Greetings from Anaheim. It’s a new day here.
Literally, it just turned midnight. Figuratively, there was an important shift in the hockey-in-California narrative just now.
For the seventh time in the last nine years, a team from California will play in the Western Conference finals. The Kings are in for the third straight year, a streak that began with their 2012 run to the Cup. The Sharks came up on the short end of the conference finals in 2010 and 2011. The Ducks lost to Edmonton in five games in 2006, then beat the Detroit Red Wings in six games in 2007 en route to their first and only Cup.
Seven out of nine ain’t bad for a state that can never claim to be home to an Original Six franchise. Consider this: The last time a team from California wasn’t in the conference final, Rob Ford was a city councillor from Etobicoke and “The Hangover” was a few weeks away from its big-screen release.1
So, back to the shifting narratives.
In case you missed it, the Kings eliminated the Ducks in a 6-2 Game 7 victory. Here’s how the final seconds of that game played out:
There are a lot of angles from which to interpret this scene — validation of the Kings as masters of the elimination game; validation of Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau as a perennial Game 7 choke artist; a repudiation of a not-ready-for-prime-time rookie goaltender (John Gibson); a fond farewell to a future Hall of Famer (Teemu Selanne). Really, it can be all of these things.
Here’s another angle: It’s time to completely rethink the relationship of California to hockey. The Kings’ Game 7 victory over the Ducks, immediately following their seven-game victory over the Sharks, added some important layers to this story that can’t be overlooked.
The simple, prevailing narrative at least matches reality. The list of NHL players born — and, more significantly, trained — in California is well-recognized for its rapid growth. The Anaheim/Los Angeles/San Jose road trip is rightfully the most dreaded among out-of-state NHL coaches. Because of the three teams’ success, new fans are being groomed each day, enough to stage an outdoor game this year at Dodger Stadium.2
Yes, the future is bright. So is the present.
But here and now, looking back on yesterday just after midnight in Anaheim, there’s more than just a present and a future for hockey in California. There’s a rich past, too. The time has come to re-think the narrative and give its complexity some credit.
Allow me to suggest a basic outline:
1. All three teams have played each other in the playoffs now, and there’s plenty of contempt to go around.
We’ve seen Ducks-Sharks, Sharks-Kings, and now Ducks-Kings series in the postseason. One thing we hadn’t seen in California until recently were billboards like these, featuring actual ducks in various stages of death. This doesn’t happen when the local basketball teams and local baseball teams get together in the playoffs, mainly because the local basketball teams (Clippers and Lakers) and local baseball teams (Angels and Dodgers) have never gotten together in the playoffs.
As we just learned here, fighting words can be fun.
Kings fans accused Ducks fans of apathy. Ducks fans accused Kings fans of being part of a bandwagon that arrives on the schedule of a lunar eclipse. Fans of both Southern California teams accuse the Sharks of tanking in the playoffs every season, because their teams have each won a Stanley Cup and the Sharks have not. (And yet, for my money, San Jose’s building offers the best atmosphere of the three.)
That segues well into my next point …
2. Each franchise has an identity.
These stereotypes have taken root because they’re rooted in fact. Each franchise has its own history, its own character — a unique set of DNA, if you will.
In San Jose, there are the bleak pre-Patrick Marleau years, punctuated by a Jamey Baker playoff goal and Arturs Irbe’s broken English. That’s still embedded in the DNA somewhere. Then there are the Marleau years, each season coming with a mid-May expiration date. Every early exit causes enough scar tissue to build up that it almost doesn’t hurt anymore. Then a 3-0 lead evaporates at the hands of the Kings, exposing a new layer of suffering. The Buddhist concept of dukkha is alive and well in Silicon Valley.
In Los Angeles, there are the bleak pre-Jonathan Quick/Drew Doughty/Anze Kopitar/Dustin Brown years. Nay, decades. It’s easy (if not fashionable) to forget that only six franchises have existed longer than the Los Angeles Kings. An analogy: if you were to compress the Kings’ entire history to one 30-day month, on the last day of that month they found a goaltender. Now stretch that month out over 47 years, throw in Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille and Bernie Nicholls and Marcel Dionne in there somewhere, spread those stars’ tenures out long enough to render the offense impotent and you have the Kings in all their glory. This is a franchise that has waited a long time for sustained success. If that success looks boring and comes with a boring coach, that’s OK. Beggars can’t be choosers.
In Anaheim, there are the bleak pre-first lockout years. Since 2005-06, the star players have done a remarkable job of aligning here, making Jean-Sebastien Giguere wonder why Bryan Murray couldn’t at least keep Selanne and Paul Kariya together in 2003. With Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Chris Kunitz and others joining Selanne and a steady stream of good-to-great goaltenders over the last eight years, it’s unclear how apathy can exist at all. When the Ducks win, they win with superstars. This was the first California team to win a Cup and that can never change.
3. The common thread: It’s been a while since any of the three teams had a bleak outlook.
Three teams, three emerging traditions. They each look a little different, but each has led to success. It’s getting dangerous to generalize about the NHL teams in California other than to say 1, California ice isn’t as good as Canada’s and 2, all three teams have been pretty good for a while now. The more they clash in the playoffs, the more dividing lines will be drawn between Sharks, Kings and Ducks fans.
That’s a new thing, and a good thing, and watching it play out should be a blast.
1. The current mayor of Toronto and “The Hangover” obviously have nothing to do with each other. It’s foolish to imply otherwise.
2. No less an authority than Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, said the game “may set a new standard for outdoor games … in terms of player and fan comfort.”