Wednesday, June 6, 2012
L.A. and Kings, see attachment
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Bob Miller was 24 when he met the love of his life. It was 1962. He was a young sportscaster at Channel 6 in Milwaukee. She was a hairdresser from a small town in the southern part of the state. A friend set them up on a blind date and he was a goner. He fell hard. A year later they were married.
Ten years later he jumped in again. This time it was a job calling. An NHL franchise in a city way out west that knew about as much about hockey as he did about selling insurance. But Miller said yes to the Los Angeles Kings because this is the kind of job he'd always wanted and at 34 it felt like he'd been waiting a long time already.
After 49 years with his wife, Judy, and 39 years with the Kings, it's safe to conclude Miller is the marrying type. The kind of man who sticks with what makes him happy and finds meaning in the depth of a long relationship.
"I don't like change," he joked. "And I like what I have."
Yes, over the years his eye has wandered a few times. Professionally, of course. Five years into his run as the Kings' play-by-play man, former coach Bob Pulford tried to lure him to the Chicago Blackhawks. It was tempting. He was from Chicago and former Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke could be a bear of an owner to work for ("[Lakers Hall of Fame broadcaster] Chick Hearn once tried to hire an agent," Miller remembered. "And Cooke goes, 'Who is this? Either he can leave or you both can!'"). But the timing on the Blackhawks job didn't work and Miller stayed put for the next 30 years without incident, never really noticing he'd become a legend along the way.
The only other time came shortly after Philip Anschutz bought the team in 1995 and Miller wasn't sure if the new ownership would want to hire their own guy. He put some feelers out on the Phoenix Coyotes gig. It took about five minutes for Tim Leiweke, the Kings new president, to talk some sense into him and convince him he was as much a part of the Kings as the crown on their jerseys.
Other than that, he's been the Kings' man for better or for worse. And like all great broadcasters who stay with one franchise long enough to become a part of its soul, nothing much feels real unless he's on the call.
The love affair
Over the past few weeks, as it became apparent the Kings were on the kind of special playoff run that could finally deliver the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles, much has been written about what it will mean.
Will this become a hockey town? Will Lakers fans jump ship, forsaking Kobe for Kopi? Or will this be another false start? An unsustainable spike in interest like the one Wayne Gretzky created back in the early 1990s?
Bob Miller has been broadcasting Kings games since 1972.
For some reason, these questions always feel relevant at a time like this. The truth is any answer would just be a guess at this point.
Yes, the Kings have captured the hearts of this city with their dominance, success and character. A catchy theme song hasn't hurt, either. But they also lack the kind of megawatt star power than can hold a collective civic interest once the spotlight dims and the bandwagon empties.
So what does it all mean? Only time will tell.
What's knowable now, what actually feels real and tangible even though the Kings are still one win away from their first Cup in 45 years, is who it would mean the most to if they won.
"There were so many times people would say, 'We're never going to see it.' And here we are," Miller said. "My wife, in Game 3, when we scored our third goal and our fourth goal, she just started crying. [Radio play-by-play man] Nick Nickson's wife [Carolyn] sits next to her and they both started crying.
"It's going to be emotional."
Miller's voice breaks as he talks. His lip quivers. It already is emotional.
"I don't really like to do games where I'm not involved in who wins," Miller continued. "I've done a few with ABC and ESPN where you're doing St. Louis and Chicago and you've got nothing invested in the outcome. I don't like that.
"I want to be involved. Yes, you have valleys and peaks, you have wins and losses, but you're involved in it. Being with one team, doing that one team's games, it always meant more to me."
We were speaking at a charity event, not on a broadcast. The only microphone on was my tape recorder. And yet Miller could have been live on the air and speaking, as he always does, both for and to the Kings' legions of loyal fans.
In the end, this is a love story. Of a team and the people who committed to it long ago. They are the marrying type. For better or worse actually means something. Their love is patient and kind. It does not boast. But damned if it isn't proud.
"When people say, 'What are you proud of?'" Miller said. "I'm proud of longevity with one organization. I'm really proud to say 39 years and next year 40 years with the same team.
"To get the Cup would just be the culmination of all of that."
Luc Robitaille isn't ready to feel it just yet. He stayed with the Kings all these years waiting for this moment, but he's also not far enough removed from his Hall of Fame playing career to forget that nothing is over until it's really over.
"It's a hard feeling to describe. If it happens, if we win, I'll probably be able to describe it," said Robitaille, now the Kings president of business operations. "There's still so much work to do, but every once in a while, I'll tell people on our staff, 'Let's sit down for 30 seconds. Let's take a deep breath. Let's enjoy this a minute.'"
Robitaille has won a Stanley Cup before. He left the Kings in the twilight of his career to chase a Cup with the Detroit Red Wings and he won it in 2002.
But winning it here, winning it for the Kings, that would be different. He sees how much goes into it now. The scouting, the player development, the organization, the business end of things. Part of his job is dealing with the team's longest-tenured season-ticket holders, so he feels that pressure, too.
It's made him appreciate it more. It's made him want it for L.A. more, too.
"I've always felt, even though I went to New York and Detroit and I loved those experiences, somehow down deep I always felt like this was my town," Robitaille said.
"I sat down with Tim Leiweke [earlier this year] and said, 'I want to see it through. I feel it's my team. I want to be a part of the team that wins the first Stanley Cup here in L.A. We're close, we've got a ways to go, but you're certainly smelling it now.'"
Watching it grow
As we spoke, Leiweke poked his head in and shook Robitaille's hand. Before Robitaille could say anything, or get much of an answer about an email he'd sent him earlier in the day, Leiweke was hugging the Kings mascot, a giant lion named ''Bailey" after Garnet "Ace" Bailey, the team's scouting director who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
Leiweke's been everywhere this week, practically bursting at the seams.
"This is his baby," Robitaille said. "And he's always treating us like we're his baby."
More On The Kings
To get the latest news and notes on the Los Angeles Kings, check out the team's blog from ESPNLA.com. Blog
The Kings have always held a special place in Leiweke's heart because they were the first team he ran in Los Angeles. Long before he helped get the Staples Center built or ever dreamed of luring David Beckham to L.A., Leiweke was a hockey nut.
The Kings have been both a joy and a torment. Try and tinker as he might, he could never get it quite right.
Despite the frustration, he managed to remain patient. Or at least patient enough to see general manager Dean Lombardi's vision finally come to fruition in this playoff run for the ages.
It might feel like a small point, but to those in the organization who rely on trust and consistency to do their jobs well and take the right risks, it means a lot. They can act, without worrying about the reaction from ownership.
"During Dean's tenure it's been all about draft and development," said Rob Laird, a senior pro scout. "We had good support from our ownership in terms of being able to have some patience on developing young players and then the financial commitment to go out and sign key free agents."
Laird and his colleagues Alyn McCauley and Steve Greeley are responsible for scouting the players the Kings trade for or sign as free agents. Several of the moves they recommended and consulted on have proved pivotal to the Kings' run this season.
But he wasn't interested in taking any bows just yet.
"It's been 18 years here," Laird said. "It's not easy to get to this point. But I have to leave it at that, because the job isn't done right now.
"I wish I could be more elaborate on my feelings, but I've been working really hard on not getting too far ahead. Just watching [coach] Darryl [Sutter] and how he's handled himself, how he's kept the team focused, I think it's rubbed off on everyone in the organization."
Ally Rodman wasn't even born the last time the Kings were this close to the Stanley Cup in 1993. She's just 17, but she's no bandwagon fan, either.
You see three years ago she fell hard for hockey. It was the 2010 Olympic Winter Games that did it. Sidney Crosby was her favorite player, which then made her a Penguins fan and caused her to have a hard time with all the former Philadelphia Flyers -- Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne and Justin Williams -- on the Kings, the team she spends as much time rooting for as a high school junior's schedule will allow.
I found her and her mother at the Kings' practice facility on Tuesday. She's been here dozens of times over the years. Enough to where the players know her by name and tolerate all the nicknames she gives them. (Carter is "Blondie" and Alec Martinez is "Marty.")
She's young, but she's just as true of a fan as any of the die-hards wearing Marcel Dionne jerseys around Staples Center.
"I think I knew I was really into hockey and the Kings when I cried after they lost in the playoffs last year," she said. "That game against the Sharks where they led 4-0 and lost I cried after that one."
Over the past few weeks, thousands more have claimed to find the kind of passion for the Kings that comes naturally to fans like Rodman.
You know, the bandwagon fans.
There is always a level of resentment amongst the die-hards for those who come for the ride and not the journey. Back when Gretzky arrived, old-time Kings fans proudly wore "I was a Kings fan B.G." pins to games at the Forum.
But there's also a pretty remarkable acceptance of the late-comers, as well. Not everyone falls hard.
"It didn't bother me whether they were newcomers or not, just so long as they were there and following the Kings," Miller said.
Miller will call Wednesday's Game 4 and each game after it for a special broadcast that will likely be available only to Kings fans as part of a commemorative edition if the Kings indeed do win the Cup.
It's a small victory. Due to network broadcast rights, Miller and his partner Jim Fox haven't broadcasted the games.
It has been a strange experience.
"It's weird, it really is," Miller said. "I sit there in the press box, make some notes, but we're not preparing for a telecast. We just doing the postgame."
A lesser man might not have handled the situation with as much class.
But that's never been Miller's style. And that's never been what this is about.
In the end, this is a love story. Of a team and the people who fell hard for it long ago. For better or worse.
"Regardless of whether we do it tomorrow or not," Miller said. "There's been so many times when you thought it would never happen. And people would say, 'We're never going to see it.'
"And here we are."