March 2011

The Kings Play the Youth Card

GM Dean Lombardi says there’s ice to cover before his team dances with Sir Stanley—but he’s got just the guys to make it happen by TOM MURRAY / photographs by ANDREW MACPHERSON

  • Goalie Jonathan Quick
  • Center Anze Kopitar

It sounds like some sort of drum being pounded rhythmically on this night at Staples Center at the game between the L.A. Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

“Bang...bang...bang.” A slight pause and then again, “Bang...bang...bang.”

“Let’s...go...Kings!” The crowd of 18,000 roars in response to each beat. “Let’s...go...Kings!”

It’s a TV time-out, and the shapely female members of the Kings Ice Crew scurry out, clad in yoga pants and crop tops and armed with shovels and bins on wheels, to scoop up ice shavings around the goals and in the corners of the rink.

While they slide around—and let’s be fair, on the list of required attributes, skating ability isn’t at the top—the vast scoreboard above is bursting with other distractions: A “kiss cam” hones in on unsuspecting couples who, once they look up and see themselves on the big screen, wrap arms and lock lips to great applause—or jeers if they’re too shy to participate.

A “flex cam” captures fans young and old, male and female, as they bust out their biceps and strike a pose. There’s earsplitting rock music that begins to blare the instant a whistle stops the action; South Park characters spouting invective at the night’s opponent; handheld gizmos resembling bazookas, wielded by giddy staffers who launch balled-up T-shirts into gaggles of fans, bouncing up and down in delirious anticipation.

And then there’s the source of that rhythmic pounding, which does indeed turn out to be an oversize snare drum, in the hands—or is it paws?—of Bailey, the Kings’ ubiquitous mascot, a lion with a gigantic head sporting a team jersey. He races downstairs toward the ice and the area surrounding the visitors’ penalty box.

His face is frozen in a perpetual goofy grin, mouth agape, teeth bared, bright red tongue flashing. He launches himself into the Plexiglas behind the penalty box, where a member of the Blackhawks sits, not even flinching as Bailey leers and pounds the glass and the crowd bellows in delight.

A whistle blows, play resumes. And there’s Bailey again with his drum. “Bang... bang...bang,” “Let’s...go...Kings!”

The arena shakes with excitement, of course. But there’s something else at work here: hope. After decades of what was mostly mediocrity—except for that Wayne Gretzky–led charge to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993—the Kings are one of the youngest teams in the National Hockey League, stockpiled with talent that they have drafted and developed.

The “kids” are players like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Dustin Brown. Lombardi is convinced that the inconsistency they are exhibiting is part of the growing process.

Fans are taking notice: TV ratings are up 50 percent year over year—ditto for the number of people who visit the team Website—and of the 27 games that were played at Staples at the time this went to press, all but 6 were sellouts.

And while the Kings are never going to compete with the Lakers when it comes to bringing in the A-list celebrities, they do have an employee whose job is to entice managers and agents to deliver their—preferably—prominent clients. Cuba Gooding Jr. is a regular. Über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer is a season ticket holder. Vince Vaughn and Jake Gyllenhaal were spotted in the stands on the same night. And during her overhyped stint as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, even a glumlooking, gum-chomping Bristol Palin took in a game.

All of this—the buzz, the stars, even the competence of the team—is a dramatic change in the history of the organization, which had a well-deserved reputation almost from its inception for squandering young talent in the form of draft choices, in return for players who were already way past their prime.

It was a shortsighted recipe for disaster, which mercifully stopped prior to the 2006–07 season, when Dean Lombardi was hired as the Kings’ general manager.

Lombardi built his cred in San Jose for growing the Sharks franchise the right way—preaching patience to the fans while hoarding draft picks and developing from within. The Kings took a significant step last spring, the fourth year of the Lombardi regime, making the playoffs for the first time in six complete seasons before bowing out to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.

“We’re way younger than [what] I had in San Jose at this stage,” Lombardi says. “And this group is better than I had in San Jose—not even close. The potential core here is way better.”

Lombardi is building the Kings to be successful for the long term—hopefully to contend for the Stanley Cup every year—but that doesn’t mean the fans are supposed to wait forever. “The pressure is on,” says Luc Robitaille, the Kings’ president of business operations. “Last year we set the tone. The goal was to make the playoffs. It’s never been our goal this year to just make the playoffs. Definitely this year, we need to get another step ahead. To go out in the first round this year would be considered a failure.”

Robitaille played for 19 seasons in the NHL, including 14 with the Kings, and retired in 2006 as the highest-scoring left wing in NHL history, with 668 goals and 1,394 points. Perhaps the most beloved King in the history of the team, Robitaille was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. Now he oversees all aspects of running the team’s business, from sponsorships and marketing to broadcasting and ticket sales.

“There’s 2.6 million hockey fans in Southern California,” he says with his usual infectious grin, “and we’re trying to go get every one of them. It’s not just the 18,000 fans that come to the games. But you can see the response when we win. The minute we put a little streak together, there’s huge interest in this city.”

Ah, but therein lies the rub. Because while the Kings have certainly put together their share of impressive victories and winning streaks in the last few seasons—like the scorching 12–3 start to the current campaign—they have also been plagued by horrid slumps. Beginning in mid November, they lost seven of eight games. And when the schedule maker rewarded them with a two-week, eight-game home stand in early January, the Kings proceeded to lose all but two of the games.

All of which makes those who follow the Kings wonder what the team’s real identity is: a true Stanley Cup contender or a middling we-are-who-we-are group that is capable of teasing and tantalizing its fans but is never actually going to win a championship.

The Kings’ schizophrenic performance also invites skeptics around the league to weigh in with the same criticism that was leveled at Lombardi toward the end of his stint in San Jose: He gets too attached to his players, particularly the younger ones he proudly refers to as his “core,” and he is simply reluctant to make trades, agonizing over them for so long that other managers in the league grow impatient and lose interest.

Then there’s the suggestion that while Lombardi is brilliant at building a team and stockpiling draft choices, his teams all have a tendency to plateau before attaining status with the truly elite. It happened in San Jose, the critics say, and history is repeating itself in L.A.

“When are we going to learn that it’s not only a great player, but there’s a difference between a great player and a winner?” Lombardi asks.

But Lombardi is cheerfully thick-skinned and defiant, sharing as illustration something he once heard from his father-in-law, Bob Pulford, a former player and coach for the Kings, who went on to serve as general manager for the Blackhawks: “He said nobody questions a doctor or a lawyer when he does something, but everybody thinks they can do your job. That was a great piece of advice.

“I get the emails from our fans all the time,” he adds, leaning back in the desk chair in his corner office at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo. “Get this guy or that guy. We will. We’ll get the right guy eventually, but it’s still not the most important thing. The most important thing is those kids.”

The “kids” are players like Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Dustin Brown—and they, along with goaltender Jonathan Quick, are the cornerstones of the franchise, on and off the ice. Their images are plastered on billboards all over the city. And Lombardi is convinced that the inconsistency they, along with everyone else on the team, are exhibiting is a very necessary part of the growing process.

“The next step is collective mental toughness. You gotta decide whether the guys got it in ’em.” He snaps his fingers. “Can they fight through adversity and stay together as a team? But if you think they’re gonna learn it right away,” he adds—snap, snap, snap—“No! They’re gonna have to learn it the hard way. And that’s what they’re doing right now.”

While Lombardi is protective of his kids and loath to part with them or the pile of draft choices he has accumulated in the last four years, he jumped feet first into the sweepstakes last summer for sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, the prize catch on the free-agent market.

The 27-year-old, who has scored 50 or more goals twice in his career and totaled 338 in eight NHL seasons, ultimately turned down the Kings’ offer, opting to stay with the New Jersey Devils for a multiyear deal in the range of $100 million.

The Kings, often accused of showing a commitment to being competitive but not necessarily to doing what it truly takes to win the Stanley Cup—pay big bucks for a superstar—demonstrated with their pursuit of Kovalchuk that they were indeed ready to take the plunge, but not at any cost.

In an interview with the L.A. Times, a team executive said that Kovalchuck had two very good choices, but New Jersey offered more money. The Kings offered as much as they could while leaving themselves room to lock up those younger core players. It was as simple as that.

And besides, just because a team brings in a star like Kovalchuk doesn’t mean success is guaranteed. “When are we going to learn that it’s not only a great player, but there’s a difference between a great player and a winner?” Lombardi asks. “People want to win—they’re not just going to want to watch a great player. They’re going to get tired of him in a hurry.”

There’s also the suggestion that Los Angeles is a Laker town—“They’ve earned it!” Lombardi exclaims—and that because the Lakers have a superstar in Kobe Bryant, ergo the Kings need a marquee player, too. But that logic doesn’t fly for Lombardi.

“Let’s sell that,” he says with a grin, lurching forward and slapping his hand on the desk. “You’re L.A. You’re a ‘star-driven’ town. You’re not about winning. You want to see a star. Try and tell the fans that! Let’s make a billboard that says, ‘We’re about stars—not winning. Come see the Kings.’ Gee. That would make my job a helluva lot easier than worrying about winning!”

He leans back, hands clasped behind his head. “You couldn’t sell that here, and you couldn’t sell it down the hall, either.”

The Lakers are in the offices “down the hall,” where winning anything less than a championship every season is considered a failure. And speaking of the Lakers—and Bryant—Lombardi offers another thought: “Remember when all the crap was hitting the fan a few years ago, and the Lakers weren’t very good, and [Bryant] wants out of here? You started to see some empty seats. I mean, you could actually get Lakers tickets when they went through that little slump. The best player in the league is still there. He’s a star. Why could I get a ticket? Why?”

Just for the record, as of mid February, Kovalchuk had scored 21 goals and 41 points for the Devils, way off his usual pace. But Lombardi refuses to gloat about that. “If I get a star,” he says, “I want one that wins, and I want one that fits in the room with those kids.”

The kids—again. And this reminds Lombardi that Chicago won their championship last spring with a roster full of the same kind of kids, all of whom were drafted and developed by the organization.

“It took ’em eight years to rebuild and win their cup,” he says with a smile. “We’re ahead of schedule.”

TOM MURRAY truly believes he still has a shot at being the number one goalie for the New York Rangers.