Kings players celebrate the Stanley Cup after defeating the Devils in Game… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
This was to be the night it would hit home that it wasn't a dream, that the Kings really did win the Stanley Cup.
It was almost surreal while it unfolded. Their rampage through the playoffs was capped by a crazy celebration on the ice June 11, followed quickly by a parade and glimpses the next few months of the Cup sitting in someone's hayloft, shining at someone else's pool party or taking a boat ride against a distant and exotic backdrop.
With fans and players reunited to watch the championship banner rise high above the ice at Staples Center there would have been a happy closure to a remarkable season. Everyone would have seen their wildest hopes and darkest fears stitched into that banner. They would have put to rest long memories of futility and frustration and they would have been loud and exuberant and probably more than a little tearful.
None of this will happen Friday because of a rancorous dispute between the NHL and the players' association, which led the league to lock players out Sept. 15 and cancel the first two weeks of the schedule. Negotiations are bogged down in peripheral issues, making it likely the league will cancel another block of games soon.
Instead of being rocked by cheers Friday night, Staples Center will be silent. The ice, laid down last month and begging to be skated on, will be covered by a protective overlay. The newly lettered banner will stay in storage. Players who became so close during their playoff run have scattered around the U.S., Canada, and Europe, awaiting word on the fate of the season.
It's cruel that fans who waited 45 years to claim hockey supremacy must now wait indefinitely for a final celebration. Almost like being victimized by the only bit of bad, old karma the Kings didn't obliterate last spring.
"We certainly feel bad for our fans, as they have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see us culminate our first Stanley Cup championship by raising a banner into the rafters at Staples Center," said Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations.
"We know one day this will eventually take place, and we remain hopeful that it is sooner rather than later."
Sooner … as in next month? After the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, a popular guess? A year from now? The Kings can recycle the script for their banner-raising ceremony, but a delayed celebration probably won't pack the same emotional punch as it would have had Friday.
The third NHL lockout in 18 years — and its toughest to understand because it earned league-record revenues of $3.3 billion last season — has already alienated fans and hurt team and arena employees by taking away work hours and jobs. Blame the owners. Blame the players. But everyone loses here, perhaps the Kings most of all.
It's probably cold comfort to know NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly understands your pain.
"We are all extremely disappointed that our season will not begin on time this season," Daly told The Times. "The Kings and their fans are very deserving of a celebration of their victory and tremendous accomplishment last spring, and we remain committed to providing that opportunity as soon as possible."
By the time hockey returns, the buzz the Kings generated last spring might have fizzled out. They're trying to keep sponsors on board by communicating with them daily, but casual followers have short attention spans and media moves from one hot story to the next.
"We feel for our fans and are very sorry that after waiting for so long to win the Cup, we are unfortunately going to have to wait to raise the banner and present the team with their rings," said Tim Leiweke, the Kings' governor. "I personally share their frustration, but the Kings and our fans are going to raise that banner and begin to try to be the first team in 15 years to repeat."
At the hour the Kings were to raise their banner Robitaille plans to be spending time with his wife, Stacia. If the ice were uncovered he might have gone to Staples Center "to take a peek," he said, but there's no reason to go now. Chris McGowan, chief operating officer of AEG Sports, said he plans to replay the Cup-clinching victory.
"When I miss it, I just turn that on and watch the key moments, like the power play and the moment we counted down and won the Cup and all of our players threw their sticks in the air and had the celebration on the ice," he said. "That's been holding me."
That will have to hold Kings fans for a while.