has eaten the identical pre-game meal — a pepperoni pizza — before every playoff game this year as a good luck charm. "I did the same thing in 1993," said McDonough, a fan since 1986.
Ryan Lichterman went to his first Kings game with his parents when he wasn't yet a year old. He travels with a worn rally towel he waved in the 1991 playoffs, when the team lost in the first round.
"I've got it in my hands or pocket at every game," said Lichterman, 35, a Westwood property manager. "This is one of the most exciting times in my life — but I don't know if that's sad or what."
Kings fans are reluctant to use the word "destiny" to describe the team's fortunes, but some can't help feeling as if the stars finally have aligned. "I absolutely believe they are going to win," said Malibu's Jack McShane, 53, who owns a food safety company. "They are too big, too fast and they have a great goalie."