Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Party's Over -- But What a Party

Jack Kent Cooke, a businessman from Hamilton, Ontario, who previously had success as the owner of the minor-league baseball team known as the Toronto Maple Leafs, from whom the hockey team got its name, and would later have significantly more success as the owner of the NFL's Washington Redskins, bought the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, bought the rights to the NHL's expansion team for Southern California and named it the Los Angeles Kings, and built the Forum on Manchester Boulevard in nearby Inglewood to house them both.

"I was told that there were 300,000 former Canadians living within a three-hour drive of Los Angeles," Cooke said after selling the Lakers and Kings. "Now I know why they left Canada: They hate hockey!"

The Kings haven't exactly had an energized fan base. They started their history in 1967 with Hall of Fame defenseman Red Kelly as head coach and Terry Sawchuk, perhaps the greatest goaltender the game had yet seen, in the net.

They had some great players in the 1970s: Marcel Dionne and Rogie Vachon are in the Hockey Hall of Fame; but a lack of defense meant that the closest they got to the Stanley Cup was the Semifinals (what would now be the Conference Finals) in 1975. They had a great comeback in the 1982 Playoffs against the Edmonton Oilers, coming from 5-0 down to win 6-5 in overtime: "The Miracle On Manchester." They got Gretzky and some of his Oiler teammates, and won their 1st regular-season Division title in 1991 and their 1st Conference title in 1993, but didn't win the Cup.

But except for the Gretzky years, the Kings have never been the big story in L.A.-area sports.  The University of Southern California (USC) has won, depending on whose figures you believe, either 7, 11, or 17 National Championships in college football and 21 in college baseball (a figure topped only by Miami and Arizona State); the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) has won more National Championships across the college sports spectrum than any other school, including a record 11 in basketball; the Lakers have won 11 NBA Championships since moving from Minneapolis in 1960; the Dodgers 5 World Series since moving from Brooklyn in 1957; the Raiders Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 before moving in 1994 (the Rams' only NFL Championship before moving out of L.A. came in 1951, before any of the other pro teams arrived); the Angels the 2002 World Series; and, especially humiliating for those fans who really are Kings diehards, the Anaheim Ducks, who didn't even exist until 1993, the 2007 Stanley Cup.

Last night, after 45 years of play (44 seasons, plus the cancelled 2004-05 season), the Kings finally got the job done, beating the Devils 6-1, and clinched the Stanley Cup in 6 games.

It was the Kings' 1st Cup in 45 years of trying.

Devils 3, Kings 1. Or, if you count the entire market, New York 11, Los Angeles 2. Total titles won, in all 4 major sports: New York 62, Los Angeles 21. Even if you take away the biggest winners in there -- Yankees 27, Lakers 11 -- it's still New York 39, Los Angeles 10.

And, no, you L.A. airheads who just found out you have hockey for the first time since Wayne Gretzky left for New York in 1997, you can't count the 5 titles the Lakers won when they were in Minneapolis.  Because they were won in Minneapolis. Even if you could, it's still New York 62, Los Angeles 26.

You wanna count National Championships in college football and basketball? Okay. Let's count the 11 basketball titles of UCLA and the 17 football titles that USC could, by one poll or another, claim -- some of which are rather dubious, including the 2004 title that got stripped because you got caught cheating. That makes it New York 62, Los Angeles 54.

Except it doesn't. I'm going to count the National Championships won by college football teams in the New York Tri-State Area. That includes Army, Yale, Rutgers and Princeton. And it goes all the way back to 1869, when the population of Los Angeles was, well, 1,869. (Actually, in the 1870 Census it was a little higher: 5,728.) I'm not even going to count Syracuse and Cornell, because they're in the State of New York but really far from New York City; it would be like L.A. counting titles won by Fresno State, if there were any.

But I am going to count NIT titles won before the NCAA became the biggest postseason college basketball tournament, thus counting titles won by St. John's, City College, Long Island University and Seton Hall.

New York 131, Los Angeles 54.



People not to blame for the Devils' losing the Stanley Cup Finals:
* Gary Bettman.  Did the Commissioner "fix" the result? He's been accused of it before. And he learned at the feet of NBA Commissioner David Stern, who's been accused of fixing results. But let's get real: He didn't take the ice. Not in a Kings uniform, and not in an official's uniform.

* The referees. Let's face it, Bernier did deserve a penalty. And the refs didn't stop us from winning Games 4 and 5. Granted, they didn't stop Vancouver from getting to a Game 7 in 1994 and 2011, Calgary from getting that far in 2004 and Edmonton from getting that far in 2006... and they didn't stop the Devils from winning the Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003.

* Steve Bernier. He didn't cost the Devils Game 1, 2 or 3. And the Devils still could have killed the penalty. They've killed 5-minute penalties before.

* The Kings' dirty play. There's always going to be some dirty play, on both sides. And the Kings pulled off something remarkable, coming from the 8th seed -- with a Playoff berth still not assured until the final weekend, even the Devils had it wrapped up by then -- and beating the 1st, 2nd and 3rd seeds in the Western Conference. And, let's not forget, overcoming the Devils' home-ice advantage.

No. The Kings won with a team effort, and the Devils lost with a team effort.

Face it: If the Devils had played Games 1 and 2 they way they played Games 4 and 5, yesterday would not have included a disgrace of a hockey game. It would have included a parade down Newark's Broad Street.  Because the Devils would have won the Stanley Cup, 4 games to 1.

So, while it's easy to blame one man for making an awful mistake at the worst possible time, or to blame the refs for unequally applying the rules (a similar hit was put on Patrik Elias earlier in the series and it didn't get a 5-minute penalty), the truth is more complicated.

Or, to paraphrase Martin Sheen (or Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the words I'm paraphrasing): Every once in a while, there's a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren't very many unnuanced moments in watching a game that's way too big for a ten-word answer.


Instead of looking at who to blame, let's look at the facts:

* The Devils didn't even make the Playoffs last year.
* They were only the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference this time, and spent most of the regular season struggling just to qualify.
* They had a new head coach, Peter DeBoer -- one whose previous experience was not encouraging: Three seasons with the Florida Panthers, no Playoff berths.
* Their starting goaltender turned 40 on May 6.  His backup turned 39 the day before.
* They got further than 28 of the other 29 teams.
* They beat the New York Rangers -- the team that Devils fans hate the most -- to get into the Stanley Cup Finals.
* They beat the Philadelphia Flyers -- the team that Devils fans hate the next-most -- to get that far.
* And, very importantly, they re-energized their fan base.  The idea of a "Devils Army" is no longer a joke.
Yes, the party is over.  But it was one fantastic party.


Anyway, congratulations to those fans of the Los Angeles Kings who suffered with that franchise for 45 years and finally won the Stanley Cup.

All 2,000 of you.

The rest of you, you're all a bunch of fakes.

And now, it's baseball season.  You've got two teams: One whose Albert Pujols signing hasn't exactly worked out, and one that's under the Curse of Donnie Baseball.

So, have fun watching pro football this fall.

You know: USC.

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