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One of the teams that arrived on the scene when the NHL expanded from the “Original Six” to twelve teams, the Los Angeles Kings joined the league in 1967, along with the California Golden Seals, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota North Stars. The club adopted a color scheme associated with royalty, and their purple and gold Los Angeles Kings jerseys mirrored the uniform worn by the NBA’s L.A. Lakers.
The Kings had a relatively good start to their NHL. Not only did they win their first game again their expansion cousins from Philadelphia, but they went on to finish the year in second place in their division, and were the only expansion team to boast a winning record at home. However, that regular season success wouldn’t translate into the post-season as they were knocked out (ironically at home) in game seven of their first round series against the Minnesota North Stars.
The team experienced some growing pains over the next few seasons, but the acquisition of former Toronto Maple Leafs player Bob Pulford seemed to turn the ship in the right direction. Pulford didn’t make his impact so much as a player (he played the last two seasons of his career with the Kings) but rather when he took over the head coaching duties of the club following his retirement as a player.
The Kings improved rapidly under Pulford’s tutelage, going from a sub .500 club in his first year behind the bench to finishing with a 42-17-21 record and earning 105 points just two seasons later. In his five seasons behind the bench the Kings would reach the post-season on four occasions, twice making it to the second round before bowing out. The acquisition of Marcel Dionne from the Detroit Red Wings, goaltender Rogatien Vachon from the Montreal Canadiens and the emergence of 1969 draft pick Butch Goring as a star all played a big role in the emergence of the Kings as a competitive force in the league.
Toward the end of the decade Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer arrived on the scene, joining Marcel Dionne to form one of the most offensively offensive explosive lines the league has ever seen. In 1979-80 Marcel Dionne would score 137 to capture the Art Ross Trophy. Though that point total tied him with a young Wayne Gretzky from the former WHA’s Edmonton Oilers, Dionne captured the award by virtue of his higher goal total.
The following season the line was even deadlier. All three players eclipsed the 100 point plateau, with both Simmer and Dionne reaching the 50 goal plateau, and Taylor only falling short by three markers.
The offensive firepower of that line wasn’t enough to make the Kings a contender though, and year after year they failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. The one year they did manage to make a short run came at the expense of the up and coming Oilers. The Kings, seeded 4th in the Smythe Division, had finished the season with a paltry 63 points. The Oilers, led by a plethora of stars that included Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, had finished a full 48 points ahead in the standings.
The series was a goal fest from the outset and, as it turned out, no lead was safe. The two teams combined for an incredible 18 goals in the first game of the series, with the Kings coming out on top by a 10-8 margin. As incredible as that game was it wasn’t even the most memorable of the series. That title goes to the now famous “Miracle on Manchester” when the Kings erased a 5-0 deficit to storm back for an improbably 6-5 overtime win that still stands as the greatest single game comeback in NHL playoff history. After winning that pivotal game three the Kings would go on to defeat the Oilers in game five, winning the series and shocking the hockey world. Unfortunately, the Kings had no other tricks up their sleeves and fell to the Vancouver Canucks in the second round.
The Wayne Gretzky Era
Though some pretty phenomenal players had pulled on Los Angeles Kings jerseys over the years, owner Bruce McNall orchestrated the steal of the century in 1988 when he landed the one player in the NHL thought to be untouchable. Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player the game had ever seen, came to Los Angeles, along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, in exchange for young sniper Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, a handful of picks and a whole lot of cash. The deal really put hockey on the map in Los Angeles, where the cold sport had struggled to find an audience under the endless California sun. Suddenly, hockey was cool, and the stars of movies, television and music were all regularly spotted at Kings games following the arrival of #99.
Things were improved on the ice as well as in the stands. Gretzky scored 168 points that season, leading the Kings to 4th place overall in the NHL. In the playoffs he helped his new club erase a 3-1 series deficit to the Edmonton Oilers, and the Kings stunned the defending Stanley Cup champion Oilers in seven games.
1992-93 would mark the peak of Gretzky’s time with the Kings, and in the club’s history in general. Though he spent better than half the season injured Gretzky would rally in the playoffs, leading the Kings on the greatest post-season charge in their history. With help from sniper Luc Robitaille, his former Oilers linemate Jari Kurri, goaltender Kelly Hrudey, Tony Granato, Tomas Sandstrom and Marty McSorley, Gretzky willed the Kings through the first three rounds of the playoffs, putting together a particularly memorable game seven performance in the semi-finals against Doug Gilmour and the Toronto Maple Leafs as the Kings reached the only Stanley Cup Finals in their history.
In the finals the Kings faced off against another Original Six opponent. This time star netminder Patrick Roy and his Montreal Canadiens were in the way of Stanley Cup glory. The Kings won game one easily, and in game two were leading late before a desperate Montreal team pulled a rabbit out of the hat to turn the tide of the game, and, as it would turn out, the series. The Habs called for a measurement of Marty McSorley’s stick, hoping for a late powerplay and a chance to tie the game. McSorley’s curve was beyond the legal limit and the Habs got the powerplay they wanted. With the goaltender pulled, giving them a 2 man advantage, the Canadiens tied the game on a goal by defenseman Eric Desjardins. Desjardins would play the hero once more when he scored the game winner in OT, evening the series at a game apiece.
The Kings would never recover from the monumental gaff. Montreal rallied and reeled off three more wins, capturing their 24th Stanley Cup, and leaving a despondent Kings club to spend the summer wondering what might have been.
Today’s Los Angeles Kings
With players like Dionne, Gretzky and Robitaille long gone the Los Angeles Kings bear little resemblance to the teams of the 1980s and the 1990s. However, though they’ve endured some tough times over the past decade, the latest iteration of the club shows some bright promise. At just 20 years of age defenseman Drew Doughty is already mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned stars when the subject of the greatest player to don a Los Angeles Kings jersey comes up. Joining Doughty are other young stars like Jack Johnson, Anze Kopitar, captain Dustin Brown and goaltender Jonathan Quick. If they can keep this squad together and add a couple of more key depth pieces the Kings could quickly find themselves competing for the Stanley Cup in the mold of the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks. Long-suffering fans have waited better than four decades to see a Stanley Cup in their city, and Doughty and crew may just be the group to deliver it.