A King’s Life

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.Rob Blake (1989–2001, ’06–08)

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I was in my college dorm at Bowling Green the day Wayne Gretzky got traded. It’s certainly one of those “I know where I was” moments for anyone in the hockey world. So when the King’s called me up to play the final four games of the NHL season a year and a half later, I knew I’d get to meet him.

“Hey, I’m Wayne Gretzky, nice to meet you,” he said, right as I walked into the dressing room of the Forum for the first time.

All I could think was: I know exactly who you are. I have your posters on my wall!

.Anze Kopitar (2006–present)

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I had Gretzky posters too. Even all the way over in Slovenia, my first ever poster on the wall of my room was of number 99 in an L.A. Kings jersey. I’m not saying it was meant to be … but it was meant to be.

Rob
It was a surreal experience to say the least. L.A. was a hockey town, thanks in large part to Wayne. He brought the fans, the stars and the media attention to our locker room doors every night.

Ted Irvine (1967–70)

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Yeah, it wasn’t quite like that for us back in in 1967, I can assure you of that. The Kings were the first real step into California for the NHL, and there were definitely some growing pains. First and foremost was fielding a team. The expansion draft back then wasn’t at all like what it is today. The original six owners just didn’t want to give up any of their players — plain and simple. So our team was made up of minor leaguers … and also the legend, Terry Sawchuk.

 

Charlie Simmer (1977–85)

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Even for us, as sort of the second generation of Kings, life was strange. L.A. really only had two rinks at the time: Culver City and Burbank. Even though the fans were starting to come out more to games, it was hard to grow the sport when you couldn’t play locally.

 

 

Luc Robitaille (1986–94, 1997–2001, ’03–’06) 

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That’s where roller hockey comes in. I remember in the ’90s roller hockey was the in thing. You have to realize, L.A. loves to do the trendy thing, no matter what it is. Hockey, and specifically roller hockey, was that thing back then, and everyone was doing it. You had to wait in line to play games down at the Venice Beach parking lots.

 

Ted
From the beginning, we had to work really hard to get respect from not only fans in L.A., but also from other teams around the league. We went out to Philly on one of our road trips, and those fans wanted to intimidate us. They knew we were young and new to the league and they thought they could scare us. As we drove our bus into the arena parking lot, the fans literally ran up and started shaking it.

That was the start of the Broad Street Bullies over there, but our team had some guys who could beat the heck out of them. Bill White and Dave Amadio could go toe to toe with the best of them, and because of them we held our own. That went a long way with our fans — they really respected that.

Anze
The fans still love that here. People might not think L.A. is a tough town, but our crowd cheers louder for big hits than some goals. I remember in the first round of our 2012 Cup run, Dustin Brown absolutely decked Henrik Sedin right by the Canucks’ bench and I’ve never seen the crowd react like that. Every single person in the arena felt that hit, and they made sure we knew they appreciated it.

Charlie
We definitely played a tough brand of hockey as well, but we also had the Triple Crown Line….

HARTFORD, CT - JANUARY 14: Dave Taylor #18, Marcel Dionne #16 and Charlie Simmer #11 of the Wales Conference and Los Angeles Kings pose for a portrait before their game against the Hartford Whalers as they were selected for the 1981 33rd NHL All-Star Game on January 14, 1981 at the Hartford Civic Center in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

Anze
Of course, that line of Dionne, Taylor and Simmer was one of the first L.A. hockey things I was taught about when I came over here. I was probably a King for maybe two weeks before some of the staff gave me a crash course on that famous line.

Charlie
Look, I’ll just say it’s a good thing I finally got promoted up to that first line, because I made those two guys into something. Hahaha. But seriously, that was a special time to be with the Kings.

Ted
I think when Mr. Cooke originally created the plan for the Kings, that was the sort of line he had in mind. Speed, skill, power — those three guys had it all.

Charlie
The biggest thing was that we all had each other’s backs. There were no egos, and we weren’t selfish. It was all about getting the win.

Luc
It’s players like that, and Ted as well, that really set the foundation and followed through on Mr. Cooke’s dream. People don’t realize how good the market is down here because of what they accomplished. Even the year before Wayne came, right around the middle point of the season, we sold out a good stretch of games and the building was really alive.

Rob
When Wayne came, the L.A. hockey world was flipped upside down. Actually, all of L.A. was flipped upside down.

Luc
We added some really good talent around that time too, including Larry Robinson and Kelly Hrudey — but Wayne was my idol growing up. I remember playing with him early in his first season, and because I looked up to him so much, I tried to copy his play. So, we’re on a two-on-one, I had the puck on the left wing and I wanted to feed him a pass because that’s what he was so good at. I wanted him to think, Whoa, this kid can pass! But of course I didn’t make the play. We got back to the bench and he looked at me and said: “Hey, Lucky — that’s what he called me — give it to me early next time and I’ll make the play, O.K.?”

For the next three months I passed him the puck as soon as it hit my stick. Eventually our coach pulled me aside and said I needed to play with the puck a bit more.

Rob
Even with all the fuss around Wayne’s trade, it took a little time for our popularity to grow. We would practice down in Culver City, and there used to be these public skates right after our practices. So we’d come out of the locker room and there would be families walking by us. It was rare that anyone would stop and say anything — it was so strange. I was thinking, Do you know who you just walked by? That’s Wayne Gretzky, Larry Robinson, Luc Robitaille.…

Anze
It was probably still a basketball town back then, I’d imagine.

Charlie
It definitely was for us before that too, and that probably goes without saying. I have a lot of respect for the Lakers though — they showed our team love. We used to do these charity softball games, and Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, Kurt Rambis and Jamaal Wilkes would all be there, just to name a few. But their best hitter? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for sure. He could swing it with the best of them.

Ted
The old dressing rooms back in the Forum were made for basketball players, so some of the proportions were hilarious. I remember Howie Menard trying to lace up his skates on one of the benches and his feet weren’t even touching the ground.

Luc
Wayne changed all that. He was a face for not only L.A. hockey, but also for the sport in America.

Rob
He had that “it” factor — the same way Anze does. My first time on the ice with Wayne, we’re playing against Winnipeg and he starts screaming, “Too many men! There’s too many men on the ice!” And we’re all looking around, trying to add up the players. Even the refs had to count, and he was right — there were too many men. I could tell right then, he saw the ice in a different way than anyone else.

Anze
Even back home in Slovenia, everyone who knew hockey knew about Wayne. I’m not sure exactly how it affected hockey in L.A. at the time, but it made noise overseas. People used to ask: “They have a hockey team where they make those movies?”

Luc
After a couple months with Wayne on the team, we used to have 300–400 people waiting for us in the parking lot after games, so we had to get a valet service! It was too crowded to walk to our cars with all the fans blocking us.

Charlie
I remember playing against Wayne when he was with Edmonton, it was obvious how good he was. What really struck me though was his love for the game. He could have been up four or five goals on you, but if the Oilers scored another really nice goal, he’d celebrate like it had broken a tie — he had that level of appreciation for great hockey.

Ted
When that ’93 Kings team went to the Stanley Cup finals, it was hard to believe what the organization had become. All the talent, fans and celebrities — it was fantastic.

Rob
Ah yes, the celebrities. We had some good ones back in the day, and as a young player it was very cool. Sylvester Stallone, John Candy and President Reagan were regulars during our playoff runs.

Anze
I had no idea David Beckham was such a big hockey fan until I moved here. Also Justin Bieber surprised me as a big Kings fan, but I guess he is Canadian, after all.…

Ted
The Canadian roots are strong in L.A.. They helped us survive originally. Mr. Cooke saw all the transplanted Canadians who were down in Southern California for the warm weather, so he knew there was a chance these snowbirds wanted to see some hockey. Also, have you seen the original Kings roster? All but one were from Canada. So you’re welcome, L.A.

Luc
Well, when our most famous Canadian left for St. Louis  in 1996, it was a tough period for us. We sort of lost our momentum, but the move to Staples Center helped fix that — it gave us a boost. But in L.A., if you want to be noticed, you have to compete for titles.

Rob
The team was sort of without direction, Mr. Anschutz helped with all of that. His stability when he became owner really lended a hand to management, and all the way down to the players. That helped shape the future of the club, and the eventual success we had in the draft.

Luc
Anze was the pick that put this organization back on the right track.

Rob
I played with Anze in his rookie season, and he made an impact in his first game. We were playing in Anaheim — and this was the year they won the Cup, so they were a good team — and Dustin Brown chipped the puck up to Anze, and he made Chris Pronger look like a little kid, and then he beat J.S. Giguere for his first career goal. Between Brown and Kopitar, we knew that L.A. was going to be in for something special soon.

Charlie
As a Kings fan, there was a breath of fresh air put back in the club … following Anze up by selecting Jonathan Quick in the third round in 2005, and then a couple years later grabbing Drew Doughty. They were building a great team.

Anze
Drew really changed the way we played in L.A. He’s the new age of defenseman who can do it all. People talk a lot about his offensive talent, which is deserved, but he’s so good defensively it’s amazing. He plays the toughest minutes against the best opponents night in and night out. Go watch his play against Shane Doan during the 2012 Cup run — that’s what he’s all about.

 

Rob
Every time I saw Drew I wanted to compare him to someone I played with or knew, but I couldn’t — he’s his own player. He’s unique, and when you hear some of the stuff these other GM’s say about him, you know you’ve got a great player.

Luc
When we got those guys, it was still a little bit of time before we were ready to compete, so we went to our fans and had to explain our process. Dean Lombardi, who has done a phenomenal job, told our fans basically, Look, we’re going to struggle for a couple of years, but we’re building something special. They understood and stuck by our side, and three years later we were cup champions.

Ted
When I look back at where we were 50 years ago, and where the Kings are now, it’s almost impossible to believe. When we skated the first couple times in L.A., we didn’t even have meal money! We were eating crackers from local restaurants and couch surfing. Now it’s such a first-class organization with some of the best fans in the league.

Anze
After we won in 2014, we were all able to reflect on how far we’d come. I remember celebrating with a bunch of different generations of Kings fans. There were people who had their grandkids with them who were new fans. They were so happy that they could experience this moment twice in three years. You realize when you play in L.A. that the Kings are a big team now, but we’re a small family and we all care about one another.

Once a King, always a King.

Here’s to another 50 great years. Thanks, L.A.

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