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Gretzky started it, but long building program now paying for Kings

by | CBSSports.com
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It has taken decades to build in sunny L.A., but the Kings finally have a 'rabid' fan base. (US Presswire)  
It has taken decades to build in sunny L.A., but the Kings finally have a 'rabid' fan base. (US Presswire)  

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Luc Robitaille left the celebration inside the Kings locker room and strode deliberately down a long, dark tunnel underneath Jobing.com Arena. Waiting for him at the other end of that passage was a large group of staff members who cheered wildly as they spotted the legendary Los Angeles King and current team president of business operations.

"We did so much work, breaking down our organization and rebuilding with all those young kids," Robitaille said with a touch of pride.

Finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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Nearly two decades after Wayne Gretzky sparked a grassroots hockey movement in southern California with Robitaille as his wingman, the Kings are back in the Stanley Cup Final following a five-game Western Conference final series win over the Phoenix Coyotes.

Dustin Penner's goal at 17:42 of overtime gave L.A. a 4-3 win Tuesday in Arizona and only its second berth in the championship series where it will meet either the New York Rangers or the New Jersey Devils.

Most of the current Kings were in grade school or diapers when Gretzky led L.A. to its other Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, but they still managed to glean some wisdom from that failed foray.

"We don't want to follow suit with the '93 team," said captain Dustin Brown, who adhered to a time-honored NHL tradition by refusing to touch the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly awarded it on Tuesday. "It's great what we've accomplished so far, but there's a lot of work to be done."

Maybe so, but the Kings have already done a lot of heavy lifting in this postseason. In knocking off Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix in the Western Conference playoffs, L.A. became the second team to knock off the top three seeds in the conference since the league switched to this playoff format. Calgary did it in 2004. If they draw New York in the Final, the Kings will also have a chance to defeat the NHL's top three seeds from the regular season.

"L.A. beat us and that's what should be remembered," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said after Game 5. "You've got to give them credit for what they're doing. They're playing a pretty complete game."

The numbers bear that out. Los Angeles has won 12 of 14 postseason games. It has posted an NHL-record 8-0 road mark and it has outscored opponents 41-22. It's an impressive body of work for a No. 8 seed that fired its coach in December, thought long and hard about dealing its captain at the trade deadline and didn't wrap up a playoff spot until the second to last game of the season.

"It's not as easy as it looks," defenseman Drew Doughty said, laughing. "I know we're winning games and, at times, dominating teams, but it's so hard out there. The game of hockey is a funny thing."

The roots of this revival go back to 2006 when general manager Dave Taylor, director of player personnel Bill O'Flaherty, coach John Torchetti and three assistants were fired while Kings CEO Tim Leiweke vacated his position. Dean Lombardi was hired as GM and the Kings began a rebuilding process through the draft, trades, free agency and a youth movement.

Farm products Brown, center Anze Kopitar and goalie Jonathan Quick were given greater roles. Doughty and defenseman Slava Voynov were among the recent draft picks that panned out. Penner, center Mike Richards and wing Justin Williams were among the key trades, and when L.A. needed a final piece to add scoring depth on its second line, Lombardi acquired Jeff Carter from Columbus at the trade deadline, turning a team that had struggled offensively into the Western Conference's second highest scoring club over the final quarter of the season.

"Even in the summer, I always felt we were a top forward away," Lombardi said. "That said, I certainly didn't think we were [going to rank] 30th in the league in scoring."

The other key Lombardi move was firing laid-back coach Terry Murray and replacing him with intense, fiery Darryl Sutter, who had worked under Lombardi in San Jose before he was fired in 2002. Sutter is sparing with his words at press conferences and he's often unintelligible, but he got his message across to the Kings, who were among the league's best clubs down the stretch.

"He's brought a level of accountability to this team, that's for sure," Doughty said.

In turn, the Kings have brought a new level of interest to the city of Los Angeles.

"Our TV ratings have doubled, our web traffic is close to doubling, we've already sold 1,500 new season tickets for next year and renewals are well into the 90th percentile," said team COO Chris McGowan, whose club sold out all but two games this season. "Winning has played a big role, but lot of that is also due to a dedicated focus on building our season ticket base and having the right staff in position to take advantage of our success."

As he sat at the podium Tuesday, digesting his team's latest achievement, Sutter remembered to pass the credit where it is most due.

"I'm proud of the players," he said. "They're the guys that sweat and bleed."

Los Angeles is just four wins away from accomplishing something no Kings team has ever done. For a change, they'll own the city's spotlight with the Lakers and Clippers already having been eliminated from the NBA playoffs.

"We'll probably have to get a bigger bandwagon," Penner cracked. "It's great for the city, great for hockey -- especially in southern California. We have a pretty rabid fan base. I think you'll see more of that now."

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