Friday, August 10, 2012

The Altar of Brad Smyth: My 5 Most Painful Moments as a Los Angeles Kings' Fan

One assist in 15 games.  $60 for this card.
During the spring, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings blasted through their competition, winning 16 of 20 games to win the 2012 Stanley Cup and tying for second-best playoff winning percentage ever.

It happened so quickly
with a series of strokes and bounces electrifying a bullet train of success.

Two months later, and I still can't believe it. 

So instead of focusing on that triumphant blur—it's still much too fast—I'm going to process the franchise's ultimate victory through the pain that the organization had bequeathed its followers over the last 45 years.  Before June 11, 2012.

These are my five most painful moments as a Los Angeles Kings fan.

I was seven when Wayne Gretzky came to LA in 1988, so I can't speak honestly about the terrible things that transpired before. i

But all true Kings
fans will have festering scars that they've nursed, from five to 45 years.

What are your five?

Well, that didn't work out.
October 14, 2006

A new regime swept through the Los Angeles Kings organization during the spring of 2006.

Gone was Dave Taylor, general manager since 1997, who had given almost 30 years to the Kings as team captain, player and front office executive.  Sacked weeks before was Andy Murray, who had coached the Kings to three consecutive playoff appearances to usher in the decade.  And further receding from sight were the stars of that era, Luc, Felix "the Cat," Ziggy, Deader and Allison, felled by injuries or age.

Dean Lombardi took over as GM that spring.  After hiring one-time Stanley Cup champion Marc Crawford as head coach, Lombardi's first trade was dealing his star player, 31-year-old Pavol Demitra, who had signed a three-year deal with Taylor only a season ago, to the Minnesota Wild for a first-round draft pick and Patrick O'Sullivan, a hotshot sniper who had yet to play an NHL contest.  Trading old for young was a sign of things to come.

Going into the 2006 season, however, the Kings looked like a team without a clear direction.

The roster reeked with a platter of past-their-prime veterans, including Aaron Miller, Mattias Norstrom, Rob Blake, Derek Armstrong, Scott Thornton and Craig Conroy—even 40-year-old goalie Sean Burke would get 20 starts.

Except for Lubomir Visnovsky, the players in their supposed prime were either castoffs (Mike Weaver, Mathieu Garon, Brian Willsie, Tom Kostopoulos) or already sharply declining (Oleg Tverdovsky, Brent Sopel, Dan Cloutier, Alyn McCauley).  Talented youngsters like Sean Avery, Michael Cammalleri, Alexander Frolov, O'Sullivan, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown were simply not ready to lead a team.

Lombardi's master plan was to go young, but it was going to be a laborious process.

That October, the Los Angeles Kings debuted the season's marketing slogan: "Play Hard!"  A once-again rebuilding franchise, which had missed the playoffs for three straight years, could apparently offer no more than that to their long-suffering fans.

And the fans weren't buying.  By October 14, only four home games into the new season and on a Saturday game no less, I was being offered unsolicited tickets for free on MySpace.  From an official Kings' ticket representative and not a registered sex offender.

That night, after falling behind 4-0 to the Dallas Stars late in the second period, a half-empty Staples Center (myself included) started chanting, "Let's play har-der!  Let's play har-der!"

The next day, The Los Angeles Times made sure to note:

The Los Angeles Kings had hit a nadir.

One of my favorite cards, a perfect pairing.
June 13, 2002

After the 2001 season, "Lucky" Luc Robitaille was optimistic about the future of his Los Angeles Kings.

Still a premier sniper at 35 years old, the left winger had scored 112 goals in the previous three seasons, the seventh-highest total in the league during that period.  And the Kings had just come off their best season since making the Finals in 1993, upsetting the heavily-favored Detroit Red Wings in the first round and then pushing the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche to a seventh game before bowing out.

"Lucky" was also arguably the most beloved player in franchise history, rising from the 171st player selected in the 1984 NHL Draft to being the only King to ever win the fan-voted Most Popular Player award in three different decades.

For his efforts, the Kings rewarded Luc with a one-year offer and a 29 percent pay cut.  Miffed, he immediately inked a two-year deal with the squad that the Kings had just eliminated, the Red Wings—for a 29 percent annual pay raise.

During the 2002 playoffs, the Kings were once again dispatched by the Colorado Avalanche, this time in the first round.  Then Luc, the guy who loved the LA Kings so much iii—he'd come back to them again in 2003, would retire in 2006 as the Kings' all-time leading goal-scorer after wearing their crown, chevy and shield logos and would eventually become the team's president of business operations—won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings.

I was hating the Kings.  I was cheering for the Dead Things.  I was rooting for Luc. 

What do 7-11 and Jamie Storr have in common?
They're both open 24 hours! 
April 27, 1998

He was a prince forced to wear the full weight of the crown.

It was a surprise when Jamie Storr was picked seventh overall in the 1994 NHL Draft.  But the surprise was that he wasn't drafted higher.  In fact, the Los Angeles Kings were so shocked that he dropped to them, they didn't even have a jersey prepared with Storr's nameplate, per the custom with higher draft choices. 

"It's the old clich√©—we couldn't believe the player we wanted was available,” said new Kings GM Sam McMaster, who had rated Storr the second-best prospect in the entire draft.

Nevertheless, only three goalies had been drafted higher in the 25-year history of the modern NHL draft. iv  Tom Barrasso, the last goalkeeper drafted ahead of Storr, went fifth to the Buffalo Sabres in 1983, skipped the minors and had achieved the unprecedented feat of winning both the Calder and Vezina as an 18-year-old rookie.

The Kings were a franchise in rapid decay when they drafted "The Storr-keeper" on June 28, 1994.  A month earlier, their free-spending owner, Bruce McNall, had sold the team because of financial troubles (by December, he had pleaded guilty to defrauding several banks of $236 million).  Within a year-and-a-half of drafting Storr, the Kings traded their only marquee player, Wayne Gretzky, who wanted to be dealt to a more competitive team.  By the end of the 1997 season, average attendance had fallen more than 20 percent over two years.

The Kings desperately needed a savior, so naturally, all eyes turned to the young prince.

Like Barrasso, Storr played in the NHL right after his draft year.  However, the Kings limited his exposure, playing him only five games each season from 1994 to 1997, banking that the extra time in a less-advanced league would help him mature.

By April 1998, the franchise was the healthiest that it had been in years, with stable ownership and ground just being broken on a state-of-the-art arena for the Kings in downtown Los Angeles.

The Kings were also entering the playoffs for the first time in five years, facing the St. Louis Blues.  LA was led by the season's Norris Trophy winner, Rob Blake, and a cast of relative unknowns, including starting goaltender Stephane Fiset.  Storr was finally up full-time with the Kings as Fiset's backup and had played well enough to be named top goalie of the NHL's All-Rookie Team.

The Kings were routed in Game 1, 7-3, and coach Larry Robinson made a bold decision: Give the starting reins to the 22-year-old.  In Game 2, Storr played well but lost 2-1.

After two losses in St. Louis, the Kings looked forward to returning to Los Angeles.  Buoyed by Storr's strong play, they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in Game 3 and with just 11 minutes left, looked well on their way to winning their first playoff game in five seasons.  The Forum crowd was shouting, “Ja-mie! Ja-mie! Ja-mie!”  The Kings were on the way back up, led by their soon-to-be franchise star.  The new arena would be rocking for the next decade with chants of “Ja-mie!”

Then St. Louis' Geoff Courtnall elbowed Storr's head into the crossbar.  Sean O'Donnell jumped Courtnall and got a five-minute major penalty, while the offender got away with essentially nothing.  Storr played on.  The Blues scored four goals during their five-minute power play and won "The Meltdown on Manchester," 4-3. 

After the game, Storr was diagnosed with a concussion, and the Kings were swept out of the playoffs in the next game with Fiset in net.

Whether the outcome of "The Meltdown" adversely affected Storr in the years to come, we'll never know.  But we do know in the last days of the Forum, in that moment when the cries of “Ja-mie!” reverberated loudest, that all Kings’ fans were teased once again with the hope of being a winner.

Storr would never assert himself as the Kings' starter, showing as many flashes of brilliance as he had lapses of concentration over the next five seasons.  A decade after taking over the city of Los Angeles with just 11 minutes left and on the cusp of leading the resurgent Kings into their new palace, Jamie Storr was 33 years old, wrapping up his professional career in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Note the team name.
February 28, 1996

That was Wayne Gretzky's declaration after the home opener, months before he was traded to a better team.

The Los Angeles Kings had just defeated the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche as Gretzky notched two assists in front of a sold-out Forum, which included the Kings' brand-new owners, Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski, Jr.

Kings' rookie head coach Larry Robinson, coming off a Stanley Cup as a New Jersey Devils assistant and a summer of fervent bidding for his services, proceeded to lead the Kings to a surprising 10-5-5 start.

Other rookies headed the charge.  Vitali Yachmenev was off to a blazing start, his 10 goals good enough to lead all first-years.  Rosy-faced defenseman Aki Berg, the third pick of the most recent draft, was playing important minutes.  Goaltenders Byron Dafoe and Jamie Storr combined to form one of the league's strongest tandems through mid-November.

Not to be outdone by the rooks, the 34-year-old Gretzky was second in the league in scoring, with 34 points.  Veteran forwards Rick Tocchet and Dmitri Khristich appeared to be revitalized.

All this with No. 1 defenseman Rob Blake out for the season with a knee injury.

The Kings won only eight of their next 44 games, their "not bad" defense v giving up 45 more goals than they scored (in comparison, they had 13 more goals scored than given up during their 10-5-5 start).  Yachmenev cooled off with just six goals during this 8-26-10 freefall.  Tocchet was traded for the unproductive Kevin Stevens, who would be arrested in an Illinois motel room with a hooker and a crack pipe four years later.

Gretzky also slowed, averaging a point a game in his last 44 games with the Kings, down from his nearly two-points a game autumn pace.

On February 28, 1996, the Kings traded him to the St. Louis Blues for magic beans.

With Wayne Gretzky, no matter what point of the game, I believed in "You never know." vi

Sure, that myth of the “Great” Gretzky was mostly fed by his accomplishments in another uniform. Yes, he was noticeably slower and weaker than contemporary star centermen like Sergei Fedorov and Eric Lindros. 

But conjuring a hat trick in Game 7 against Toronto wasn't that long ago.  Winning the regular-season scoring title and taking the league's all-time goal-scoring crown the very next year had happened.

Gretzky was, from the first time I saw that silver, black and white uniform as a seven-year-old, a magician who "captured my imagination."

Without him, the Kings were ordinary.

I still loved the Kings just as much, if not more, even as past-their-prime stars like Stevens, Neal Broten, Ray Ferraro, Eddie Olczyk, Russ Courtnall and Petr Klima clocked their last NHL checks and can't-miss or they'll-probably-miss-but-what-else-have-we-got prospects like Berg, Storr, Pavel Rosa, Jeff Shevalier, Donald MacLean and Olli Jokinen missed like the Challenger.

I’ve worshipped at the altar of Brad Smyth.

And I had already experienced the end of sports eras as a ten-year-old in 1991 when “Wally World” re-located, and “Magic” was sentenced to death.  Four years later, the Raiders escaped to Oakland.

But this was the first time that the once magical-team from the strange ice sport, which had somehow become my favorite in a land of sun, became completely mortal. vii

Unfortunately, for many hockey fans,
this sums up this underrated pugilist's playing career 
June 3, 1993

The Los Angeles Kings have won the Stanley Cup.  The LA Kings are the 2012 Stanley Cup Champions.  @LAKings #Champs

The pain, now a forgotten badge.

At Glenwood Pines Restaurant in Ithaca, New York.
Kings' Captain Dustin Brown brought the Cup here
for his Day with the Cup. 

All cards from author's personal collection.

i Some of these lowlights that I’ve learned—Trading Butch Goring to the Islanders and seeing him win four Stanley Cups with them; losing Billy Smith to the Isles in the ’72 Expansion Draft; trading Marcel Dionne to the Rangers after he implored management to improve the team; every goaltender not named Rogie Vachon (and for one year, Mario Lessard); one first round pick from 1969-1979; picking Doug Smith over Ron Francis; drafting Craig Redmond, Craig Duncanson, and Dan Gratton; running into the Bruins in the ‘70s and the Oilers in the ‘80s; Charlie Simmer shattering his leg in 1981; trading Larry Murphy; the Pat Quinn affair; never advancing past the second round of the playoffs; being a pit stop for retirees like Steve Shutt and Rick Martin

ii A franchise theme: flagship players Robitaille, Gretzky, and Dionne all wanted management to make moves, and were subsequently let go.

iii Even after Kings President Tim Leiweke said this after letting Luc go in 2001: "I don't think, ultimately, that we were going to spend that kind of money on a guy that was that old. Now, could the communications have been better? Sure..."

iv From 1969-94, these were all the goalies drafted in the first round.

1994 #7 Los Angeles Kings Jamie Storr, #16 Toronto Maple Leafs Eric Fichaud, #21 Boston Bruins Evgeni Ryabchikov
1993 #10 Quebec Nordiques Jocelyn Thibault
1990 #11 Calgary Flames Trevor Kidd, #20 New Jersey Devils Martin Brodeur
1989 #19 Washington Capitals Olaf Kolzig
1988 #21 Calgary Flames Jason Muzzatti
1987 #8 Chicago Blackhawks Jimmy Waite
1983 #5 Buffalo Sabres Tom Barrasso
1981 #8 Edmonton Oilers Grant Fuhr
1975 #13 Pittsburgh Penguins Gord Laxton, #17 Buffalo Sabres Bob Sauve
1973 #5 St. Louis Blues John Davidson, #11 Detroit Red Wings Terry Richardson
1972 #6 Montreal Canadiens Michel Larocque
1970 #5 Montreal Canadiens Ray Martyniuk
1969 #10 Detroit Red Wings Jim Rutherford

Notice gaps between 1975-81, 1983-87, and 1990-93. There are a lot of “busts” on this list, and of course, only 9 goalies were drafted in the top 10 in those 25 years. It has become more in vogue to draft goalies in the first round, and from 1993-2005, 12 were picked in the top 10 (Thibault, Storr, Roberto Luongo, Brian Finley, Rick DiPietro, Brent Krahn, Pascal LeClaire, Dan Blackburn, Kari Lehtonen, Marc-Andre Fleury, Al Montoya, Carey Price). Interestingly, since Price in 2005, no goalies have been drafted in the top 10 (Bernier and Campbell were both picked 11th). We also see a disproportionate number of busts among the top 10 goalies from 1993-2005 with Luongo achieving a borderline HOF career, Thibault winning over 200 games as an above-average starter, Fleury, Lehtonen, and Price still starting, and the other goalies busting out for a variety of reasons.

v This priceless item about noted defensive slacker, Denis Tsygurov, appeared in the LA Times at the beginning of the Kings’ freefall:

“Tsygurov figured himself for a scapegoat.

‘Coach think I bad player, maybe,’ he said. ‘It's 2-0 and it is players' fault and jump on me. The fall guy. They are looking for names.’ “

vi Since Gretzky, Kobe Bryant has been the only Angeleno athlete with this quality.

vii Two days before Wednesday’s official announcement, a telling ad appeared in the LA Times:

“For the discerning hockey fans of Southern California, the Wolfgang Puckheads who savored vintage Gretzky and could tell a very fine year (1993) from a very lean one (1996), future shock came in the form of a 6-inch-by-10-inch newspaper ad that appeared in Monday's editions.

The ad, purchased and planted by the Kings, urged readers to ‘Get in on the Kings 6-Game Stretch Drive Ticket Plan’ and, by way of incentive, featured photos of four important King players.

Dimitri Khristich (‘Kings Leading Goal Scorer’).

Vitali Yachmenev (‘Among NHL Rookie Scoring Leaders’). 

Yanic Perreault (‘High-Scoring Center’).

Kevin Stevens (‘1 of 2 all-time 50 goal/200 penalty minute players’).

Stretch Drive Ticket Plan--that's one way to look at it.”

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