LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Jonathan Quick stood at the edge of the rink and looked up at the Staples Center roof. Several large banners were rolled up tight against the rafters, just waiting to be unfurled.
Although the new ice was chilly, the Los Angeles Kings goalie warmed up at the sight.
“It’ll be good to see those,” Quick said. “And then we can finally put it out of our minds and get back to work.”
The Kings raised the Stanley Cup for the first time last summer, ending 45 years of frustration. Thanks to the NHL lockout, they still haven’t been able to raise their first championship banner.
The Kings are eager for that celebration, which is all but certain to be next Saturday, Jan. 19, after the lockout formally ends. They’re also ready to get back to work on defending their title—and with their entire roster returning intact from last season’s eighth-seeded championship team, they believe they’re in prime position to do it.
“It’s been a long haul to get back here, but we all just want to get back out there and get back to playing,” Kings forward Jarret Stoll said. “It’s fun just to be in here. It feels like we’re right back to last season.”
While the entire NHL struggles to persuade its fans to return to the rinks over the next few months, the Kings are less worried than most teams about repairing the damage from the four-month lockout. After all, the Stanley Cup and a championship banner can soothe an awful lot of hurt feelings—and the Kings are all but certain every home game this season will be a sellout.
“We’ve had great support throughout the summer and the whole off-season,” said Luc Robitaille, the Hall of Fame forward and the Kings’ president of business operations. “Our fans just want to come back. That’s all we’ve heard the whole time: ‘When can we come see the banners?'”
Stoll, Matt Greene and the Kings’ Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie joined coach Darryl Sutter, general manager Dean Lombardi and the rest of the Kings’ brass Thursday to announce a million-dollar charity donation and a major team sponsorship agreement with McDonald’s.
They’re still not formally back to work until the players ratify the labour deal, but the Kings have already begun thinking about the challenges of getting back to the playoffs and winning it all again on a tight, 48-game schedule. Sutter coached the Chicago Blackhawks during the NHL’s last shortened season in 1995, so he knows its particular challenges.
“Dean did a great job of keeping the whole team together,” Sutter said. “To know that we have the whole team again is pretty cool … but there’s a huge toll it takes on the players in a short season, and there’s a reload factor there. I think the strength of our team is our depth and our character, so we’re going to keep to that.”
Indeed, the Kings showed plenty of mental toughness while becoming the first No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup, rampaging through the last post-season with 16 wins in 20 games. Los Angeles’ championship was the first in the Second Six franchise’s history, and the lockout provided the players and fans with extra time to celebrate—not that they wanted it, of course.
“Sometimes you just shake your head about how it all happened, but here we are now,” Stoll said.
Lombardi and Tim Leiweke, the president of the sports conglomerate that owns the Kings, both decided early in the off-season to keep their roster completely together—something they’re pretty sure has never been done in hockey history. Leiweke told Lombardi he’ll have whatever money he needs to keep the club in title contention, which hasn’t always been a given in the Kings’ lengthy history.
“There’s no doubt in my mind about these players after what they did in the playoffs,” Lombardi said. “It made me have a newfound appreciation for all of these guys. There’s no doubt they’re going to build on it. So much of this season is mental, and they’ve got the mental toughness to do it. It’s not about recapturing that feeling from last season. It’s about writing a new story.”
Not everything is ideal for the Kings as they prepare for the likely start of practice on Sunday. Anze Kopitar, the Kings’ leading scorer last season, slightly injured his knee a week ago while playing in Sweden.
Lombardi said Kopitar is likely to need three weeks of recovery before he can play, which means he could miss the Kings’ first few games. If Kopitar is out, Jeff Carter could slide up to centre to fill in for the Slovenian star.
Backup goalie Jonathan Bernier asked for a trade last summer after Quick signed a 10-year, $58-million contract extension, but Lombardi said Bernier hasn’t repeated the demand lately. Lombardi says it’s unlikely he’ll move the talented Bernier, given the demands of a short season and the goalie depth in Los Angeles’ farm system.
“I don’t think it’s feasible right now,” Lombardi said. “He’s an important part of our depth—important to what we’re trying to do here.”