Leading up to SportsCentre's Year In Review on Christmas Eve, TSN and TSN.ca look back at each of the Top 10 stories of 2012. And TSN's reporters and analysts who covered the events as they happened offer their personal reflections on the stories.
Today, the NHL on TSN's James Duthie recaps the Los Angeles Kings and their remarkable Stanley Cup run.
I tend to remember the Stanley Cup Final for the stuff that happens away from the ice.
Like the night in L.A. last June we went to a club after Game 3 and the DJ was Reggie Bush (he was pretty good too, though my DJ evaluation ability is somewhat stunted by the fact I never go out).
Or riding up a crowded elevator at Game 5 in New Jersey with Emmanuel Lewis and hearing two fellow riders giggle-whisper, "What'choo talkin' bout Willis?" - leaving me wondering how many times a day poor Webster has to say, "No you freakin' idiots that was Gary Colem…ahhh…never mind."
Or when Dustin Penner, just minutes after winning the Cup, and still in full champagne-drenched uniform, passed by me outside his dressing room and said, "Hey, I read your book!" Not even a compliment technically, but considering the timing, I felt honoured.
That's what happens covering the playoffs when you are neutral. Who wins doesn't really matter. You just root for good games, short flights (took the loss on that one), and amusing former child-actor sightings.
But I will remember the L.A, Kings of 2012 - The Best Eighth Seed Ever.
We prefer the easy headline in this business. You know, the uncomplicated Disney After School Special endings (Yeah, I know they haven't aired Disney After School Specials in 15 years, but their over-the-top-extra-cheese earnestness still haunt my soul). So when I Googled 'L.A. Kings Cinderella,' I got 'About 1,080,000 results (0.27 seconds).'
"L.A. KINGS COMPLETE CINDERELLA RUN" (Bleacher Report)
"L.A. KINGS SKATING TO CINDERELLA-STORY FINISH" (Vanhockey.com)
"CINDERELLA KINGS ON VERGE OF STANLEY CUP" (CNN)
On the surface, fair enough. After all, they were the lowest seed in the Western Conference, right? They stumbled and bumbled their way through most of the season before figuring things out just in time to sneak in. And hey, they did beat the defending Western Conference Champion Canucks and the top-seeded St. Louis Blues in the first two rounds. The stat geeks would argue that basically adds up to 8 over 1 (squared), and thus must be Cinderella-worthy, right?
Phooey. Hong-Kong Phooey.
These Kings were the biggest, most bad assed faux-Cinderellas in the history of Cinderellaism (I tend to make up a lot of words, just so we're clear in advance).
(Now, to be fair, that Google search also turned up some sites and columns that included key words "NOT A" before "CINDERELLA" in their descriptions of the Kings, so this column isn't exactly revolutionary thinking. But hey, it's a year-end recap, not Plato's Republic. So back off. )
The age of the upset is over in hockey. The margins between top and bottom seeds have never been smaller. An eighth seed (Edmonton) went to the Stanley Cup Final in the first year of post-lockout hockey (remember when we used that term as if there wouldn't be another one for 20 or 30 years? What do we say when this latest farce is over, 'post-latest-lockout' hockey?) The bottom three seeds in the East all won their first-round series in 2010, with the seventh-seeded Flyers eventually beating the eighth-seeded Canadiens in the conference final.
There is a reason a smelly monkey (you have no idea) spinning a wheel beat our TSN experts half the time in her playoff predictions. Almost every 1 vs. 8 or 2 vs. 7 series is a crapshoot in today's NHL (which I guess is now yesterday's NHL…dang, this is confusing). And none of the low seeds above had a lineup built for a Cup run like the 2012 Kings.
One of the conference favourites in October, most of L.A.'s season was a mess of mediocrity.
Win one, lose one, see a shot of Beckham in the crowd.
Win one, lose one, see a shot of Alyssa Milano in the crowd (looking pretty spectacular, by the way).
Win one, lose one, lather, rinse, repeat. And so it went.
That kind of season would be cause for celebration in say, Columbus. But it got coach Terry Murray fired in December. And if things didn't turn around, general manager Dean Lombardi would soon be joining him.
Lombardi's decision to bring in Darryl Sutter brought head scratches in some places and guffaws in others. How could The Jolly Rancher and his plaid farmboy shirts work in the land of botoxed butts (seriously, they do…I read it in a copy of In Touch) and fake everythings?
And at first, it didn't. The Kings were in that dead zone just out of a playoff spot with a month left in the season. The low point came on a Friday night in early March in Detroit. The Red Wings, banged up and skating a bunch of call-ups from Grand Rapids, didn't get a shot until midway through each of the first two periods. They would have only 15 in the game (In retrospect, the Kings were already showing signs of the shutdown force they would soon become). But Detroit scored twice in the last four minutes to win 4-3.
I later asked a bunch of L.A. players to pinpoint when their turnaround started and several mentioned the aftermath of that loss in Detroit. It was a "fix it or we're finished" moment. They fixed it.
Two days after the loss, they won in a shootout in Chicago - the first of six wins in a row and the heart of a 9-3-2 run that didn't just get them into the playoffs…it got them in believing they could go deep.
But deep is one thing. Demolition is another. C'mon - a 16-4 playoff run? Four straight 3-0 series leads? A 10-1 record on the road? No use trying to explain that degree of dominance. Sometimes, after countless years when things go mostly wrong - 45 of them in all in LA - everything just goes right. That's what happened to the Kings in the spring of 2012.
Sutter, as it turned out, was the perfect man for the job. Before games, he would get into a low crouch, one hand on each knee, so he could look his players right in the eye. I've seen that look before, after I asked a question he didn't like at the NHL Draft. I thought my face was going to melt off. Easy to see how his message got through loud and clear to his players.
L.A.'s most beloved champion coaches were Slick (Pat Riley) and Zen (Phil Jackson). Sutter is a whole lot of neither.
TSN reporter after playoff loss: "What was the problem in the offensive zone tonight?"
Sutter: "Not enough shots."
Reporter: "Okay, how specifically can you rectify that?"
Sutter: "Shoot more."
That doesn't mean he isn't a great strategist. Sutter installed an aggressive forecheck that capitalized on the Kings size up front. Injuries late in the season led to the call-ups of Jordan Nolan and Dwight King, who would both be physical forces during the run.
Meanwhile, Dean Lombardi traded for Jeff Carter - who wasn't THE difference-maker some figured he would be, but was another splendid piece in a suddenly perfect puzzle. Perhaps Lombardi's best deadline move was not trading captain Dustin Brown after briefly pondering it. Brown scored a hat trick in his next game, and went on a spring run worthy of a Conn Smythe Trophy - if his own goalie hadn't stolen it.
Oh yeah…the goalie. That guy. Jonathan Quick didn't seem to love the spotlight. He'd often do his media scrums with his hoodie up and his eyes down. But it's hard to keep a low profile when you are virtually unbeatable for two months. The Kings were so dominant, he didn't have to be great on most nights. But he was anyway, the human exclamation point on any description of his team's performance.
They were something to behold, these Kings. I'd watch Anze Kopitar most playoff nights and think to myself, "He should be in the conversation for the best player in the league." Then I'd watch Drew Doughty and be convinced Kopitar wasn't the best player on his own team.
The Stanley Cup is supposed be the hardest trophy in the world to win. The Kings made it look as tough as winning a grade school participant ribbon (not to brag, but I have several). It was the most impressive playoff run I've ever witnessed.
At the team party at Staples after the victory (well, the first one…there were after/after/after parties that lasted for the next…oh…month or so), they didn't look like wide-eyed underdogs shocked that they'd pulled off some miracle. They just stood around smiling, smoking fat cigars, mingling with family members, team officials, and Jerry Bruckheimers, looking like they'd done this a dozen times before.
There was no Cinderella to be found here. No prince either. Just Kings being kings and looking every bit the part.