Kings of the NHL

In 1967, the Pontiac Tempest I currently drive around LA was brand new. Nobody had yet been on the moon. The Prime Minister (of Canada, eh) was Lester B. Pearson, after whom Toronto’s airport is named. This was also the year that Texas Instruments invented the handheld calculator, Rolling Stone was first published, nearly half a million US troops were in Viet Nam, Expo 67 opened in Montreal, and Jimmy Hoffa went to jail.

And that summer, the LA Kings were born.

Six teams existed in the fall of 1966: Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. The next spring, Montreal and Toronto played for the Cup, and the Leafs won it. That fall, California, Los Angeles, Minnesota, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh joined the NHL. All have since won Cups except for St. Louis. Even the Seals can kinda-sorta claim one.

The defunct California Seals, who were later called the Oakland Seals and then the California Golden Seals, eventually moved house to Cleveland and becoming the Barons. They then merged with the Minnesota North Stars.

That team went south, literally, in 1993 to become the Dallas Stars. In that guise, they won the Cup in 1999 on a disputed goal over the Buffalo Sabres. So, in a sense, California (the Seals) can claim part of a Stanley Cup, if a few Kevin Bacon-ish removals are taken into account.

What that means for Toronto Maple Leafs fans (yes, it always comes back to them) is that they are now the longest-losing team in the NHL. Why include them? Because they last won the Cup the year the Kings and St. Louis, until now the only two non-winners left, came into being. And with LA having taken the trophy, finally, the Leafs stand outside the camp of twelve looking in, along with St. Louis. But if you do the math, Toronto’s win predates the Blues’ official existence, hence, the logic of tagging them the longest-suffering franchise.

But that’s not happy thinking, is it? What is happy is pondering the LA win. What makes it perhaps more meaningful is its surprise nature. Not that it was unexpected in this series. The Ducks winning in 2003, in seven games, would have been a surprise. LA coming back against Montreal in 1993 would have been. This year, the Kings marched through the playoffs. There’s just no better word for it than that. Maybe they stumbled a little bit over games four and five. Maybe it was nerves, too much anticipation of winning at home, as players said after game four. Maybe it was just statistics righting themselves—the Devils weren’t in the Finals for nothing, after all.

So why surprising? Not because I’m a member of the East coast media who doesn’t know the Kings exist. I’ve been watching them for nearly 20 years, and I’ve covered them for seven.

Rather, because even the most hopeful fan or writer would have been hard-pressed at Christmas to foresee this win. Perhaps even in mid-February. Certainly most thought that Vancouver would give them a hard time as the playoffs started. When that didn’t happen, the light should have started to go on. When they romped over the Blues, it should have gained intensity. By now, their success is a spotlight directly in the eyes. Still, even in the most hopeful scenario, this win was a year off as the rebuild begun half a dozen years ago when Dean Lombardi became GM started to take real shape.

Kings fans don’t care about any of that this morning. They’re just delighted to say their team is now Stanley Cup champs, and in truth, this changes everything.

It makes the efforts of all the Kings of the past worthwhile. Names like Brian Kilrae, who scored the franchise’s first goal. Rogie Vachon, the greatest goalie ever not to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the holder of a Stanley Cup ring from his time in Montreal. Bob Berry, player, scout, one-time coach of the Montreal Canadiens. Marcel Dionne, Simmer, Taylor, and on and on. Each of them shares a part in this win, and moreso those who never won the Cup elsewhere.

Fan Dan emailed last week to say that he felt that Wednesday could be the day that changed his life forever. “I will never be the same. This morning felt like a rebirth,” he said. Of course, it didn’t happen then. Agonizingly, not Saturday, either. But now, it’s real, as as the intensity and worry of this week go away with time, the memory will be sweet, perhaps sweeter for having been delayed by those extra few days. If the win had been a sweep, the series wouldn’t be looked upon, later, and especially by outsiders, as a classic. Perhaps it’s not, still, but it’s much more than a gimme.

Dan’s not the only one. And now that they’ve done it, the franchise never has to hang its head, never has to make that “maybe someday” gesture that, in truth, nobody ever quite believes, for they are the Kings, they are the kings of the NHL, and they, forever, are part of the club of people who have won the greatest trophy in the history of sports.

Today, the Kings start their reign as champions. What else but good days can lie ahead?

Follow Brian on twitter @growinguphockey if you’d like further updates on what’s going on with the Kings.

And please read his books, one of which, Living the Hockey Dream, has the inside stories of Kings players Vachon, Dionne, and Gretzky, as told to Brian.


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