It’s almost inconceivable where hockey has come in LA in a few months. Last season’s Stanley Cup win has changed attitudes, a shift which has perhaps set in all the more with the long wait for the league to resume its activities.
So it was that, Monday night, the LA Kings held a live, open practice. This was not at their normal practice facility out by the airport. This was downtown, in prime time, at Staples Center, capacity for hockey: 18,118. And speaking of prime time, it was televised, and will be again Tuesday in repeat.
The place was by no means full, and, in truth, the action on the ice was tame and not terribly exciting, but it’s the very fact that they would do it, and that several thousand fans, most dressed in team logo wear, would show up for it on a weeknight, that’s remarkable, a sign that nothing will be the same here ever again, at least as far as hockey is concerned.
Several notable tidbits took place in a forty-minute session which supplemented the team’s regular practice held earlier in the day at their normal facility. First, newcomer Anthony Stewart, fresh from Carolina, was in the house. After, I leaned in while he was talking with Dennis Bernstein of The Fourth Period, then I got a question or two of my own in. More in a moment on Stewart.
Second, new arena announcer Dave Joseph got to test his pipes, at least a couple of times, as he called the team onto the ice. His voice will now be the one leading Kings’ fans through games. Beloved long-timer David Courtney died unexpectedly a month or so ago.
Third, the practice ended with a breakaway session which curtailed any doubt about Jonathan Quick’s ability to flash from post to post in a full splits, if that’s what his bad disk was preventing him from doing comfortably. That’s the longwinded way of saying relax—it looks like 32 is back on the job full-strength. At the other end, Bernier represented himself well too, with a few well-timed poke checks keeping the shooters honest.
After the game, putting the best spin on what was, I expect, his first reality TV show, Coach Sutter pointed to some positives after the session. “Hopefully coming here tonight, that does help a little bit” to alleviate the excitement that might distract the team Saturday. The Kings open at noon against Chicago and will get their rings and raise their championship banner before the game. “It’s awesome for them to do that Saturday, right, to raise the banner and get their rings, all that stuff is awesome, but it’s tough for it not to be a distraction, especially with the early start,” Sutter explained.
He then said something which surprised me: “Put yourselves in their shoes. That’s all you have to do. They’re people. They’re not machines.”
“By coming here tonight, it’s not controlling their emotions [Saturday], it’s playing with some.”
He further pointed out that the team never gets to practice at Staples. He said it’s good for the team to be there. “Fresh ice, for the first time,” was how he put it. He didn’t mean a well-groomed sheet, but the chance, I think, to see the arena once before what might be a bit of an overwhelming moment Saturday.
He added, “Plus, the last time they were in the locker room, it was a different situation right, than it was today. So it was good for them to get back in that mode again.”
His biggest concern this year? “Guys who haven’t played. Just like every other team. You could see it tonight, just their timing. Getting the reps in, but you have to be careful. You have a 23-man roster, and we’re already down two guys (Mitchell and Kopitar). That’s my biggest concern.”
The team has signed everyone who played last year in the Finals, but the gap that the Kings’ best center and solid d-man leave will be one of the intriguing questions of the early campaign.
To help remedy the lineup shuffles that will be needed and, perhaps to show that they’re not sitting still and waiting for the rest of the league to come to them, the Kings got Anthony Stewart from Carolina this weekend. In him, the Kings have a guy who was a first-round pick in 2003. His most complete season in the NHL was with Atlanta in 2010-11, when he scored 39 points on fourteen goals in eighty games. With Carolina last year, he got into 77 games and had 9-11-20 points. His role will be to compete for ice time with Nolan, Clifford, and King, “guys who play wing and bring you that size,” in Sutter’s words. “They all can’t play, and hopefully they’ll understand that clearly, too.”
Stewart spent the lockout playing in England, a league which he describes by saying, “It’s surprisingly pretty good hockey. I did it just to stay in shape. I had a good summer in the gym and just had to keep up the, couldn’t afford the luxury to just sit around for two months. Good experience, good life experience, and I’m just glad to be back.”
Speaking to IH, he said, “I’ve got to find my role, and hopefully I’ll find it quickly and contribute however I can.” He doesn’t expect to play the first game, necessarily, but he says he’s happy to get in when he can. “You have to approach training camp as competition. Come Saturday, you’ve got to be ready,” he said. Should his play impress Sutter to the point where he does play Saturday, he would be the only player on the ice not getting a ring. Awkward, that.
He feels like the Kings are a different team than they might have been had they not won the Cup. The difference is confidence. “They handle the puck well. It’s a different feeling when you expect to win. The team here is not just expected to make the playoffs, but to go far. Nothing less than the Stanley Cup is a failure. That intensity and expectation rubs off on everyone else.” That’s all the right stuff to say. Now he has to prove he has a place with these guys, for the first time, a Kings’ team coming back as winners, not also-rans.