The icy road to the Stanley Cup took the LA Kings decades. The Kings finally — finally — clinched a Cup win last June.
Long-time fans, like Mark Glenn, were stunned.
“It was almost like an out-of-body experience,” he said. “It was. We had become so accustomed to coming up short and dealing with the disappointments.”
But the disappointments weren’t over. The NHL lockout cut the Kings’ championship-defending season like a sharpened hockey skate. No NHL champion — neither the Tampa Bay Lightning nor the New York Rangers — has ever successfully defended its title after a lockout. And no Stanley Cup winner has netted a repeat championship in the past 15 years. OC Register reporter Rich Hammond has covered the NHL and the Kings for the last dozen years.
“For whatever reason, hockey is the hardest sport,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what it is. I mean, there’s the same number of teams get into the playoffs as they do in basketball. You have roughly the same number of teams, same number of games during a regular season. There’s no inherit reason why it should be so much tougher, but it is. I mean, playoffs seem to be a greater opportunity for upsets. Obviously the Kings came in as the No. 8 seed last year and nobody saw that coming.”
The lack of back-to-back champions is sometimes dubbed the “Stanley Cup hangover.” Hammond said the shortened season just adds another headache.
“You just don’t know. Every season has its own dynamic,” Hammond said. “How do they change now that they’re champions, you know? Are they still as hungry as they were last year to win? You don’t know. That’s in everybody’s head. So you’re really not going to know until you get back out on the ice.”
The Kings’ Darryl Sutter pointed out he’s the only head coach left from the NHL’s last 48-game season, which followed the lockout in 1994-95 when he was with Calgary. So he’s coached a shortened campaign before.
“It has nothing to do with repeating, quite honest,” Sutter said. “First off, a 48-game season is about making the playoffs. And if we can draw on our experience in May and June, what we went through, it was just how difficult it was to get there.”
But Sutter said he thinks he has a team with the mental toughness to make the postseason this year. All of the players who skated on the previous season’s championship squad are back. But will the fans return?
Last Sunday, dozens of fans packed the stands on opening day of Kings’ training camp. Joshua Smith wore a black Kings jersey as he watched along the glass. He was there. But he said the lockout’s going to drive fans away.
“Honestly I wouldn’t even try to go to the home opener if we didn’t win the Cup,” Smith said. “And I can’t wait — if I’m there, I can’t wait to boo Gary Bettman. So, and you’d better believe he’s going to get booed. So, he’s not presenting the Cup to us this time, you know, so there’s not going to be that polite clapping and cheering. It’s going to be, ‘You’re the guy we blame for causing the lockout, a third time.’”
But fans who’ve followed the Kings for years — or even decades — like Dit-Lafleche Burnet — say they’ll stick around. Demand for tickets for the home opener was said to be even greater than for the final Stanley Cup game. Burnet’s hopeful the Kings can pull off a repeat championship.
“I’m being cautiously optimistic now,” Burnet said. “The thing that a Kings fan always has to be is just like, ‘Oh, okay, I know they’re going to win it.’ But in the back of your mind, you’re like, ‘I hope they don’t blow it.’”