Now for Something Completely Different

It's a hockey town.

After 26 years of more chills than thrills, after so many days and nights in the cold and dark shadow of the Forum's other tenant, after hundreds of players and dozens of coaches and more pucks than you could shake a stick at, there is finally life beyond Round 2 for the Kings, the ice guys who are tired of finishing last.

"As they say, Rome wasn't built in a night," Wayne Gretzky said.

Even if they have not actually won something, at least and at last they have done something. The Not Ready for Prime Ticket players have finally rewarded the patience of a long-agonizing public that has endured more than a quarter of a century of hockey jokes and chokes, and in the process they have won renewed respect for some of the people with blades on their shoes who made this possible.

For Luc Robitaille--the L.A. hockey player who is so cool, he could skate on himself.

For Tomas Sandstrom--the celebrity from Broadway to Hollywood who has gone coast to coast for nine seasons waiting to play in a Stanley Cup finals.

For Jimmy Carson--the wanderer who somehow skated his way back to the frozen ponds of California.

For Rick Knickle--the ace-in-the-hole who was buried in the minors like a miner, then rescued miraculously at age 33.

For Tim Watters--the survivor of broken wrists, injured ribs, sprained ankles, serious knee and back injuries, a sore neck and a dozen years of painful Winnipeg and Los Angeles defeats.

For Robb Stauber--the fresh prince of the 1986 draft who has spent seven years in the Kingdom, waiting to be summoned.

For Jari Kurri, Charlie Huddy and Wayne Gretzky--the old golden geese who flew south for the winter.

For Pat Conacher--the Edmonton native son who won a championship in 1984 playing with Jari, Charlie and Wayne, then ended up in the '90s playing with the Utica (N.Y.) Devils, but never gave up.

For Mike Donnelly--the ready wing from Detroit who has been waiting to win another championship ever since Michigan State whipped Harvard in the 1986 NCAA tournament.

For Corey Millen--the two-time U.S. Olympian who does believe in miracles, yes.

For Rogie Vachon--the man who longs to hang a banner on the wall next to his retired jersey.

For Alexei Zhitnik--the kid from Kiev who is younger than Rogie Vachon's hockey-pro son.

For Mark Hardy--the old-timer who has been a King for seven weeks.

And especially for Dave Taylor--the even older-timer who was drafted by the Kings when the President of the United States was Gerald Ford.

The wait has been great. It was Dec. 30, 1967, when the masses filed past the pillars of Jack Kent Cooke's majestic palace for the Forum's very first event, a hockey game against Philadelphia in which the home team did not score. The most valuable player was Eddie Joyal, the captain was Bob Wall, the coach was Red Kelly and there would be 16 other coaches before the Kings reached the playoffs' third round.

Now they're there. The road to a Stanley Cup is long and winding and could very well keep swerving through Canada. There is a chance the Kings could end up spending time north of the border in every round of the playoffs--in Calgary, in Vancouver, in Toronto and in Montreal--so pretty soon their fans should be on a first-name basis with all those passport-stampers.

This seems only fair. If a Canadian club can win the World Series of baseball, why can't a California team win the World Series of hockey?

Playing like champions, physical and furious, and forechecking all over the place, the Kings did not wimp out once Vancouver struck back with two second-period scores. Three rat-a-tat-tat goals by Kurri, Sandstrom and Warren Rychel brought the full house to its feet and had the usually upright Canuck goaltender Kirk McLean flopping on the ice like a seal.

After a 5-3 victory that vanquished Vancouver and put the Kings in the NHL's final four, Gretzky said: "We were nobody. We were the underdogs. All we heard in Vancouver was that Pittsburgh had lost and that everything was opening up for them on their way to the Stanley Cup. And we said: 'Hold on a second. We're here.'

"This is exciting to be still playing. For four years now, I was on some vacation spot by this time of year. It wasn't like that in Edmonton. I had a rosy deal there, and I gave up all that to come here and build something. I've waited a long time for this. We all have."

No one has waited longer than Taylor, who at 37 might be on his last skates.

"You keep wishing and hoping for a shot at it--just one shot," Taylor said.

"There are guys on this team young enough to be my son. And all of us worked a long time for this. We haven't really won anything yet, but we're definitely closer than we've ever been before. I'd like to see this city finally be proud of the L.A. Kings."

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