The overlapping eras of LA Kings history


Video from Saturday's ceremony at Staples Center

To see time as progressing in a smooth line from past to present is to buy into the theory of history that is so common in the West. The Western view of history carries with it a sense of inevitability. Since the past pointed us to this present, this must be the one ordained to happen, we often think. We got here for a reason. This makes sense.

By that measure, it's the normal thing for SoCal hockey fans to say what so many are saying about about the LA Kings: They've waited 45 years for "this" to happen. "This," of course, is the moment where the Stanley Cup championship banner is raised. Fans have, for years, believed that if they just hung on faithfully, eventually they'd get their Cup. Now they have it, seemingly paying off this notion of how time works.

Strictly speaking, that's correct, and the moment happened Saturday afternoon with both the braintrust of the team and some of the team's greatest heritage players in attendance. Rings were given out to players. The Cup itself made a final appearance on the LA ice and was passed from player to player. The banner was hooked to a contraption and pulled skyward. The Kings are finally who their fans always believed they were.

But it's not so simple. In fact, other views of history see it not as a chain that binds past to present. Some see cycles in the passage of time, or simply randomness. But anyone who has ever waited for Christmas morning to come knows that sometimes, a day is not simply a day. Time plays tricks, taking longer at times than others, or seeming to.

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Kings players raise their first Stanley Cup banner over Staples Center ice.

Add to that the sense that sometimes comes that there's a wrench in the works, an invisible force that bends events to its own will. So many times, Kings fans have felt that force at work, sensed that they might be close to seeing their team win, and ended up shaking their heads in frustration.

In fact, Kings' history is not a cycle, not a line, and not random. Better to read it like this: as a series of times which succeeded each other chronologically but did not necessarily build on one another. A series of layers that, in fans' memories, lie on top of one another, but that don't add up to one coherent narrative, despite the end product of the Stanley Cup last June and the reality of the banner raising on Saturday.

To give some perspective, especially for readers who are new to hockey or who have it only at the edges of their pop culture radar, see it like this: the LA Kings exist as the product of a series of five groups of roughly nine years. The math isn't exact, but close, and while the latest era gave them the NHL championship, the years before were often the kind that dragged by, like time does on December 24th.

The first set of years was from NHL expansion in 1967, which put a team here, until the first great, recognizable player came on the scene. That era was, by all accounts, a ragtag time with fans who weren't sure how the game worked and players practicing in a facility far away from where they played and where no one recognized them. Slightly blowing the nine-year symmetry mentioned above, this timeframe extended until, say 1971. The Kings, to the rest of the hockey world at the time, barely existed.

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Goalie Jonathan Quick surrounded by media after Saturday's opener.

The second Kings era was the 1970s, when Rogie Vachon arrived to take the team's goaltending duties. Vachon had come into the league with Montreal in 1966-67, and he'd won a Stanley Cup by the end of the next year, his first of two. His time with the Kings was one in which hockey was starting to root itself in SoCal, but still something of a pass time rather than a passion for many.

Rogie played for LA from 1971-78, the perfect representative of the long-haired "me" decade, despite himself being a reserved and dignified gentleman, a role he has carried into his post-career life. This same decade saw Marcel Dionne, one of the greatest scorers ever to play the game, come to the Kings from Detroit. He would be in LA from 1975 until 1987. His time didn't necessarily correspond to a Stanley Cup, or even a finals appearance, but it produced scoring in bunches and a partnerships with notable teammates like Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor.

During the 1970s, the Kings were still the distant cousins in the hockey world, albeit a team which outlived their instate rival California/Oakland Golden Seals and the competition from WHA teams in LA and San Diego as well as San Francisco.

The third Kings era, of course, was the Gretzky time, commencing when he was sold (it's labeled a trade, but see Stephen Brunt's excellent book "Gretzky's Tears" for the truth) to the team in 1988. He was in LA until 1996, with the notable highlight of his career being the team's first trip to the Stanley Cup finals, against Montreal in 1993. Most fans will remember that the Kings won game one of the finals after taking an emotional seven-game series from Toronto to get there. Game two put the wraps on the series, oddly enough, when Marty McSorley was called for an illegal stick and Montreal won the game. They swept the last three of the series also.

The fourth era of Kings history might be labeled the "lost decade." That was from when The Great One left until after the last NHL lockout, when the 2004-05 season was lost. The team wandered from coach to coach during this time, with first taciturn Larry Robinson, then master psychoanalyst Andy Murray, and later mercurial Marc Crawford. No approach worked all that well. The Kings did have a good playoff rivalry with Colorado for a couple of years, but they never made it past round two.

Notable front-office mistakes included picking up Jeremy Roenick coming out of the last lockout and various trades and signings at the trade deadine. Only the die-hards will remember names like Cliff Ronning, but the pattern was there--grab someone, anyone, to make it look like you're trying. The results were minimal, and by this point, fans who tried to make sense of this as a history must have been pretty confused. As was mentioned at the outset here, nothing was adding up. Linearity? More like a stack of bricks, ends askew, threatening to topple.

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Kings coach Darryl Sutter meets the media after Saturday's loss. And below too.

And that leads us to era five, the present, which isn't nine years long but began when Dean Lombardi was hired as GM in 2006 and continues. Or, if you want, ended with the Kings winning the Stanley Cup in June. This era has two simple principles: that the hockey guys make the hockey decisions, and that those decisions will be based on good drafting of young players and sensible signing of long-term veterans.

The biggest threat to this pattern was a couple of summers ago when the team got into the biding for Ilya Kovalchuk, who eventually ended up in New Jersey. For a couple of weeks back then, it looked like the team was going to lose its head, sign a big deal, and have to hope against hope that the experiment worked. If it didn't then the good old Kings would be back--a hodgepodge of hung heads at the shame of yet another desperate attempt to win now rather than building a winner over time.

They didn't get the guy, obviously, and that was probably the best thing that could have resulted. Instead, they built on their core by adding a couple of players who had made their names with Philadelphia, Simon Gagne and Mike Richards. They supplemented those by trading for another ex-Flyers star, Jeff Carter.

Now here they are. They're the Stanley Cup champs. The world is theirs. The only question is, what happens now? Does the era continue, or does a new one start?

Everyone on the team seems to be singing the same song, saying that they're going to build on last year's championship. In the language I'm using here, that means that they see this era of Kings' history as ongoing, rather than viewing the championship as the end of an era and this new season as the start of another.

The trouble is, that Stanley Cup was last year, and this is a new time. In fact, the Kings seem to recognize this also. As players and coaches said all last week in training camp, nothing that happened in the past matters. They have to look ahead. They must focus on repeating. That sounds contradictory to what's just above, but in a measure, it's not, because if it's true that time moves from era to era, it is also observably true that eras overlap. There's never, really, any such thing as starting over.

sutter-thinking.jpgOf course, the contracts of Lombardi and the folksy, no-BS hockey guy he hired as coach (Darryl Sutter) were extended last week. Even that proves tangible evidence that the Kings do not embark on a new chapter with the opening of the 2013 season. They're still the same people--literally, actually, as they've returned their whole roster but one, a feat unheard of in modern professional sports. So it appears that this era will move seamlessly from present to future.

Not so fast. The Kings may be champs, but that didn't stop them from going down 3-0 in period one on Saturday in their home opener. They squeaked back just one goal in the second while Chicago scored one more. The Kings got one more in third. By the end of the game Saturday, they had given the Chicago Blackhawks another goal to end up at 5-2.

It was probably not representative of what the team can do, or how they will do this year. An unfortunate 5-on-3 power play in period one started things off wrong, and a goal that went in off a defenseman's skate didn't help. The coach, in a surly mood after, turned back all questions, essentially saying that nothing went right but that he couldn't point out any particular thing that went wrong.

History does sometimes repeat itself, but saying that doesn't guarantee that good history will repeat. What needs to happen, and those in management have already said this, is that the Kings must leave their prior era, the one that ended just before the puck dropped Saturday, behind. They've won the Cup. That's the past, no matter how happy Kings' fans are or how significant the win was. A new day starts now. It might feature the same bunch of players, the same Coach, GM, and executive office, but it's not 2012 any more.

The same old coach needs to come up with some new ideas. The same old players need to sharpen up and get their timing figured out, fast, since the schedule is short at 48 games this year. And the same old fans, faithful as they might be, need to put their memories of the 16-4 playoff run behind them, along with the ring ceremony and the final skating of the Cup that happened Saturday.

Everyone in Kingsland needs to turn to a new page in the binder. It might help that the new time is not altogether unfamiliar or different from the old. But expecting what happened in 2012 to have any real bearing on what's going to happen this year is to assume an unbroken line of history that just doesn't exist.

Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey. I promise few tweets, but good ones.

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Brian Kennedy, perhaps the only Ph.D covering hockey in Los Angeles, teaches English at Pasadena City College and is the author of several books on hockey culture. His latest is "My Country is Hockey: How Hockey Explains Canadian Culture, History, Politics, Heroes, French-English Rivalry and Who We Are As Canadians."

LA Observed photos. Video: George Foulsham


More by Brian Kennedy:
The overlapping eras of LA Kings history
The power of firsthand narrative: Outsourcing the NHL finals
Samson, Icarus and the L.A. Kings
A cultural critic attends the NHL playoffs
Be kind to your hockey-loving colleagues this week
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