Kings of the city
They found their coach planting canola on a farm near Viking, Alberta, population 1,085. They mastered all the fundamentals but one — scoring — and barely made the playoffs. Even then, it took a while for L.A. to notice. One local newscast illustrated a story about them with the logo of the Sacramento Kings, a basketball team 400 miles away. Another referred to Jonathan Quick, the sensational goalie, as Jonathan Swift, the sensational author of “Gulliver’s Travels.”
On Thursday, the Los Angeles Kings rolled through the glass-walled canyons of downtown L.A. to present their treasure, the Stanley Cup, to their suddenly captivated fans. If the fortunes of a sports franchise say something about a place, this was a city at its finest. A far-flung, ever-changing metropolis tried something new: winning the old-fashioned way. Winning ugly. No Showtime. No Hollywood glitz. No shortcuts, like spending a king’s ransom to hire on a superstar.
This one was home-grown and earned. When the first of the double-decker buses pulled onto the parade route just after noon, the morning fog burning off just in time, the roar of the crowd did not begin right away. For a fleeting moment, the fans seemed to be looking at each other more than the buses, wrapping up a conversation that took only 45 years: Hockey? Here? And it worked?
“Look around,” said Kevin Henderson, 46, a fan for half his life.
Behind him, the fans were 10 deep — executives who spilled out of the office towers in pleated trousers; hipsters who grew playoff beards; down-and-outers with Kings flags stuck in their shopping carts. Street preachers stood next to weed-smokers, bandwagoners in crisp new black-and-white jerseys next to long-suffering lifers wearing the team’s old purple-and-gold uniforms.
The air was filled with the sound of trumpets and air horns — and Spanish, and Korean, and Mandarin. They rode by bus, and they rode up Bunker Hill on the Angel’s Flight funicular. They came on bicycle, on crutches, hauling kids in red Radio Flyer wagons.
“Everything you need to know about Los Angeles is right here,” Henderson said. “We’re everything, and everyone. You can do anything here. You can be anyone here. It’s a miracle.”
The Kings’ arrival in Southern California, in 1967, was supposed to plant the flag of ice hockey in the warm sands of the West. Instead, so few people turned out in some of the early years, the original owner, Jack Kent Cooke, went so far as to joke that the Canadians in Los Angeles hated hockey.
Until now, despite some playoff success and a slew of talented players, the franchise was probably best known for not winning the Stanley Cup despite signing the best player the world had ever seen, Wayne Gretzky. (There was also an unpleasant bit, in the ‘90s, about barely making payroll.)
But in the glow of the champions, all seemed forgotten Thursday.
“This is the parade I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” said Ralph Olivas, a law clerk from Duarte. “As Kings fans, we learned our lesson in the ‘90s. There are no guarantees.”
Olivas, who grew up playing hockey in Fresno and now coaches a youth roller hockey team, took the day off from work Thursday to be there. “Now,” he said, “we can die in peace.”
“It’s a great day for L.A.,” said Mark Meza, 24, of Eagle Rock. “The Kings didn’t come from another city or state. This is an original L.A. team.”
For a good chunk of the season, there was little reason to think this year would be any different than the others.
“We were halfway through the season and I didn’t even think we were going to make the playoffs,” said Matt Seymour, 22, a hedge fund sports analyst. “I never thought it would come to this.”
Looking back, though, the nucleus of something special was there, said Peter Wahl, 60, who started going to Kings games with his father when he was 10, when the team played its earliest games at the Long Beach Arena. The Kings had long tried to find success by hiring “mercenaries,” he said — high-priced, established stars, who were often stranded without a supporting cast. This team was built the right way, he said, with draft picks and lower-tier trades that created a young, tight-knit squad greater than the sum of its parts.
“It’s not magic,” he said. “That’s how it works, and now the future is good.”
The Los Angeles Police Department estimated the crowd Thursday at 250,000. As the parade moved toward Staples Center, confetti filled the air and the crowd erupted in spontaneous shouts of “Go Kings go!” Fans held their phones in the air to snap photos and video, and the players on the buses, and their family members, returned the favor by snapping photos of the crowd. Players held up the 35-pound Stanley Cup for the crowd to see; defensemen Matt Greene went first, giving the trophy two kisses for good measure.
“It’s the most prestigious trophy in sports — the heaviest, and the toughest to win,” said Darren Robison, one of three Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who took the day off Thursday. “We had to be here to see it.”
“There’s no way on the face of God’s green Earth I’d miss this,” said Charles Schwager, a season ticket-holder since 1981. Schwager’s customized Kings jersey is well known at Staples Center; it doesn’t have a name on the back but a message: “Cup B4 I Die.”
“This is a culmination of years and years of waiting,” said Schwager, a 52-year-old accountant from Ventura. “It’s an incredibly emotional feeling. The one-day fans, the one-year fans, the one-decade fans — it doesn’t matter to me. I consider myself the driver of the bandwagon.”
Later in the afternoon, legions of fans packed every seat in the Staples Center. At center ice, a black carpet surrounded a glass podium. Overhead, highlights from the Kings’ playoff victories played on the massive screen. Players, team officials and dignitaries addressed the crowd one by one.
The crowd saved its most explosive cheers for Coach Darryl Sutter, who was out of hockey when he got the call to join the Kings partway through the season, and will now become the third Sutter brother to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup.
The crowd stood as one for Quick, the goaltender who allowed only seven goals in the six Stanley Cup Final games and was named the most valuable player of the playoffs. The crowd chanted “MVP.” Quick, dressed in shorts and a Dodgers hat, offered an unprintably exuberant assessment of his team, then said: “We love you.”
“The last two months have been amazing,” Kings president of business operations, Luc Robitaille, who as a player spent 14 of his 19 seasons with the club, told the players. “You have changed this city.”
Times staff writers Kate Mather, Matt Stevens, Samantha Schaeffer, Ruben Vives, Andrew Blankstein and Weston Phippen contributed to this report.
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