It happened quite innocently one summer when my buddy Steve and I had grown tired of endless hours of baseball and football. We longed for something different to do, perhaps something a tad rougher around the edges. In my garage we had all the makings of a sportsman’s paradise, what with bats, balls, helmets, gloves and everything one requires for “normal” activities, the choices seemed limitless.
Still, we wanted more.
What to do? Well, we were young and ambitious, so we set about what we thought was the invention of a new game. It was to be a game of skill no doubt, but we wanted the speed and pace of basketball, the grace and strategy of baseball, and the fierce brutality of football. Dragging every piece of the equipment that we had onto the driveway, Steve and I started tossing aside things into two piles: Pile 1, which included basketballs, footballs, cleats and baseball mitts, and Pile 2, featuring the stuff we thought made sense, like a ball, a bat, a football helmet and an old miniature soccer goal.
With this motley assortment of sporting goods laying on the ground in front of us, we looked at each other, and then at the miniature goal, and looked at each other again, this time we were both smiling and definitely on the same page.
Sure, it was a crude version of the sport, as we ran up and down the driveway, bats in hand, shooting baseballs at a tiny soccer goal.
Oh yeah, we were each wearing football helmets.
We were passionate about this new sport, and although we didn’t know the rules or even how the game was really played, we went about it every day that summer with gusto. We attempted to race up and down the drive keeping the ball on the ground close to the bat like we’d seen once in a hockey highlight, and we’d attempt a few passes back and forth before firing the ball into the net. We’d also “check” each other into the garage door just to see how it felt.
It felt great.
That Christmas we both received street hockey sticks and a few street hockey balls and pucks, and before you knew it we were off the driveway and actually skating across the blacktop of our elementary school. The New Year found us adding a street hockey goal to the arsenal and then ultimately the best addition of them all: More friends who were intrigued by the sport. Soon enough we were playing 3-on-3 games without goalies and before too long we had some wild 5-on-5 games and added goalies to the mix. We would play from sun-up until sundown, taking short breaks for food, water and rest.
Needless to say, we were hooked, so it stands to reason that getting some exposure to professional ice hockey was the next logical step.
This brings us to the title of this blog posting and why we are all gathered here today.
Growing up in Southern California was not exactly providing a chance to have that exposure in the hockey hotbed of the world, in fact we would have probably been better off going to watch some beer league games in Siberia rather than going to the Forum to watch the Kings, but that was all we had. Games weren’t televised on a regular basis at that time, so Steve’s dad opted to get some tickets to a handful of games that season (1982-83).
I still get the goosebumps when I think about those first few games that we attended.
It was nothing like I’d ever experienced at a sporting event, and certainly wasn’t what I expected.
Gone were the laid-back crowds I’d come to know at Dodger Stadium and the Big A for baseball games, and instead we were seated amongst these crazy hippies who were loud, fanatical and perhaps a little high. Above all they loved the Kings, and while they may not have completely understood all the nuances of the game, they cheered with enthusiasm, fervor and a kinship that made me appreciate the game and the team all at once.
The team had some stars like Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer, and they had some young bucks like Bernie Nicholls and Larry Murphy, but it was the lunch pail guys – the fellas who did all the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net – that I will forever remember and still appreciate to this day. Brutes like Jay Wells and Dean Kennedy were very much appreciated and respected by all of the fans. During a game against the Red Wings late in the season the Kings’ Terry Ruskowski was tripped by the Wings’ goaltender as he attempted to leave the zone and follow the puck into the Kings’ end. Without hesitation, “Roscoe” dropped his gloves and immediately started upper-cutting the stunned goaltender, ultimately punching the goalie mask off his face.
The Forum crowd went absolutely wild.
As we got older and started high school, Steve and I continued to play street hockey and attending Kings games, taking full advantage of the $5.00 student tickets. The tickets were for the nosebleeds, but with less-than-capacity crowds each night at the arena, we would soon find ourselves sitting close to the glass for some close-up looks at the toothless, but skilled athletes that would take the ice each night.
Meanwhile, the Kings as an organization never aspired to much. Back in the 1980s nearly every team made the post season playoffs, and in one memorable series, the underdog Kings somehow managed to defeat the young and powerful Edmonton Oilers, lead by the one and only Wayne Gretzky.
Gretzky and his mates must have learned a valuable lesson from losing that series, as they went on to win four Stanley Cups in the next five seasons, including a 4-0 series thumping of the Boston Bruins in the 1987-88 Finals.
That following summer the professional hockey landscape was forever altered with the stunning trade of Gretzky to my beloved Kings.
Gretzky was no lunch-pailer. No, he was from another universe. He made passes that made no sense. He scored goals the defied logic. Gretzky even skated differently than anything we’d ever seen before.
Sadly, by the time Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles I was no longer hanging-out with Steve. Years later I’d always wondered what he thought of the Gretzky era, and when I ran into Steve at a party he revealed simply that he no longer liked hockey.
How was that possible?
Regardless, I carried the torch for both of us, and soon my buddy Mike was onboard for the hockey ride, and we suddenly found ourselves season ticket holders for the Los Angeles Kings – or The Wayne Gretzky Show on Ice.
It was a wild ride.
Hockey was suddenly the hot ticket in Los Angeles, and within the first few months of attending games we rubbed elbows with the celebrities who were enjoying a sport for which they had little comprehension, but I couldn’t blame them. We stood in line with Keanu Reeves (“Dude.”), and chatted with ESPN’s Dan Patrick (a journalism hero!).
It was all good, and we enjoyed a wonderful ride on Gretzky’s back all the way to the Cup Finals in 1992-93, ultimately losing to the Montreal Canadiens 4 games to 1.
We figured that run was only the beginning, and that like the Oilers who were bested by the upstart Kings a decade earlier, this version of the Los Angeles Kings was destined for glory. Earmarked for championships.
Well, we’re still waiting.
In 43 seasons the Kings have qualified for the post season only 24 times, and in case you didn’t get this from the above, the team has yet to win a Stanley Cup.
One of the multitude of issues that has plagued the franchise from inception is its inability or unwillingness to build a team. Rather than drafting bluechip prospects and developing them, the Kings have always either traded away coveted picks or nurtured them just long enough to trade them away just before they hit their prime. Even more maddening is the fact that most of these trades featuring the draft picks or young bucks were for aging or way-past-their-prime veterans who were looking for some nice weather and a pick-up hockey game every once in a while before riding off into the sunset.
Oh, there have been other glimmers of hope, but mostly it’s been pain. Only five playoff appearances in the last 15 seasons will do that to a fan.
Gretzky forced his way off the sinking ship that was 1995-96 edition of the Kings, so it made sense that it was the following season when I was allowed to do my Media Relations internship with the team. Great experience, but a truly lousy team. It was cool to be around the players, interviewing them, writing some articles and working game nights, but at the end of the day I walked away a fan. It was difficult to be objective.
I still loved the game and I still loved my awful team.
I watch the games not so much hoping for a win each night, but rather wondering how they will lose.
There is reason to hope. Some optimism is in play.
I’m filled with hope as I watch Kings President and General Manager Dean Lombardi carefully constructing a team that can compete each night on the ice, but also compiling draft picks so that the pipeline is rich with talent. The current team is a very talented one, but also very young, so while they can delight me with stretches of great games – a recent stretch saw them win six out of seven games, at one point scoring 16 goals and only allow three in a four-game stretch – but the bubble quickly burst with the team’s play of late.
A promising eight game homestand has resulted in exactly one win in the first six games.
There are whispers amongst the fanbase that if the Kings don’t turn things around quickly we’re likely to see the dismissal of coach Terry Murray. Murray is a quiet teacher and is the right guy for the job, but as they always say when things are going bad with a team: You can’t fire the players.
What happened to my optimism?
The next coach of the Kings will be its 23rd in team history. The team has retired the numbers of five players.
The Los Angeles Kings have zero championships.
But I still have faith. I continue to watch the games. I still have the passion, but the fervor has been replaced by angst and the enthusiasm with pessimism. Kind of sad. I find myself in bad moods during losing streaks and you’d think by now I’d either be used to it or come to my senses.
But I love my team.
I look back at the summer so many years ago and see that skinny version of myself whacking a baseball towards a soccer goal and see a striking resemblance to something.
It reminds me of the Kings’ power play of late. Awkward.
But not for lack of trying.
“COME ON BOYS! GET IT ON NET!”
I love my team. The Kings of Pain.