They needed a way to combat and perhaps neutralize the Grim Reaper.
The earliest days of the Kings-Ducks rivalry were not about good hockey teams. It was about the Kings sinking fast after reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1993 and missing the playoffs the next season; about the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, hatched in the 1993-94 season, exceeding modest expectations, playing hard and fighting hard.
Stu Grimson, now a broadcaster with Nashville and known as the “Grim Reaper” in his NHL days, remembered how the Kings responded to the physical presence of Anaheim.
“L.A. didn’t have an answer for that,” Grimson said Friday from Nashville. “I remember them saying that they went out and got Matt Johnson because we didn’t have a response for guys like Todd Ewen and Stu Grimson.
“Right out of the gate, I had my hands full with this man-child.”
He chuckled at the memory of Johnson, who would accumulate 1,523 penalty minutes in parts of 10 NHL seasons for three teams. Grimson played 231 games with Anaheim and later 72 more with the Kings, and happens to be one of 27 NHL skaters and goalies who have played for both teams.
The first playoff meeting between the Kings and Ducks — starting Saturday with Game 1 in Anaheim — will transform the rivalry from lower-case to upper-case letters.
Until now, there have been flickers, a few brief firestorms and some memorable fights between the teams since Anaheim entered the league. But nothing like the back-and-forth, intense playoff dislike that can only exist and develop in a best-of-seven game series.
Surely, Kings Coach Darryl Sutter will say something biting, sarcastic and certainly memorable. Or will Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau get there first?
It says that the best retort involving the Kings and Ducks still belongs to a broadcaster. In 2006, the Kings’ Sean Avery let loose with an unprompted, obscenity-laced blast at Brian Hayward, the Ducks’ color commentator and former NHL goaltender, according to The Times story detailing the incident at Staples Center.
Players and team officials prevented the matter from escalating beyond verbal sparring. Avery ripped Hayward’s playing ability.
“How would you know? You were in the third year of eighth grade then,” Hayward replied.
Avery also seemed to be on a one-man mission to try to insult the Ducks’ players that same season. He told a Canadian TV sports network he hated forward Andy McDonald and earlier ripped Chris Kunitz.
McDonald told The Times: “I didn’t know Sean thought so highly of me.”
Kunitz: “One guy was doing some talking and another guy was doing some contributing.”
Others have tried to get a Kings-Ducks rivalry sparked in far less obnoxious ways. In 2005, new Ducks owner Henry Samueli said he wanted fans to come watch the best hockey in Southern California and “that’s going to be here.”
Jeremy Roenick, then of the Kings, later tried to jump-start things by saying the Kings were going to kick the Ducks’ butts — but using more creative imagery.
He told Times columnist Bill Plaschke that he was hyping the proceedings, saying: “To create excitement about hockey, you have to spark a rivalry, you have to get people excited. I was trying to do that.”
For the record, the first regular-season meeting between the Kings and Ducks was Dec. 2, 1993, and the Kings won, 3-2, at the Forum led by Jari Kurri’s two goals in the third period.
“You guys would have been very tough if we had lost,” then-Kings coach Barry Melrose said to reporters afterward. “Well, I wouldn’t have been a bowl of cherries, either.”
Said then-Ducks general manager Jack Ferreira: “This is our 27th game. This is their 27th year.” Ferreira now is the special assistant to Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi.
Now, 20 years after that first regular-season meeting at the Forum, comes the hockey playoff Freeway Series that fans have been anticipating since the birth of the Ducks.
“To Southern California hockey, I think it’s a tremendous boon,” Boudreau said. “I go to the rinks almost every night because my son still plays every night, and everywhere I go, people are talking about us versus the Kings … and people around here know that during the regular season, the games can get fairly intense, so I gotta believe that will be magnified in the playoffs.”