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Kings reunite to celebrate 50th anniversary

Kings reunite to celebrate 50th anniversary
Kings defenseman Alec Martinez moves the puck under pressure from the Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds during the first period of a game on Oct. 14. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

For a few moments the years fell away and they were all young and vigorous again, pioneers in the strange, new hockey outpost that was Los Angeles in 1967 when the Kings joined the NHL.

Reunited to celebrate the franchise’s 50th anniversary season, more than a dozen players from that first team — and still-mellifluous broadcaster Jiggs McDonald — were welcomed at Staples Center before the current team played its first home game of the season,  a 4-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Many of the visitors entered the locker room with gaits slowed by knee or hip replacements, bypass surgery, or the aches of long-ago injuries. But they all stood taller and let the memories flow once they saw their nameplates above specially prepared locker stalls and realized the Forum Blue and Gold jerseys hanging in those stalls were theirs, to be pulled over their heads and their hearts.

"We were the first guys here," said Ted Irvine, who earned $11,500 that first season and was told he was overpaid. "Look at those sweaters. It brings a tear to your eye."

Before this weekend, some of them hadn't seen others for 40 years or more. It didn't matter. The jokers then were the jokers again as players fell back into their old roles.

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"It was like we were together, like yesterday," said Mike Corrigan, the youngest member of that expansion team at 20. They were teammates again, reliving a great adventure, a priceless gift for them and their families and the fans who warmly received them Friday night.

“I really appreciate what they did for us, to get us here together because it means so much,” said goaltender Jacques Caron, who played one game for the Kings that first season and three the next season and went on to greater fame as the goaltending coach for three Stanley Cup-winning teams in New Jersey.

"Some of them I never had a chance to see again because they passed away, and now it's a chance for us to be respectful of one another and appreciate each other."

Throwback nights and reunions often become marketing opportunities rather than significant moments. But this occasion had genuine sentiment behind it and peeled back layers of history to consider while the current Kings shape their immediate future.

For too many years, highlights of the Kings’ history were dominated by grainy videos of the Miracle on Manchester playoff triumph and clips of Wayne Gretzky’s scoring exploits. But he never won the Stanley Cup here. The Kings’ Cup triumphs in 2012 and 2014 changed the narrative of their history, though their 2015 playoff miss and five-game elimination last spring make those successes ever-more-distant memories.

It's too early to tell which way this team will go, though losing goaltender Jonathan Quick to a groin injury has ominous overtones. The Kings survived when he had a similar injury during the 2013-14 season, but their defense was better then and the NHL wasn't trending toward a speed game as emphatically as it is now. There could be struggles ahead defensively and offensively.

If these Kings are smart, they'll take heart from that first team and those players' battles to establish an identity and thrive in a strange environment. Those players had one another and not much else, but they persevered.

"The first year we all had hope. It was our first year after expansion and we all had desire to do well and it was tough, but we did very well," Caron said. "The character we had then, the character that these guys still have here, made us competitive."

It bonded them for life, too. As soon as they entered the locker room Friday they began yelling, "Put me in, Coach," a reference to Red Kelly, who couldn't make the trip. "This brings back big memories. Mr. Cooke brought hockey here and look at it. It's carried on big time," Corrigan said, referring to original owner Jack Kent Cooke. "You can't forget that, because hockey is big in L.A. now."

Hockey has become entrenched here in part because that first team had such character and characters. "Look at the young people that are playing hockey in California now," Irvine said. "That makes me feel good, not only having a great franchise here but how it has really affected the community."

Before the group left, players were posed to recreate the 1967-68 team photo. Corrigan missed the original photo because he was hurt but he was front row, middle on this one. Life rarely offers second chances. The current Kings, with the core and capability to be a Cup contender again, would do well to remember that and seize this moment in their history.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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