Los Angeles Kings

It seems ludicrous that with everything the Los Angeles Kings have going for them, they only managed to break through in 2012. They play in the second-largest market in the NHL, a place where no one risks freezing to death in the middle of the season. They’ve had some of the marquee names of the league (Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille) and some of its most impressive underrated players (Marcel Dionne). They were owned by Jack Kent Cooke, arguably the greatest sports owner of all time – he owned the Los Angeles Lakers during a period when they went to seven Finals (winning in 1972) and Washington’s football team during all three of its Super Bowl victories.

Oh yeah, Cooke was originally from Canada, so he had this predisposed inclination toward hockey. While Cooke owned the Lakers, he applied to a good, long-term NBA lease as well as the right to sign a lease for a hockey team should he ever acquire one. Well, during the 60’s, a league called the Western Hockey League was starting to rumble about turning itself into a major league to compete with the NHL, so the NHL decided it was time to add a few more teams. Cooke paid the league a $2 million entry fee, and his pitch made it through five other potential ownership groups. He also said he would build an arena which was exclusive to his team. So he got the expansion. Wanting his new prize to give off a sense of royalty, he picked the name Kings after a fan contest, and picked purple and gold as the colors. Hey, they worked for the Lakers.

The Kings played in two different home arenas during their inaugural season. They started in Long Beach Arena because the Forum wasn’t finished, you know, getting built yet. They beat their fellow expansionists, the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2. The Forum’s first game was also against the Flyers, and the Kings won again, 2-0. The first season was fairly eventful. The Kings had players like Bill “Cowboy” Flett, Eddie “The Entertainer” Shack, Eddie “The Jet” Joyal, and Real “Frenchy” Lemieux. The nicknames were the masterworks of Cooke himself. While the Kings finished in second, they were still the only expansion team with a winning record. Not that it helped them in the playoffs – the Minnesota North Stars mopped the floor with them right in the first round.

The Kings slipped during their second season, falling into fourth and capturing the final playoff berth. They did manage to beat the Oakland Seals, but any momentum that could have been taken from that was rubbed out by the St. Louis Blues. That quick decline was a fair sign of what the Kings started to go through: Management started managing them right into the ground. The team got into that never-good habit of trading away its first round Draft picks for old stars playing out the line. That hindered the Kings for years, which in turn destroyed their attendance, which caused Cooke to scream that Canadians were all moving to Los Angeles because they hated hockey. (Seriously, he said that.) The Kings spent a couple of years operating a revolving door on the ice before the Montreal Canadiens stepped in with the answer… Well, they didn’t exactly step in per se, but they had a goaltender named Rogie Vachon. Vachon was pretty great. But in 1972, he found himself getting displaced by Ken Dryden, a goaltender who was even better. So the Kings traded for him. Then they traded with the Toronto Maple Leafs for Bob Pulford, who led them first as a player, then as a coach. He got the Kings playing a disciplined brand of hockey which turned their defense from one of the league’s worst into one of its best.

They Kings started making the playoffs again, but they got caught in first round hell. Their defense was good, but they needed an offense. Who should have offense but Detroit Red Wings superstar Marcel Dionne! And guess who the Kings acquired (via trade, naturally) in 1975? With Dionne and Butch Goring (is there a cooler hockey name than that?), the Kings started off on one of their most exciting seasons to date. Making the playoffs in 1976, the Kings started by making short work of the Atlanta Flames. In the next round, they played against the Boston Bruins, one of the toughest and most skilled teams of the decade. After losing the first game 4-0, Vachon kept the second game close before Goring put the Bruins away in overtime. Game three saw a 6-4 Kings victory. Boston grabbed the momentum by the ‘nads in the next two games, though, outscoring Los Angeles 10-1. Los Angeles hosted game six, and the fans were so proud of the team by then that they stood up and gave the Kings a five-minute round of applause before the game started. The Bruins took a 3-1 lead into the last five minutes, but Mike Corrigan scored two to tie the game, the tying goal coming as he lay on his stomach swiping at the puck, having been tripped by Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers. Goring clinched the game in overtime. Boston then controlled the final game from start to finish, shutting out the Kings 3-0.

Nothing ever came of that promise, though, and the era was officially closed after 1978, when Vachon left to play for Detroit. By 1979, the team had resorted to constantly shuffling line rotations, and you know what that means: Marcel Dionne was placed with untested talent! Fortunately, that happened to work in Dionne’s favor, with Dave Taylor having a knack for playmaking and Charlie Simmer playing a hard style along the boards. The three of them turned out to be a natural combination, setting a pace during games and becoming known as the Triple Crown Line. The Triple Crown Line gave defenses nightmares and turned into one of the highest-scoring lines in league history. In the 1980 and 1981 seasons, the line turned goalis into swiss cheese, with Dionne, Taylor, and Simmer collectively totalling 328 and 352 points respectively. Although 1981 saw them have an impressive regular season, the Kings were quickly wiped out of the playoffs by the New York Islanders dynasty that was running roughshod all over the league.

In 1982 the Kings fell into 17th overall. But since this is the NHL and teams can make the playoffs by entering the right two-number combination, the Kings entered the playoffs. That pit them against the rising Edmonton Oilers and their transcendent young star, Wayne Gretzky. Although they weren’t yet the power they would become in just a few more years, the Oilers were plenty good and the whole series was looking like a gimme for them. But the Kings shocked the world by winning the first game. What’s more is that they did it by a score of 10-8, which made it the highest-scoring playoff game ever. The Oilers won game two in overtime, and that set everything up for a game which has become a league classic and is known in Kings lore as the Miracle on Manchester. (Named because the Kings arena was on Manchester Boulevard.) Gretzky dominated the game through the first two periods, and after the Oilers were up 5-0 when the third period started. But the Kings staged an incredible comeback – they put up four unanswered goals of their own. Then Steve Bozek scored the equalizer with only five seconds left in the game. At 2:35 into overtime, Daryl Evans fired a slapper off a face-off that went screaming over the right shoulder of Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, and the Kings had the lead in the series. Now, the Oilers had spent that season compiling 111 points while the Kings posted all of 63, but the Miracle on Manchester took everything out of them. So the Kings stole the momentum and won the series in five games. That momentum didn’t carry over into the next round, though, as they lost to the Vancouver Canucks.

Everyone knows what happened to those two teams: The Oilers wrote off that series on their way to winning five Stanley Cups in seven years and establishing themselves as the greatest dynasty in hockey history. The Kings, however, went in the other direction. They missed the playoffs the next two years, got in after the 1985 season and were promptly killed by the Oilers, and decided longtime beacon Marcel Dionne was long in the tooth by 1987 and traded him to the New York Rangers. But by that time, the Kings had another core of hot, new youngsters to make up for his loss: Bernie Nicholls, Jimmy Carson, Luc Robitaille, and Steve Duchesne had all joined the team by then. Even though their coach, Pat Quinn, pulled a shady move when he signed a new contract in Vancouver with months to go left on his Kings contract – and was subsequently suspended for the rest of the season – the Kings looked primed to rule at some time during the upcoming decade. Then, in the 1989 season, the Kings made their biggest move ever.

Remember those Edmonton Oilers? And that young star they had, Wayne Gretzky? Well, by the 1988 offseason, Gretzky and the Oilers couldn’t be called rising stars anymore. They were a full-fledged powerhouse, maybe the greatest team the NHL had ever seen. Gretzky had won the Hart Trophy (MVP) for the last decade and the Oilers were now a four-time Stanley Cup Champion. Gretzky was a national treasure in Canada. Edmonton, though, was a small market, and it couldn’t afford to hold on to Gretzky. So during the 1988 offseason, the Kings and Oilers made The Trade. Notice the caps there – that’s how much this sucker rocked the hockey world. At first the Oilers went gunning for a Gretzky-for-Robitaille exchange, but the Kings GM was somehow able to talk the Oilers into downgrading the trade, giving up Carson instead. I hope the Kings gave him a hell of a bonus for being able to do that. But such was the power that The Great One wielded that he was able to create a caveat: His teammates Marty McSorely and Mike Krushelnyski join him. Everyone agreed, Carson was shipped to Edmonton, Gretzky to Los Angeles, and all was well. Well, there was the whole thing about Gretzky being branded a traitor, but even had Gretzky stayed for the following season, it was inevitable that he go out the door as a free agent anyway. Money. And the Oilers decided to preempt his loss by trading him so they could get something in return rather than just let him walk for free.

The Great One was an instant star in Los Angeles. On October 15, 1989, he became the league’s all-time leading scorer, tying Gordie Howe on an assist to a Bernie Nicholls goal and then breaking the record with a goal that tied the game. That goal forced overtime, where it was Gretzky again who scored the goal that won the game. Gretzky led the Kings to some great years – in 1991, they won their first divisional title ever. But that didn’t translate to playoff success; they lost in the second round to Gretzky’s former team, the Oilers, who had moved on to win one more Stanley Cup without him and were now busy trying to defend it. In fact, Edmonton seemed to pop up periodically to torment Los Angeles, and despite The Great One still being pretty great – he even won his last Hart with Los Angeles in 1989 – he wasn’t able to bring the Kings over the top. The height of what the Kings accomplished with Gretzky happened in the 1993 season, when a herniated thoracic disc caused him to miss the first 39 games. Robitaille took over leading the time during that time, and the Kings started 20-8-3. When Gretzky returned, he posted 65 points in 45 games, but it was Robitaille who led the team that year. The team went 39-35-10 for 88 points, good for third place in their division. But when the playoffs began, their offense appeared with a vengeance. It scored 33 goals to destroy the Calgary Flames in six games. Then it eliminated a great Canucks team that hadn’t lost to the Kings at all during the regular season. Then in a classic Conference Final, the Kings beat the Leafs in seven games – game six saw an overtime which Gretzky won with a goal assisted by Robitaille, and the seventh game saw Gretzky post a hat trick. Their great playoff run was stopped by the Canadiens, though, who beat them in five games to win the Stanley Cup.

In 1994, Gretzky took over sole possession of the NHL record for all-time points leader. What a shame the team had a terrible November and December which, despite Gretzky, Robitaille, Jari Kurri, and Rob lake, they didn’t recover. In fact, they finished in fifth place, with 66 points, behind their newly-formed freeway rivals, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The San Jose Sharks going to the second round of the playoffs didn’t exactly make the Kings look particularly royal, either. Since the Kings were doing the whole free-spending thing back then, creditors showed up to bite them in the ass. And the owner was convicted for conspiracy and fraud, having gotten some $236 million in fake loans. That meant it was time to strip the team. Robitaille was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. A pair of key defensemen, Alexei Zhitnik and Charlie Huddy, were traded to the Sabres. Seeing the chaos the Kings turned into, Gretzky himself finally clued the Kings in on the fact that it was time to rebuild when he told them he wanted out; he was traded to the St. Louis Blues.

The Kings were finally strengthened again by the late 90’s. Blake even became the only player on the team to ever win the Norris Trophy, for best defenseman. What came next was a set of those years where a team is a safe pick to contend, but never quite good enough to go the distance. In 2001, Blake was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, where he returned to haunt the Kings in the playoffs on his way to a long-deserved Stanley Cup. The start of the 2001-02 season began with a true tragedy – two team scouts were killed on 9/11. Over the next few years, though, the Kings started to pick up players who would become key cogs: Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, and most important, team president and general manager Dean Lombardi.

Lombardi’s work had the Kings back in the playoffs by 2009, posting a 101-point season. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the true payoff happened. Now, the Kings actually didn’t turn in a wonderful performance during the regular season. Despite posting 95 points with a 40-27-15 record, they were still seeded in the last spot and scheduled to be pummelled by the Canucks, who had won the Presidents’ Trophy. Well, the Kings had a 3-0 series lead before the Canucks finally won one, and the series only ran for five games. Then they swept the Blues. That set them off to only their second Conference Final ever… And the Kings made a little bit of history along the way because they had become the first eighth seed to knock off the first two seeds in the playoffs. In any case, the Cinderella Arizona Coyotes were waiting for the Kings, and the Kings put them down in five. Oh, and the Coyotes had been the third seed, so that became a historic footnote as well. In a somewhat anticlimatic Final, the Kings beat the New Jersey Devils in six games. Their Stanley Cup was the second ever won by a California team. The first was won by the Kings’ freeway nemesis, the (recently re-christened) Anaheim Ducks in 2007.

The next couple of years were the golden era for the Kings. They returned to the Conference Final in 2013 only to be put down quickly by the Chicago Blackhawks. In 2014, after picking up Marian Gaborik, the Kings became the first team in the NHL to host a regular season game in a warm weather city when they played against the Ducks at Dodger Stadium. They also returned to the Conference Final to play against the Blackhawks again. Jumping out to a 3-1 series lead, the Kings blew their chances to close in games five and six, and for a minute it looked like the dynastic Blackhawks were going to escape. But the Kings weren’t able to close the series out in games four and five, and so a game seven showdown – in other words, the kind of game the Blackhawks at the time didn’t usually lose – was set. After regulation ended with a 4-4 tie, Alec Martinez scored the game winner for Los Angeles, and once again, the Kings had made history in a playoff run. This time, they became the first team to ever win three game sevens on opposing ice. The Final saw a renewing of the age-old New York City-Los Angeles rivalry when the Kings met the New York Rangers. But a legendary contest in the mold of the Yankees and Dodgers, this would not be. Despite the services of such players as Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash, and all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers were heavy underdogs. The Kings jumped out to a 3-0 series lead without breaking too much of a sweat. While the Rangers were able to save face in game four, the Kings were able to wrap up their second Stanley Cup in just five games.

Unfortunately, the glory from two Cups in three years didn’t last very long. The Kings lost their opening game the following season against the Sharks, getting blown out 4-0. That was followed by an overtime loss against the Coyotes. The Kings did recover and ultimately go 40-27-15, but they missed the playoffs. They’ve been having difficulty climbing their way out of that slump ever since.

Rob Blake, Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Luc Robitaille, Rogie Vachon, and Wayne Gretzky have all had their numbers retired by the Kings. That doesn’t look like a lot at first – hell, Gretzky’s number was retired league-wide. But that’s a pretty good list. Robitaille was a marquee name in his day. An eight-time All-Star and the highest-scoring left wing in league history, Robitaille posted 1394 points in a career in which he played three stints for the Kings, totalling a collective 14 years. The other teams he played for were the Penguins, Rangers, and Red Wings, and he played for those three teams for a collective total of five years. It’s ironic that, despite everything he did for the Kings, it took a quick two-year stint in Detroit for him to finally win the Stanley Cup. (2002, with those powerful Red Wings teams.) Dionne may be the most underrated center to ever play that position. Dionne is sixth on the all-time list for overall points, with 1771. The fact that he posted those 1771 points in just 1348 makes him sixth in points per game as well. He’s fifth in goals (731) and 10th in assists (1040). The big name on the list, though, is Gretzky. Although he did have his number retired across the league, he also spent a considerable bulk of his career with the Kings. He was in Los Angeles for eight years, and although his accomplishments in Edmonton overshadow everything else he ever did in his career, he did some pretty big things in Los Angeles too. He won his last Hart Trophy in 1989 with the Kings. Three of his ten Art Ross Trophies (points leader) were also awarded to him in Los Angeles. And he contributed a lot to the 1993 team that got to the Final.

The trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Kings caused a seismic shift in fan interest. When Gretzky was traded, there were 16 teams in the NHL – a little over half of the 31 teams that exist today. And the Kings were the only team in the league that existed anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and even that’s strictly on a technicality; no one considers Los Angeles a southern city. Along with the Vancouver Canucks, they were one of only two teams on the west coast, and they were the only team on the AMERICAN west coast. Gretzky’s trade made the Kings an immediate marquee team, and fan interest spiked to such an extent that the league began a period of rapid expansion which ran from about 1991 to 2000. (And the recent introduction of the Vegas Golden Knights argues that it’s still going on right now.) The NHL took the team’s sudden burst of popularity as a sign that now people in the south would be interested in their sport. What followed was an ambitious plan of expansion which has seen a few unexpected successes (the Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks, and Tampa Bay Lightning) but is by and large considered a disaster. The league doubled down on the expansion by moving long-established northern teams to places in the United States: The Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes; the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche; the Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars, to name a few of the egregious offenders.

The Kings were the first NHL team in the southwest, and they were the only team there for decades. So when the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks were created, it only makes sense that the rivalry that would develop between the three of them stands out. All three teams have had their moments. The Ducks became the first of the three to win the Stanley Cup, which happened in 2007. The Sharks are the only one that hasn’t won the Cup, but they’ve been very good very consistently, and have fielded stars like Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. The Kings hosted the first outdoor game in the state, with their rivals from Orange County going up to Los Angeles for a visit.

That about sums up the Los Angeles Kings. If you’re a California person who likes their hockey with longevity, you won’t go wrong with these guys.

Pros

Easily identifiable uniform schematics; have won the Stanley Cup more often than any other California team; have the most longevity of the California teams; Wayne Gretzky played for them

Cons

Can be blamed for the NHL’s obsession with southern expansion; uniform schematics ripped off the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders; Ducks beat them to the Stanley Cup

Should you be a fan?

The Kings offer pretty much everything a team not from the Original Six has to offer a hockey fan. Even the Ducks can’t lord their Stanley Cup from 2007 over them anymore.

 

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