There are three NHL teams in California. Yes, I know the thought is pretty weird, but then again, so is the state of California, or at least that's how the reputation goes. Amidst the hockey hoopla in the Golden State, it's easy for the Los Angeles Kings to be forgotten. They're at a pretty distinct disadvantage, after all: They're one of two teams in southern California, where they share their metro area with the Anaheim Ducks, and the state is also home to the San Jose Sharks, one of the most popular and visible teams in the NHL and a constant contender. When the Kings were created, no one knew hockey existed in California, and the Kings were forced to co-habilitate with other teams: The post-dynasty Dodgers of Tommy Lasorda, the NFL's Rams, and the NBA's mighty Lakers. It must have been a true nightmare for the NHL when the 80's came and the Lakers went Showtime, the Dodgers won the World Series twice, and the Oakland Raiders arrived in Los Angeles with a Super Bowl victory and Bo Jackson.
Yep, it's easy to forget about the Kings and ask yourself, really, who the hell are the Los Angeles Kings? Just be sure not to ask within earshot of an NHL fan, lest you be promptly whapped upside the head and reminded: They're the goddamn Stanley Cup Champions, you idiot!
Los Angeles and hockey have actually been married for decades: The Pacific Coast Hockey League had the Los Angeles Monarchs of the 1930's and the Western Hockey League had the Los Angeles Blades in the 60's. That second league there, the WHL, created a lot of stir and fears in the senior NHL that the WHL was going to declare itself a major hockey league so it could be eligible to compete for the Stanley Cup. The NHL's solution was to expand in the hopes of nullifying the threat. In Los Angeles, there lived a Canadian expatriate and entrepreneur by the name of Jack Kent Cooke. Cooke was an astute observer, and among his various observations was that he wasn't the only Canadian expat living in southern California. Nor was he the only hockey fan expat living there. In fact, southern California was rife with expats from all over the place, including hockey-mad places like Canada and the northeastern United States. Natural fanbase, you know, people who probably missed being able to watch their sport of choice. Why not give them a new team to root for?
For the entry fee of $2 million, Cooke got a new team for Los Angeles in the 1967 expansion. He decided to call his team the Kings, and he assigned them the colors of purple and gold. The purple was later officially referred to as "forum blue," but it doesn't change the fact that those colors were assigned because they were traditional colors of royalty. And also because Cooke kind of, you know, owned the Lakers at the time. He originally meant for the Kings to play in Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, but the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission already had an agreement with the Blades. The pissed-off Cooke responded by saying "I am going to build my own arena… I've had enough of this balderdash." Harsh words from a Canadian!
The new arena wasn't completed by opening day, so the Kings played their first two months at Long Beach Arena. For the first few seasons, the coolest sport on Earth was introduced to the Los Angeles area through players with lovable nicknames: Bill "Cowboy" Flett, Eddie "The Jet" Joyal, Eddie "The Entertainer" Shack, and Real "Frenchy" Lemieux, the nicknames of whom were all Cooke's idea. In a nice debut run, the Kings finished second in the Western Division, just missing the winning Philadelphia Flyers by one point. The Kings were the only expansion team that posted a winning record at home, but that didn't stop them from getting wiped out in the playoffs at the hands of follow expansionists the Minnesota North Stars. It took seven games. The Kings followed it up with another good season, but eventually poor management started rearing its ugly head and the Kings ran into hard times. See, the team's general managers set upon a bad habit which they used as a keystone building philosophy for many years: Trade a first-round draft pick for a veteran NHL star who is past his prime! Since the Kings started doing that - the aforementioned hard times, you know - attendance also started to suffer. Cooke eventually mused that he finally knew why so many people from cold weather climates were moving to California: They hated hockey!
In 1972, the Kings actually made a couple of trades that worked out for them: First, the Montreal Canadiens had a goalie named Rogie Vachon. His career had started in 1967 as a backup there, but quickly established himself as The Man as he won the Vezina and two Stanley Cups. By 1972, though, he had managed to lose his starting job to some guy named Ken Dryden. Maybe you've heard of him. Since Vachon was now expendable, he demanded a trade and was sent to the Kings, where he became The Man once again and slammed shut a revolving goalie door. The second Bob Pulford, taken from the Toronto Maple Leafs, first as a player, than as a coach. With them, the Kings still missed the playoffs, for the first couple of years anyway. But under Vachon and Pulford, their rickety defense turned into one of the best in the league, and they were back in the playoffs by 1974. Pulford went to lead the Kings through three of the greatest seasons in team history, including a 105-pointer in 1975 that is still the Kings' best. They weren't able to capitalize on that success, though.
In 1975, sick of first round playoff exits, the Kings traded for one of their defining players: Marcel Dionne, who had already established himself as a superstar with the Detroit Red Wings. And now the Kings were his boys when he took them to a record of 38-33-9 for 85 points and second place in their division. In the playoffs, they swept the Atlanta Flames in the first round, but the Boston Bruins beat them in the second. They returned to the playoffs the next season, sweeping the Flames AGAIN but losing to Boston AGAIN. In 1979, two unknown players were placed on Dionne's line: Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer. Taylor was in just his second year, while Simmer spent his career so far in the minors. But them and Dionne, together, created one of the highest-producing lines in history. And since this line was so good, hockey people deemed them worthy of a cool nickname that must accompany all great hockey lines. In this case, that nickname was the Triple Crown Line! In 1981, the whole line was selected to play in the All-Star Game. They also won 43 games, but were upset in the first round again by the New York Rangers.
1982 saw the Kings fall into 17th place in the league. The league had 21 teams at the time, so that's ordinarily wouldn't be a good standing. Since the NHL is the NHL and playoff spots are determined by whichever team can drink a slushy without getting a headache, though, the Kings were in the playoffs! The first round matched them up against the Edmonton Oilers, a rising team gathering a lot of talent that would enable them to dominate the 80's like few others before. Edmonton was equipped well back then, though it wasn't quite their time yet. The steams set the stage for a series which was one of the most amazing ever played. While no one gave the Kings a chance in hell, they managed to take the first game in Edmonton 10-8, which is still the highest-scoring Stanley Cup Playoff game in history. The Oilers recovered from that shock to win the second game, but it took overtime. With a series split in the first two games, the teams went to Los Angeles. The Kings went down quickly and easily, or at least that was the thought upon the conclusion of the first two periods, after which Edmonton was up 5-0 and no one would have blamed the Kings for phoning in the third period. What happened instead was that Los Angeles mounted an incredible all-out assault on the Oilers in the third period which saw them return from the dead, pick up all the momentum, and fucking tie the damn game with five second left to go! After just two and a half minutes of overtime, the Kings' Daryl Evans fired a slap shot right off a face-off which went over the shoulder of Edmonton goalie Grant Fuhr, and the Kings won the game! It was dubbed the Miracle on Manchester. Edmonton didn't recover from that nasty little jolt, and they bowed to the lowly Kings in just five games that year. The Kings didn't make it past the second round, though; they were fittingly booted by the Vancouver Canucks, who were almost as bad as the Kings but ended up in the Finals anyway.
The Kings were in middling purgatory by the mid-80's. They started missing the playoffs more. Vachon moved in as general manager in 1984. Dionne was traded to the Rangers in 1987. Of course, newer players were replacing them, and the youngsters coming in included Bernie Nicholls, Jimmy Carson, Luc Robitaille, and Steve Duchesne. Although these kids held their own, coach Pat Quinn decided to just up and quit for no reason. Well, okay, there was a reason: He signed up to be the coach and general manager of the Canucks. And with time left on his Kings contract too! NHL President John Ziegler considered that classless, tactless, and many other kinds of -less, so he suspended Quinn for the rest of the season and barred him from taking control in Vancouver until June. He also banned Quinn from coaching anywhere else in the league until the 1991 season. The Kings actually kept making the playoffs, but hey, you know, it's the NHL so that means precisely shit. Even if the Kings were better, the conferences were laid out so the Kings' road to the Finals took them through the great Oilers dynasty of the 80's, the almost-as-powerful Calgary Flames who became the one team to break the Oilers' dynasty, or worst of all, both.
In their frequent playoff series against the Oilers, the Kings would watch Edmonton's guys with awe. In particular, there was this one guy named Wayne Gretzky who was so dominant that he owned one of those cute little nicknames worthy of Cooke's years: "The Great One." They'd sit, they'd stare on in hopeless admiration as Gretzky killed them time after time, like he did every other team in the NHL. Then in the late 80's, the small-market Oilers began having cash problems, and they felt the need to reduce payroll. The Kings' owner at the time, Bruce McNall, must have been a great Gretzky admirer from afar, because once The Great One was on the market, I like to imagine the conversation between McNall and the Kings' GM involved the GM screaming "DID YOU HEAR WAYNE GRETZKY IS AVAILABLE?!" Then McNall presumably screamed back, "YOU BET YOUR ASS I DID! GET HIM TO LOS ANGELES YESTERDAY! OR ELSE!" I can't specify what the "or else" was in this essay - even though I made that entire exchange up just now - because it never needed to come about. The GM swept in and nabbed The Great One!
Los Angeles was suddenly a contender! Gretzky, as he is wont to do, led the team in scoring and picked up the Hart Trophy in the process for the ninth time in his career. The Kings finished second in their division that year with a record of 42-31-7 for 91 points, which made them fourth overall in the league. In the first round of the 1989 playoffs, the Kings faced Gretzky's old team, the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers ran up a 3-1 series lead, though, but Los Angeles managed to rally and expel Edmonton. While this may look like a case of The Great One being able to flip off his former team, Los Angeles lost to Calgary in the second round. Sure, the Kings could contend with Gretzky, but what Los Angeles had erased from their minds was that while Gretzky was the shining star of the Oilers dynasty, he was surrounded by a treasure trove of some of the greatest talent to ever grace the NHL. The Oilers turned out to have one more Stanley Cup in them, which came in 1990 after that hiccup in 1989 where the Flames won it. The Kings won their only division title in 1991 but struggled in the playoffs. They took a first round matchup against Vancouver in six but lost in the second round to their good old buddies, the Oilers. Hell, the Oilers wiped out Gretzky's Kings in the playoffs in three straight years.
By 1993, the Kings were flying with Gretzky, former Oilers dynasty Jari Kurri, Tony Granato, Rob Blake, Alexi Zhitnik, and Kelly Hrudey. They suffered a difficult stretch through the middle of the season, but by the playoffs, they were flying again as Barry Melrose coached the shit out of them! In the first round, the Kings scored an incredible 33 goals against the Flames. In the second round, they punded Vancouver, who had beaten Los Angeles five times out of seven during the regular season. The Western Conference Finals between Los Angeles and Toronto that year were classic. In the fifth game, Toronto won in overtime. In game six, the Leafs scored two third period goals to tie the game at the end of regulation. In game seven, Gretzky scored a hat trick and whacked Doug Gilmour in the face with his stick. The Kings won, and in the first Stanley Cup Finals they ever played, the faced mighty Montreal. The Kings did manage to steal the first game from a well-rested Habs team, but the second game, when Montreal coach Jacques Demers suspected Los Angeles enforcer Marty McSorley had an illegal stick, and so he requested a measurement. Demers was right - McSorley's stick had too much of a curve, McSorley was penalized, and Montreal pulled their goalie for a two-man advantage which they used to score and tie the game. Montreal won in overtime and went on to win the following three games for the Stanley Cup.
That was pretty much the crowning achievment for the Kings. Although Gretzky continued to score very prolifically while flanked by Robitaille, Blake, and Kurri, te Kings started slumping. While the Kings had created real excitement about hockey in southern California, their owner defauled on a loan, and Bank of America threatened to bankrupt his ass if he didn't sell. IDB Communications founder Jeffrey Sudikoff and Madison Square Garden president Joseph Cohen bought the team, but man, were they ever in for a shock: McNall's free spending put them in trouble. The new owners couldn't make payroll, and the team went bankrupt anyway. They were forced into a lot of trades, and so a talented roster started looking like Gretzky, McSorley, Blake, Kurri, and I'm sure after them the Kings would have paid any of the spectators to lace 'em up if they thought they could get away with it. Meanwhile, Gretzky was in search of his fifth Stanley Cup, and he started making a demand that the Kings find a 50-goal forward and an offensive defenseman. Or a trade, whichever they could afford. In 1996, they were able to afford the trade and sent him to the St. Louis Blues.
A second place finish in their division in 1998 was nice, but the Kings were effectively dead after that. Three straight playoff appearances from 2000 to 2002 were more of a reprieve than anything else. A rash of new veteran star signings like Valeri Bure, Jeremy Roenick, and Pavol Demitra weren't working out. Luc Robitaille, who had spent previous years lately bouncing between teams, returned but retired soon after. The Kings were now officially rebuilding, but with smart people running the front office, they started drafting and rebuilding very effectively. They found Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. They traded for Ryan Smyth. They signed Simon Gagne. The 2012 season saw them opening by firing their coach, Terry Murray, and putting John Stevens in as interim for four games until Darryl Sutter was named for the position. They managed to make the eighth seed in the playoffs, with a 40-27-15 record. In the playoffs, they beat the first-seeded Canucks in five games. Then they crushed the Blues in four, and in the Western Conference Finals, they beat the Phoenix Coyotes in five. They became the second eighth seed to ever make it to the Finals. And in disposing of the New Jersey Devils in six games, the Kings became the first eighth seed in any American sport to ever win the Finals.
Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Luc Robitaille, Rogie Vachon, and Wayne Gretzky have all had their numbers retired. Gretzky, of course, I usually don't mention because his number was retired everywhere in the league, but he was legitimately a King, and he played for them in his prime, put up some serious numbers, and got them to the Finals. He's very important to their history. Other great Kings have included Paul Coffey, Bob Pulford, Larry Robinson, Terry Sawchuk, and Grant Fuhr. Taylor and Dionne, of course, helped make up the Triple Crown Line, a line that gave a lot of fans a lot of great Kings-related memories.
The Los Angeles Kings once had fierce playoff rivalries with the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, but those aren't quite as strong as they used to be. Their biggest rivalry may be with the Vancouver Canucks, but I really don't get the feeling that Kings fans really throw themselves into rivalries.
The Kings have quite a few defining moments in their career. It's rare that they come out right on the top of anything, so that one division title they won in their history is a pretty big deal. So is that Finals appearance in 1993. So are any number of playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers, including the Miracle on Manchester. And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention last season's Stanley Cup, the first the 45-year-old team ever won.
The Kings were trailblazers in hockey by being the first team to succeed in California. In 1967, two California teams were created: The Kings and the Oakland Seals. The Seals went through a series of name changes, though, which couldn't have meant anything good about their stability, and around a decade later, they moved to become the Cleveland Barons. The Seals stayed in Cleveland for two years, stinking up the NHL until their owner, in a last effort to keep the team from falling out of existence, merged with the Minnesota North Stars (today's Dallas Stars). The Kings lasted, and in fact excelled, and they found a large group of core supporters who can't help but be wild about their beloved Kings right now. As much as Detroit has the Red Wings, Buffalo has the Sabres, and Montreal has the Canadiens, the Kings truly belong in Los Angeles, and now they even have a Stanley Cup which lets them hang out with the cool kids, the Dodgers and Lakers.
The Kings changed their colors to silver and black in the early 90's. I've heard the theory they did it because of the Los Angeles Raiders, who wore the same colors. Maybe that was helping them get attention, but I'd like to think Wayne Gretzky and a winning team did more in that respect. Once the old purple and gold era closed, the Kings never really found a consistent symbol, and I guess the silver and black was brought back just because those were the team's only colors in the eyes of younger fans. It's odd that an attempt to piggyback off the colors of another, more popular team in a whole other sport created the team's defining color scheme, but apparently it happened.
Eighth seeds don't win anything. If they do, it's a fluke. Perhaps, though, the Los Angeles Kings' run last year was just an early, well-timed tap into their true potential. They're currently 12-7-2, in second place in the Pacific Division, so if you're looking for a team to get on board with, now may be the best time in the history of the Kings. You can't argue with a King, after all, and historically these Kings have much to be proud of. They're the kinds of Kings who would lead in the thick of battle, whether that battle is making an inroad for an unheard-of sport or winning the Stanley Cup.