One of my favorite hockey memories is of Larry Robinson and his futility as coach of the Los Angeles Kings.
Not that I reveled in Robinson’s misery. Because he was so great to us media folk, especially young guys like me just starting out covering hockey in the mid-1990s, I secretly rooted for the Kings to do well.
But nothing went right for the Kings back then. Robinson’s acid cynicism about it all was what was so memorable to me—and hilarious. You couldn’t help but laugh when, during one practice in suburban Denver, Robinson blew his whistle, then proceeded to mock how his Kings players went to the net. He spread his feet wide apart in a pigeon-toed stance and gave a biting demonstration of how weak he thought his players were in fighting for space in front of the cage.
“Effete” would be a word to describe what he thought of his team. Then, another time, after a loss in Denver to the Avalanche, Robinson blasted his group, saying “If they don’t care, why should I?” You had to be there, but it was funny. He didn’t last much longer as coach of the Kings.
Cut to nearly 20 years later, and it seems impossible how much things are different for the Kings. L.A. Live, the area around the Staples Center, is bright, inviting and fun. The old building, the otherwise lovely Fabulous Forum, was in a neighborhood you felt very uneasy driving around after dark. The Kings were in bankruptcy court in the mid-‘90s, after con man Bruce McNall’s tenure as owner. (I hate to call McNall that, but it’s true. Still, his intentions were good. He did bring Wayne Gretzky to L.A., after all. And he seemed like a fun guy to have a beer with.)
Billionaire Philip Anschutz rescued the franchise financially and implemented his vision of L.A. Live in the face of many who doubted it could ever succeed. He hasn’t gotten enough credit for his role in turning around the Kings and downtown L.A. in general.
Any of you young, spoiled Kings fans walking around Staples Saturday night before Game 3 of the Western Conference finals with Chicago, please take a moment to appreciate that things used to be a lot different around your team.
And about that team: They are my pick to win the Stanley Cup now.
Darryl Sutter, simply put, is an unflappable man. His team is built in his image, yessir.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate what the Kings have done in this postseason: They overcame a 3-0 deficit in Round 1 to a very good San Jose Sharks team, a comeback that still has Sharks fans and players in shock. They were down 3-2 in the following series to a strong Anaheim team and came back again.
They were down one game to none and down 2-0 late in the second period against a very good Chicago team and scored six straight goals to even the series. Now they are coming home to L.A. Live, very much alive. A hockey game is the toughest ticket in town in Los Angeles, which is a cool sentence to write.
I think the Kings will go on to win the series against the Blackhawks because they have the better goalie, home-ice advantage the rest of the series, the intangible of revenge for losing to Chicago in the Western finals a year ago and the Blackhawks' cup hangover in their favor. They also have Sutter as their coach.
Sutter, to me, has supplanted Ken Hitchcock as the most fascinating personality in the NHL, at least among coaches. Talk to some of the players who played for him and they’ll tell you they didn’t appreciate how great he was until they had more time to think it over (ergo, it’s not very easy to play for Sutter at the time, but later on, you realize things).
“Brilliant coach,” said Stephane Yelle, who played for Sutter in Calgary. “He just makes everyone feel accountable in some way. He’s so smart about the game and strategy. You learn a lot playing for him.”
Sutter is famously prickly with the media. He doesn’t tolerate fools and their Johnny-Come-Lately questions, which usually makes him a poor interview in the playoffs, as that’s when all the media Johnnies who haven’t watched hockey all year come out of the woodwork. But show your face a few times, suffer through a few of his legendary pregnant pauses and slowly he’ll let you in.
Underneath all those one-word answers is a guy who could have gone to Princeton but passed, who grew up on a farm with all those other brothers, who still works the farm when all the lights and cameras and action is over, who truly knows what courage is every day he looks into the face of his son, Chris, whom doctors said wouldn’t live long after being born with Down syndrome in 1993. He’s 21 and living life to the fullest.
Sutter is exactly the right coach for the Kings now. Well, he’s been that since he came out of semi-retirement to lead them to their first Stanley Cup in 2012. He’s the perfect leader for a Kings franchise that everybody gave up on about 20 years ago.
The Kings are living testimonial: careful, when you have that urge to give up on things too soon.
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL for the Denver Post since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.