Monday, June 18, 2012

The Winters or Our Discontent

The Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup. My heart pounds in my
chest. Tears fill my eyes. I hug perfect strangers. I order
commemorative apparel. I am a man who has just been freed from the
sporting equivalent of Death Row after more than four decades.

The bitter taste is washed away with a quaff of champagne. Well,

Amid the celebration, I couldn’t help but recall that I followed this
often ragtag crew for 45 years of frustration, fury, depression and

Hopes were raised, only to be dashed. Star players would emerge, only
to be traded or surrounded by mediocrity.

I can state without hesitation that the Kings for the first 20 years
or so of their existence was the worst managed professional sports
team I had ever seen.

Even more, a dark cloud seemed to hang over the franchise.
Owners came and went. One group went bankrupt. One went to prison.
Two of their top scouts died aboard a plane that crashed into the
World Trade Center on 9/11.

The Kings erected a statue of Wayne Gretzky, “the Great One,” in
front of Staples Center even though he failed to lead the team to a
championship. With the Kings, close was good enough.

The ultimate insult? A team called the Ducks in Anaheim won the
Stanley Cup in 2007, after 14 years of existence.

Was there a curse? Was the Fabulous Forum or Staples Center built on
the site of an Indian burial ground? But no. Other tenants of those
buildings won.

Perhaps it was some insidious brainwashing plot concocted by Canadian scientists to hook us on their national sport and force us to spend big bucks. Maybe. I'm just saying....

Governments seized power and were then overthrown. Wars were fought,
won and lost. Markets rose and fell. Children were born, grew to
adulthood, then middle age.

The Kings stumbled on. No matter. We waited until next year.

And now, next year has come. Old, gray and stooped, I watch in
disbelief as they win the Cup. Not just win it but do it by crushing
the opposition. They are the champions, my friend.

I feel the same way I did when I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the
moon: I’m not sure how they did it and I never thought I would see
the day.

What a curious journey it’s been. I didn’t grow up with hockey, didn't lace up the old skates every winter.

Indeed, I was only vaguely aware of it. Living in Southern
California, the only ice I ever saw was in a glass.

But while I was still in high school, somebody slipped me a couple of
tickets to a game featuring the L.A. Blades, a minor league team that
played in the Sports Arena. Five minutes into the game, I was hooked.

It was fast, it was physical and, best of all, when a player scored,
he and his teammates would raise their sticks in the air in
jubilation. Such displays were frowned upon in most sports back in
those days.

In short order, I learned the rules, the players’ names and the words
to the Canadian National Anthem.

And now came the Kings. I would finally get to see the legendary
teams I had only read about: The Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal
Canadiens, the Boston Bruins, the Detroit Red Wings, the Chicago
Black Hawks, the New York Rangers.

Like many who went to the Kings games in the early days we came to
see those storied visitors. But in their first year, the Kings
surprised us. They made the playoffs. They did it again in their
second year.

Then the bottom fell out, thanks in part to owner Jack Kent Cooke’s
insistence that they trade draft picks for washed-up veterans that he
remembered growing up in Canada.

The league general managers fleeced Cooke like pickpockets in a
crowd. From 1968 to 1978, the Kings had one first-round pick in the
amateur draft. And he was traded.

In 1969, a year I had purchased season tickets, they won 14 games and
lost 52.

Attendance was abysmal. Someone asked Cooke one time why he decided
to open a franchise in Los Angeles. He remarked that some 200,000
Canadians lived in the area. Remarked one grizzled sports writer,
“Yeah, and they all moved here because they hated hockey.”

From 1994 to 1999 they made the playoffs once. From 2002 to 2009,
they missed the playoffs entirely.

In one brief, shining moment, they advanced to the Stanley Cup finals
in the spring of 1993 led by Gretzky. But Montreal swatted them away
after one of our boys was found using an illegal stick. It was so Los
Angeles Kings.

The current ownership, after being asleep at the wheel for the first
few years, finally woke up. They hired a really good general manager
who made some really good draft picks and trades.

They hired a good coach. Then they fired him in mid-season and got an ever better one.

And now, after 45 years of pain, hockey immortality.

That eternal optimist, Dale Carnegie, once said, “Most of the
important things in the world have been accomplished by people who
have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” Don’t
we just know it.

Go Kings Go.

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