“Oh no, they’re going to blow it.”
That’s what went through my head immediately after Tim Leiweke breezed by in the Staples Center hallway. Moments earlier, the Kings had defeated New Jersey 4-0 to take a 3-0 series lead in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
Tim, never short on enthusiasm or bluster, spotted me as he walked away from his rinkside seat and, with a huge grin, said, “It’s over! We’ve got it!” It seemed accurate. It seemed fair. It seemed…given the Kings’ blotchy history, like a complete and utter jinx, particularly to the more superstitious among us.
Then the Kings lost Game 4. Then they lost Game 5. People often asked me if I cheered for the Kings, because I worked for them as their official website reporter. I didn’t, but I also didn’t cheer against them, and I cared deeply (and still do) about their great fans. As Game 6 approached, I couldn’t stop thinking, “These poor people. If the Kings collapse, they’re never going to recover.”
Well, no worries. The Kings won it that night, June 11, 2012. They won the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. It’s difficult to believe it’s already been five years, because even though the Kings won the Cup again in 2014, those two months in 2012 still seem somewhat unbelievable.
I retain two distinct memories of the Cup-clinching night. After the game and the Cup presentation, I rode down the elevator with Bob Miller. Did I cheer for the Kings? No. Did I cheer for Bob Miller? With all my heart, and it was so gratifying to know he would finally get a championship ring.
The other memory is of a man whose name I don’t even know.
By the start of the third period of Game 6, it seemed pretty clear that Staples Center would be celebrating that night. Yet it was the oddest feeling. The sense was palpable, that the 18,000 people in the building wanted to savor the third period, but also wanted it to pass as quickly as possible.
This man I remember, he stood in the back row of Staples Center’s 300 level, directly in front of my press-box seat. He stood, for almost the entirety of the third period, with his hands atop his head.
I remember thinking how anxious he must have been, and how excited he must have felt. How long had he been a fan? How long had he waited for that moment? What was going through his head as he waited for each excruciating second to tick off that game clock? The poor guy, he didn’t clap and I didn’t even hear him cheer. He just stood there, hands atop his head, and he probably couldn’t believe it.
Who could? What a ride. The first No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup. A remarkable 16-4 playoff record. A ridiculous 10-1 road record. A 3-0 start to each of the four series.
A couple years ago, a reader asked me when I “believed,” when I truly felt the Kings had a chance to win the Stanley Cup that year. It’s easier for me to list all the times I was convinced it wasn’t possible.
Start with December, when the Kings fired Coach Terry Murray. Things looked grim, to put it mildly.
The Kings had entered the season with expectations. They’d lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 and, that December, they sat out of a playoff spot. Even the stoutest defenders of General Manager Dean Lombardi had to question what was going on, whether this grand scheme would ever work, whether all the age-distribution charts would ever even get the Kings into the second round.
Then came Darryl Sutter. If I talked to 50 people about Sutter’s hiring, and I probably did, it’s fair to say that 47 of them laughed at the Kings and couldn’t believe they hired Sutter.
Kings players knew him only by reputation, that of a curmudgeonly taskmaster. I talked to one young player about Sutter and I’d swear I saw fear in his eyes.
In the coming weeks there were positive signs, as the Kings showed improvement on the ice and in the standings, but not enough to significantly raise hope. How did I feel? In January, my best friend asked if I wanted to join her and and her family on an Alaskan cruise. The cruise was set to leave on June 4. I put down a deposit. June 4? That’s the Stanley Cup Final, and there’s zero chance I’ll be working then, I thought.
So, obviously, at some point I “believed,” and that moment was at the conclusion of Game 1 of the second-round series against St. Louis.
The Kings made it into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and drew the President’s Trophy winners, the Vancouver Canucks, the same team that had dispatched the Kings two years earlier.
Five days into the series, the Kings led 3 games to 0, and how in the world did that happen? On April 22, Jarret Stoll scored in overtime, the Kings were off to the second round and I still didn’t completely believe.
It’s not that I considered the first round a fluke. I thought the Kings were brilliant and inspired. They played some of the best defensive hockey I’d ever seen.
But I thought they’d exhale. I thought, having finally gotten over that hump, that there would be a natural, even understandable, letdown in the Kings’ locker room. They’d finally won a series. They’d pulled a big upset. Would they really have enough fortitude and desire to keep it going?
Plus, remember one thing: St. Louis was a really, really good team that spring. The Blues also had a midseason coaching change, and after Ken Hitchcock took over, they were nearly unbeatable at home.
David Backes scored midway through the first period of Game 1, and I turned to colleague Jill Painter and said, “This isn’t going to last long.” And, see, I was correct! The Kings came back and won that game 3-1, which made me a believer, and then they went on to sweep the Blues.
That’s when I figured I probably wasn’t going to Alaska.
All that stood between the Kings and the Cup Final was the conference finals and Phoenix Coyotes. I say this with all respect to the Coyotes, but…they were just the Coyotes. They weren’t particularly something to fear. They were a familiar team, one the Kings seemed to play every other week.
Two of the first three games were close, though, and when the Coyotes won Game 4 and took Game 5 to overtime, it occurred to me that the Kings would be wise to take care of business as soon as possible, because the series had turned more competitive than I’d anticipated.
It happened quickly. With the crowd irate after a brutal-looking collision involving Dustin Brown, there was a shot, a rebound and Dustin Penner throwing his hands in the air. The Kings were on their way to the Cup Final for the second time in franchise history.
It seemed shockingly normal. No one really celebrated in the locker room. Other than the crush of media, it felt only slightly more significant than a midseason win over San Jose or Chicago. That’s when I knew I’d made the wrong read on the team at the end of the first round. All along, they’d been focused on the end game, on winning a championship.
A couple hours later, Kings fans lined the road outside the airport terminal and cheered as players drove out and as the Campbell Conference Bowl was paraded down the street. I’m not sure anyone has seen that trophy since. It ended up in Leiweke’s trunk a day or two later, because nobody wanted it. Everyone wanted the bigger silver trophy.
There was an eight-day wait until the start of the Final against the Devils, and that just felt ridiculously long, although it did give me time to call the travel agent and cancel my Alaskan cruise.
I remember, again, how surprisingly normal it all felt. The media attention increased significantly, of course, but the players didn’t seem to be any more tense. I’d credit that to Sutter, who, for all his quirks and unpredictability, had managed to set an even-keel attitude in the locker room.
Nobody knew exactly what to make of the Devils. Scouting reports indicated that they sort of mirrored the Kings. They came out of the East as the No. 6 seed and rode goalie Martin Brodeur much as the Kings rode Jonathan Quick.
The first two games were tense and fantastic, and both ended with overtime goals by the Kings. Same old, same old, with 10 consecutive playoff road wins. I can’t imagine that ever happening again.
So now we’re back to Leiweke, after the Game 3 win. The Kings didn’t handle this moment well, although I understand.
The Kings were ready to party before Game 4 even started. Players’ parents and other family members arrived in town, limos were lined up on the streets outside Staples and, for the first time since the start of the playoffs, a whiff of distraction seemed to be in the air.
The Kings weren’t necessarily bad that day, but the Devils were at their sharpest and the Kings couldn’t match their level. The Devils scored two third-period goals and took the game 3-1. A similar scene played out three days later in Game 5, which the Devils won 2-1.
Staples Center was filled with a combination of anxiety and anticipation before Game 6, but the fear quickly eased. Steve Bernier smashed Rob Scuderi into the end boards 11 minutes into the third period and the Kings, during the ensuing major penalty, scored three times in four minutes.
If you followed the Kings, it was kind of hilarious. The much-maligned power play, a primary reason why Murray had been fired, scored three goals and essentially clinched the Stanley Cup for the Kings. But there were still two periods to play.
That 3-0 lead grew to 4-0, then 5-1, then 6-1, and it was over. Players would later talk about how Sutter remained strict on the bench until the final couple minutes, when he finally let loose (a little) and smiled.
The party, 45 years in the making, didn’t disappoint. The ice filled with family and staff members, and after a couple hours, the party moved upstairs to a Staples Center club that overlooked the ice. The party would continue throughout that night and week, with a trip to the Jimmy Kimmel show and the downtown parade.
That’s when the joy seemed to set in for players. The playoffs had been so bizarre. Everything happened so unexpectedly and so quickly. I don’t know that anyone — players, staff, media — really had time to process everything as it happened. It felt much different in 2014, when every series was a lengthy, fierce battle.
Even the post-Cup summer was different. The lockout loomed, and as players brought the Cup to their hometowns around the world, they didn’t know when the next season would start. As it turned out, the answer was January.
So, Kings fans had to wait a while to see the championship banner raised. Many of them had waited a lifetime, so who cared about a couple extra months?