Room on bandwagon? The Los Angeles Kings will keep on truckin’


NEWARK, N.J. — Having traveled across the country in hopes of leading our city’s many puck-free sports fans onto the back of the Kings’ bandwagon, I have skated into my first stark truth.

There is no bandwagon. There are no trumpets, no bass drums, no bunting. On this Stanley Cup Final media day, there is only a bunch of guys in black hoodies, scraggly hair, thick beards and chipped smiles.

They speak little about themselves. They speak with reverence about the team. In a variety of soft Canadian accents, they speak not about the pressure of the destination, but the wonders of the trip.

“All of us arriving here at this moment with a chance to do something special, isn’t it really all about the journey?” said defenseman Willie Mitchell.

Well, yeah, that, and that increasingly gross facial hair.

“The bad thing about my beard is, it’s really starting to tickle my ears,” left wing Dustin Penner said of his playoff growth. “But it’s tradition.”

The truth is, what the Kings are riding into a glorious June sunset is not a bandwagon, but a delivery truck, the kind of rig you see barreling up the Pomona Freeway, more Hacienda Heights than Hollywood, a big rumbling collection of parts that is actually a perfect metaphor for the city it represents.

They’re trying to drop off the 120-year-old Stanley Cup in downtown Los Angeles for the first time in the city’s history, a noble endeavor in a town where the only ice most people care about is that hanging from some starlet’s neck or running through Kobe Bryant’s veins.

“The Lakers are done, the Clippers are done, so we’re kind of the only show going right now, right?” said center Jarret Stoll. “It feels like maybe we can make L.A. a Kings town, if only for right now, and that’s kind of cool.”

They can, and it’s way cool. Beginning Wednesday at the Prudential Center here, the Kings’ battle for a Cup and a city begins with this seven-game series against the New Jersey Devils, a veteran championship franchise that has won three Cups in the previous 16 seasons while the Kings are 0 for 43.

The Kings are the hottest team in hockey with a 12-2 postseason record, and most experts are picking them to win this series in six games, but most of the Kings have never been here before, and their legendary loyal fan base keeps waiting for the other skate to drop and misfortune to strike, as it did in their only other Stanley Cup Final in 1993.

But that team was led by a few superstars including Wayne Gretzky. This team has no Great Ones, but a bunch of Really Good Ones. That team, from its fraudulent owner to its Hollywood fans, truly had a bandwagon. This team feels more solid, more aligned, a delivery truck that seems destined to finally finish its trip.

If there’s a place to hang off the back, I want on. The larger readership of other Los Angeles sports has taken me elsewhere this season, but, with the kindly help of our hockey Hall of Fame columnist Helene Elliott (please?), I unabashedly want on now, and I promise to describe the scene here for the next two weeks for whoever wants to join me. Just don’t expect it to feel like a parade. Until, of course, there actually is a parade.

In the driver’s seat is Darryl Sutter, a former NHL star who was lured from his Alberta cattle farm in midseason to prod yet another highly paid, underachieving Kings team.

He’s 53, yet with his weathered face and gaunt stare, he appears 20 years older. He doesn’t really speak, he mumbles, so much that the players initially had trouble understanding him. He showed up for media day wearing a short-sleeve checkered shirt and a huge cellphone holder hanging from his belt. Just looking at him, it’s not evident whether he’s coaching hockey or dusting crops.

“It’s all about the team,” he said softly. “Go talk to the team.”

Siting next to Sutter is Jonathan Quick, a 26-year-old goaltending sensation who has been probably the league’s best postseason player. Only, he doesn’t seem to like the attention either, as he was the only player Tuesday to actually pull his hood over his head, as if trying to hide from questions he openly disdains.

“He’s channeling his inner Eminem,” said Penner.

Riding shotgun in the truck is Dustin Brown, a right wing who could become only the second American-born player to captain a Stanley Cup champion. If you’ve heard of only one King, you’ve probably heard of Brown, a squarely built guy with a gap in his smile and juice in his checks. He’s been a King for eight seasons, he’s a Derek Fisher-type presence, he understands the team and the town and how it all works.

He wants all of us late arrivals to know that we’re welcome. But he also wants to remind us that the truck is already filled with those Kings regulars who will no doubt be angrily emailing me Wednesday wondering where in the heck I’ve been.

“Los Angeles is one of those towns, you’ve got to win, you’ve got to make noise to get people out of the woodwork,” Brown said. “But do not forget that we already have many Kings fans who have not gotten the credit they deserve. ... Other people can join now, but we really appreciate all of our die-hards.”

Nobody is a bigger die-hard than Bob Miller, the Kings’ Hall of Fame announcer for nearly 40 years, yet I have a sense that in this Final, he will be dying hard. Because NBC has contracted to broadcast the games, Miller’s voice will not be heard except on the postgame show. In similar championship series situations, other sports teams in town will put their legendary TV announcer on radio — think Vin Scully with the Dodgers — but Miller says that’s not fair to Nick Nickson, who has been part of their broadcast team for 31 years.

“It’s disappointing to me, but I’ll still be here,” said the genial Miller.

Here’s hoping an arrangement can be made where both guys are on the air at a point when the Kings could clinch the title. They both belong in the dashboard of that truck. Both of their voices will be needed to make sense of a ride that is about to get wild.