Sometime in the fall of 1985, I rode my bike to the card shop across town as an 8 year old. I used to save up my allowance and go there once a month to buy a few packs box of the latest Football, Baseball, even Basketball cards. The older guy behind the counter knew me by name and greeted me as I walked in the door. We used to make small talk about sports, as much as you can with an 8 year old anyway. The shop was lined with memorabilia from San Diego sports icons like Tony Gwynn, Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow. It was football season, and I was intent on buying a box of Topps NFL cards. Something happened that day though.
In the “What’s New” section of the small shop, I laid eyes on something I hadn’t seen before: Hockey Cards. My interest peeked and I decided to buy a box. I put it in my backpack and raced home to open them. I was instantly drawn to the photographs of these often toothless, mullet-headed warriors (no, these weren’t REO Speedwagon concert photos), and I especially thought the goalies equipment and masks looked cool. I started counting the days until I could ride back to the card shop and buy another box, and within 3 months of dedicated collecting, I had completed the entire set of Topps 1985-86 NHL Hockey cards.
I loved looking at the pictures on cards but still didn’t know anything about the sport. We lived in a neighborhood without cable and there was no hockey on network TV at the time. Right after Christmas day 1985, we moved to a new neighborhood – one with cable. Our cable provider at the time carried the original Prime Ticket network, TV home of the Los Angeles Kings. I was able to watch hockey on TV for the first time, and I was instantly hooked. I remember the old Forum Blue and Gold jerseys, Dave Taylor, Bernie Nicholls, Jimmy Carson and a rookie named Luc Robitaille who’s name wasn’t pronounced like it was spelled. I looked forward to the TV broadcasts, with Bob Miller on play by play and Nick Nickson as the color analyst. Back in those days it was a simulcast – same two guys on both TV and radio. The Kings weren’t a very good team, but they were my team. I started to lose interest in other sports – I wanted to watch hockey.
The playoffs that year weren’t kind to the Kings, but I knew I wanted to be a goalie the minute I saw Patrick Roy play a game for the Montreal Canadiens – the one and only favorite player I’ve ever had that wasn’t a King. I started telling kids at my new school that I was Canadian – eh? I figured it would give me more hockey cred, right?
In 1988 the Kings made maybe the biggest trade in the history of all sport, acquiring Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, from the Edmonton Oilers. The Kings would beat the Oilers in the playoffs that year, but lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames in the second round. The following season the Kings traded Mark Fitzpatrick and Wayne McBean to the Islanders for goalie Kelly Hrudey. Hrudey wore a funky helmet, and always wore a blue headband made of blue hockey undergarments. He had long hair flowing out the back of his helmet (yes, it was a mullet). I painted my street hockey helmet like Hrudey’s and started mimicking his movements in street hockey games with my friends. I used to tune into an LA Radio station called Pirate Radio that used to play the “Hrudey’s On Duty Tonight” song on their morning show. During games at the old Great Western Forum in Inglewood, fans would chant “HRRRRRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDEEEEEY!” every time Kelly made a big save.
It was hard to get game tickets at the Forum during the Gretzky days. LA was on fire for hockey. I was fortunate enough, through teammates of mine who had parents that were fans, to get to go to quite a few games there. You could always spot former King goalie and then General Manager Rogie Vachon outside at intermission smoking a cigar, and Rogie was always quick to offer up and handshake and a “hi kid!”.
In 1993, the Kings went to the Stanley Cup final – against Montreal and my goaltending idol Patrick Roy. I was fortunate to get to go to a game in all of the first 3 series’ of that playoff year. Finals tickets sold out so fast that we were unable to get our hands on any. The Kings would lose that finals series 4 games to 1. It was painful to watch, but getting to observe Roy’s near flawless goaltending eased the pain just a bit. Each of the games was a close contest. I was sure the Kings would be back to claim the Cup.
17 years later, I’m still waiting! Times since Gretzky’s departure have been lean for my beloved Kings. I am not a fair weather fan though, and I have continued to support the team through thick and thin. It’s been painful but my pride has yet to wane. There’s been some high points too – I was at every home game during the 2001 playoff run that included the Frenzy on Figueroa – a comeback from down 3-0 to Detroit to win in OT in game 3 of that first round series – and game 6 of that series in which Adam Deadmarsh beat Chris Osgood in OT to eliminate the Red Wings. The Kings would take the eventual champion Colorado to 7 games that year, and again in the first round the following spring.
The years have been lackluster since, but my love for this hockey team remains strong. We have the most die hard, knowledgeable fan base on the West Coast. Staples Center during the playoffs is an atmosphere like no other place on Earth. We Kings’ fans have suffered long, but our suffering is over. Dean Lombardi has this team on the right track. The Kings are going to be a Stanley Cup contender for years to come now, with a core of youngsters like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Brown and (you know I wouldn’t leave the goalies out!) Jon Quick and Jonathan Bernier in goal. The future is bright.
Last season my Kings made the playoffs for the first time since 2002. I got chills during the pre-game presentation, and I admit I cried when they showed a Bob Miller speech on the playoffs over the jumbotron, and my eyes were definitely wet when the boys took the ice to the sound of AC/DC’s “Back In Black”. The crowd at Staples was so loud you couldn’t hear PA Announcer David Courtney introduce the team! When the Kings lost game 6 of that series and were eliminated, I was working in Delaware and I cried in my hotel room. It’s more than just a hockey team to me. It’s my heart and soul.
I will be a Los Angeles Kings fan until they bury me. I will loathe Anaheim until they move that team elsewhere. Now that the Ducks suck, there won’t be anyone left at Honda Center save the road team fans – unlike us, the Kings’ faithful who have been with the team through a lot of lottery picks!
We will all be rewarded soon. I am awaiting the day I am in the crowd at Staples, watching Kings’ captain Dustin Brown take the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Preferably more than once!
It’s been a long time coming for this Kings’ fan. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I need a Kleenex!