Kings owe Cup run to tight group
LOS ANGELES -- For 43 springs, they watched other players pick up the Stanley Cup and weep with joy and share the moment with their families and teammates and know that their names would be inscribed on the trophy for all time.
Since arriving in the NHL with the first wave of expansion in 1967-68, the Los Angeles Kings and their fans watched others call themselves champions and wondered when, or even if, it would be their turn.
Their turn came Monday night at Staples Center.
It came in a most unexpected, emphatic way with a 6-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, great spirals of black and silver streamers floating down onto the ice as the Kings swarmed over netminder and playoff MVP Jonathan Quick in a corner of the rink not far from his net.
Moments later, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handed over the gleaming trophy to captain Dustin Brown, and the ritual that most of these players had only watched others embrace began as Brown handed it to veteran Willie Mitchell and so on, each player in turn holding the trophy aloft, thousands of Kings fans cheering their every turn.
"They always say sport is a microcosm for life, that's the way life goes," forward Dustin Penner said. "You see it with every team, they go through slumps. It's such a mental grind. There's a point where we could have quit. We could have said, maybe next year, but we don't have those types of people in our organization, in our locker room, and our fans deserve and expect so much more."
You looked around the ice, crowded with babies and friends and parents and scouts and even workers from Staples Center, their names stitched on their shirts, and you understand that a team is really a tapestry, so many threads joined together.
For a long time this season, the Kings looked more like moth-eaten Sunday suit forgotten in the back of a closet than championship cloak material. Head coach Terry Murray was fired midseason and replaced by GM Dean Lombardi's old pal, Darryl Sutter.
Sutter was in the barn at his farm outside Red Deer, Alberta, when Lombardi called. And though he had never won a Cup as a player, Sutter helped forge a winning mentality that saw the Kings march through the playoffs with a 16-4 record.
"These guys, you know what, since March 1 they've lost about six games. They've taken a lot of public negativity toward them. Look what they've just done. It's pretty awesome. Tells you what type of players they are," Sutter said.
Some, like Penner, redefined themselves.
A Cup winner in Anaheim in 2007, Penner struggled in Edmonton and then in Los Angeles, after the Kings acquired him.
"I appreciate it more. I know what it took. After I won it, I knew how hard it would be to get back after the years I spent in Edmonton. I have a better understanding of what it takes and what it really means for a person's career," Penner said.
Then he suggested as a two-time Cup winner he might lobby for more time with the Cup this summer.
"I hope I get it for more this time. I figured that I've won it twice now, maybe I should get it for maybe 36 hours. I got more stuff to do with it," he said with his trademark missing-tooth smile.
Another two-time Cup winner, Justin Williams, was standing against the far boards, 4-year-old son Jackson perched on his shoulders. Earlier, 1-year-old Jade got a quick seat in the Cup.
"Words can't really describe how much jubilation and excitement you have right now," said Williams, who won a Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes. "My family grew since I won it in 2006. It feels extra special when you get to win it with a lot more people."
"Even though we had some tough times, we stuck with it and kept pushing," Stoll said of the Kings. "We made the playoffs; we knew we could do some damage, we knew we had the group in the room. Maybe we were the only ones to believe that but, hey, it doesn't matter."
Not far away, defenseman Rob Scuderi stood calmly fielding questions.
"I'm pretty much like this all the time. Maybe I'm calm and collected but it's the hardest trophy to win and, to get to do it again, I'm incredibly fortunate," he said.
It was Scuderi who found himself at the center of the play that turned Game 6 on its ear when he was rammed from behind by Devils forward Steve Bernier midway through the first period. Bernier was assessed a major for boarding and a game misconduct, and on the ensuing five-minute power play the Kings scored three times en route to the 6-1 victory.
Scuderi, his lip and nose still bearing the stitches that were required to close the gashes from the hit, said he hasn't watched a replay of the hit and didn't seem all that interested in doing so.
Who could blame him?
This was Scuderi's second Cup win, having won in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the Penguins couldn't fit him in under their salary cap, he weighed his offers as a free agent and decided the West Coast would be a good place for him and his family.
"It's not like you can ever predict it but certainly you try to put yourself in the right situation. I thought this was a great chance and I'm certainly not going to take credit for foreseeing it, but it's great to be a part of," he said.
Although there was much talk about the future of the newly crowned champions and their ability to ice a Cup contender to follow up this seminal win, there was for some the understanding that this moment might well be the way they will end their careers.
Surrounded by his family on Monday night, Gagne acknowledged his first championship might be his last after 12 often injury-plagued seasons.
"As a hockey player, you always dream to play in the National Hockey League and after that I think every guy here played in their mind or in the street when they were younger, winning the Stanley Cup," Gagne said. "But to me, after 12 years, winning that Cup I don't know how many years I got left. It means so much to finally get one."
Illustrating the high regard in which he is held, Gagne was given the Cup third after Brown and Mitchell. He nearly dropped it.
"I got caught by surprise but I think it was my skate. I'm going to work on that later on tonight. I'll get a second chance at it," he said with a laugh.
Stevens, the head coach in Philadelphia when the Flyers advanced to the 2008 Eastern Conference finals, made sure he got a photo with Carter, Richards and their new best friend, Stanley.
"Having them here and winning hockey's ultimate prize, I know it's really special and dear to my heart and that'll be a special one and a keeper for sure," Stevens said. "Winning is special, I don't care where it happens. I've won in the American league a few times and it's really special, but to win the ultimate prize is what we all strive for and we all know how hard it is. We found out."
After being noticeably absent for much of the on-ice celebration, GM Dean Lombardi eventually made his way onto the ice. Among the first players he embraced was Jordan Nolan, a seventh-round pick and one of a few young players who had a significant impact on this Kings team throughout the playoffs. Nearby, the Kings' scouting staff was likewise celebrating with their families. Those were the connections that made an impression on Lombardi in the midst of all of the euphoria.
"I'm as happy for those scouts that are sitting right there; that on draft day everybody's getting tired in the seventh round and here they are paying attention, will pluck a kid like [Nolan]. Him and Dwight King. They were huge in getting our fit together," Lombardi said.
Nolan's father, Ted, a former NHL coach of the year, was also on the ice.
"I was pretty fortunate to do some things in hockey but nothing compared to watching your son do it," he said. "The whole series I never went through anything like this in my life. I was nervous. I was a parent. It's a great feeling to watch your son go through something like this and being a parent versus trying to be a coach."
And the moment his son held the Cup over his head?
"Oh, when he picks up the Cup, I mean, I can't even describe it in words. Just very, very special feeling," he said.
Longtime King Luc Robitaille had to leave Los Angeles to win his only Stanley Cup, going to Detroit, where he won one in 2002.
It was, he reported, just as light Monday night as it was a few years back.
Still, this was a special moment for a man who in many ways embodies the city's yearning for a championship hockey team.
"Winning in L.A. is incredible," Robitaille said. "I remember coming here in 1984 my first training camp saying, 'Man, I want to be part of that group that would do it.' I didn't think it would take this long but it certainly is amazing."