Kings finally reach summit on road to respectability

A summary of LA Kings rise from obscurity to the Stanley Cup.

I couldn’t help but wax nostalgic as time wound down in the last game of the Stanley Cup final on Monday.

Hockey Night in Canada announcer Jim Hughson started rattling off names of past Kings, stars who were floating on the outer edge of the hockey universe in California.

Growing up in Ontario, I rarely watched the Kings, unless they were playing in Montreal or Toronto.  But there’s certainly a few Kings’ names, local and beyond, that are in my memory bank.

I knew they had some good players and some names stuck out like Swede Juha Widing who was playing in the NHL in 1970 long before even Hall of Famers like Bjore Salming became household names.

I don’t know what it was about him, perhaps it was his long hair, the fact that he was Swedish or just the matter that only L.A. would have a player with a name that people could barely pronounce. In those days it was an oddity to have an American player on teams in Chicago or Boston so leave it to L.A. to take it further.

The Kings were more the goofy sidekick of the NHL in those days, much like their California Golden Seals counterpart. They provided good entertainment, had colourful uniforms and had the odd good game against Montreal.

Rogie Vachon was a star in goal, Butch Goring was making a name for himself before catapulting to the top when he joined the New York Islanders.

They had a bunch of older defencemen, all stars in my father’s day but aging stars during my time period, and a few good young French Canadian skaters highlighted by the likes of Marcel Dionne and, later, Luke Robitaille.

But Los Angeles was never taken seriously in those days and they struggled for respectability even in the Wonder Years with Wayne Gretzky.

Sure Gretzky’s arrival changed the hockey landscape in California  and he scored a lot of points, but who didn’t in L.A? Bernie Nichols was a 70-goal guy and Dionne teamed up with Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor to score at will.

Despite everything Gretzky brought to California all of the L.A. Kings highlights were more like flashes than extended bright moments.

When Gretzky finally led his team to the top it was a stupid illegal stick call on Marty McSorley that undid all the great stuff Gretzky did in that memorable playoff run.

It wasn’t quite Bill Buckner and the Boston Red Sox, but one moment overshadowed the team’s biggest accomplishment.

The Kings were known as the team that came back with five-goal third period in the “Miracle on Manchester,” against the Edmonton Oilers in 1982. Castlegar’s Steve Bozek scoring the tying goal with five second to play.

But how they did after that is anyone’s guess. Actually they lost to Vancouver in the next round.

There’s more local connections to the Kings.

They had the hockey world buzzing in 2001 when Fruitvale’s Adam Deadmarsh scored to tie the game and then scored again in overtime to lead the Kings to a first-round upset of the mighty Detroit Red Wings. Again that momentum came to a halt against Deadmarsh’s old team, the Colorado Avalanche in the next round.

One of my first stories as a professional reporter came during an interview with Castlegar’s Gord Walker. He was playing for the Kings during the time of the Gretzky trade and he was one of the odd men out when the trade brought three new faces to the L.A. lineup.

So there you have the Kings’ highlights summed up pretty quickly. Needless to say, it’s been a long road to respectability for the franchise.

As one of the original post-Original Six teams, I have a sentimental attachment to them just as much as another generation does for the Original Six.

But teams from that expansion such as St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Minnesota were always considered hockey markets, just not the teams in California though.

So hearing Hughson rattling off those long-forgotten names took me back to the beginning. How back then, the rare televised games in L.A. always had the prerequisite shot of the beach, bikinis and palm trees.

Not anymore. Now a picture of the Stanley Cup will also belong in those shots.

The sidekick has now become the star. Only in Hollywood.

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