Kings' Kontos Goes From Zero to Hero

Did you see it?

"Yeah, I saw it," Chris Kontos said.

Did you like it?

"Well, I suppose so," Kontos said. "I've never been in a cartoon before."

Another milestone. Another chapter in the continuing saga of King Kontos, hottest scorer in hockey, a guy who--as of Wednesday, anyway--had lit more red light bulbs in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs than anybody else, and we do mean anybody--Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman, Savard, everybody who is anybody in the National Hockey League. Nine goals in eight games. Tops in the NHL.

As soon as the Kings set foot in town for their series with the Flames, a Calgary cartoonist produced caricatures, not only of L.A.'s greatest, Wayne Gretzky, but of L.A.'s latest, King Kontos. "Chris Kontos Checks Out His Fan Mail," the caption read.

It was a sketch of Kontos reading a letter that began:

"Dear Occupant."

Probably didn't stretch the truth much, either. A few weeks ago, Chris Kontos was playing hockey in Switzerland. At 25, after six years as a pro, he had become one of America's most unwanted.

"My agent was working tooth and nail," Kontos said. "He offered me to every team in the league. There were no takers."

By the time the Kings changed their minds and tried to find him to sign him, just before the March roster deadline, Kontos had gone home to Waubaushene, Ontario. They tried to phone him there. He had no phone. They tried the restaurant his parents run. No soap. So, they called a laundry.

The Busy Bee Laundromat in Midland, Ont., happened to have a fax machine, so the Kings transmitted a copy of a standard NHL contract. Somebody at the laundry got it to Kontos' father, who came pounding on his son's door around 1 in the morning. Occupant Kontos signed it and zapped it back to the Kings with about half an hour to spare.

Just the fax, man.

So ended Star Search '89. But it was definitely worth the trouble. Kontos, 25, is never going to be mistaken for Gretzky, mainly because the Great One covers every inch of the ice while the Late One generally hangs around the goal mouth, but Kontos has become a secret weapon and lucky charm to Los Angeles. Sort of a hockey-playing Mickey Hatcher.

"He's been a great find for us," Gretzky said Wednesday, as the Kings prepared for tonight's Game 2 against the Calgary Flames. "Kontos has taken a great deal of punishment from the opposition, and struck back against them with a lot of goals. He's been a big bonus for us."

Even at practice, Kontos camps out near the crease, working on tips and deflections. Accidental goals have become his specialty. He is Mr. I Just Happened to Be in the Neighborhood. Pucks go into the net off his pads, off his stick, off his skate, you name it. Before this series is over, Kontos is likely to have one ricochet off his helmet. He will score a game-winning goal and not know about it until the next morning, when he wakes up.

This is art, though, not luck. There is skill involved here. During Wednesday's workout, while teammates fooled around on one end of the Saddledome flipping pucks through a "Shooter Tutor" plastic goalie, Occupant Kontos skated to the other end, planted himself directly in front of the crease, and took passes from assistant coach Bryan Maxwell, trying to tip them past flesh-and-blood goalie Glenn Healy.

"I've done that pretty much my whole career," Kontos said. "I score from strange angles, on rebounds, on scrambles in front of the net, any way I can."

But what about working on other kinds of moves?

"I don't skate that great," Kontos said.

But what about scoring, well, prettier goals?

"You mean an end-to-ender?" Kontos asked.

Yeah, one of those.

"It's been known to happen," he said.

Before anybody holds his or her breath waiting for such a goal, be advised that if the Pittsburgh Penguins ever offer Mario Lemieux for Chris Kontos, expect the Kings to accept. For the record, including all nine of those playoff goals, Kontos has a total of . . . nine points. That's right. Zero assists.

In fact, much of the time he spends on the ice, the Kings are on a power play, whereupon Occupant Kontos gets to go out there and annoy the goalie until Gretzky or Bernie Nicholls or somebody can take aim and fire the puck into the general vicinity. Goalies such as Grant Fuhr and Mike Vernon must be sick of Kontos' face by now. They probably feel like imitating W.C. Fields and saying: "Go away, boy, you bother me."

Kontos is, of course, much more of a hockey player than we are making him out to be. He once had a six-point night against Chicago, and can occasionally razzle, if not dazzle.

"I do the job that's expected of me," he said. "In six years of professional hockey, I think I've built a fairly solid career. It's just a matter of what some people think I can do and what some people think I can't do.

"OK, yeah, I admit it: I'm kind of on a roll right now. My confidence is at an all-time high. The puck keeps coming my way. It's almost weird. I can almost visualize when it's going to come to me. I'm expecting it. It's one of those strong feelings you get that everything's coming your way. I don't know if I'm blessed or lucky or talented or what."

He remembers the rejection he felt at being ignored by the entire league, at being turned loose and told he wasn't good enough to play, even on the worst NHL rosters. It felt like being hit with a sledgehammer, Kontos said. To know you can still help somebody, to know you can still light the lamp, it can be painful, being told no one needs you, that your value to an entire league is absolutely nothing.

Chris Kontos went from zero to hero.

"Hey, I haven't exactly experienced 'fame' yet, you know," he said Wednesday.

You mean you can still go out in public without being mobbed?

"Yeah. Nobody knows my face yet, except from the cartoons."

Well, even Gretzky can go out in Los Angeles sometimes without being recognized.

"He can?" Kontos said. "Well, if that's true, I'll be able to go out and never, ever, ever, ever, ever be recognized."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World