October 14th, 1967. The Los Angeles Kings play their first game ever, at the Long Beach Sports Arena, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers 4-2. June 11th, 2012. The Los Angeles Kings play Game 6 in the Stanley Cup Final, defeating the New Jersey Devils 6-1. Two victories separated by 45 years. Think about that for a second, from a fan’s perspective. Think about all those years in-between. All those years spent on a few great teams and a lot of not so great teams; spent on the fleeting promise of glory and the near-constant, bitter taste of defeat – time and time again. All those years spent waiting…waiting for a chance to watch the team you live and die by lift hockey’s most coveted trophy – the holy grail of the sport – and now, for the Kings franchise and their fans, that wait is over.
This is a piece for and about Kings fans. Real Kings fans. Not the bandwagon fans. Not the fans that started to pay attention once something interesting happened. This is a piece about the Fans that have waited those 45 years for a chance to say that their team is unequivocally the best in the sport, and that they’ve got a big, shiny piece of hardware to prove it. Fans who remember the Triple Crown line and the Miracle on Manchester. Fans who know, off the top of their head, that that Luc Robitaille scored 668 goals over the course of his illustrious (and largely LA-based) career, good for 1st all time among Left Wingers. Fans who remember an LA Kings team before Wayne Gretzky made hockey sexy in Southern California. Fans who still shudder whenever the spectre of Marty McSorley’s illegal stick is dredged up. Fans like my friends Mike and Brian Fletcher.
The Fletcher brothers are a couple of guys that I play beer league hockey with. Mike’s 39 and a police officer in Southern Orange County. Brian is 36, married with two children, and an immensely talented photographer. They grew up in Mission Viejo, CA as a couple of puck heads, at a time when such a thing was awfully rare. Mike has told me stories about, as a teenager, playing roller hockey on a tennis court after a friend somehow secured the very first RHI puck. Before entering the police academy, Mike was also the manager of the now long-gone hockey equipment store in the Westminster Mall. Brian starred in the championship game of the very first Koho Cup, which his club, the Mission Viejo Panthers, eventually lost to the Ridgecrest Dynamo 5-3. That game was held at the then-newly built Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim (R.I.P.).
Brian met his future wife while they were both playing hockey, and they’ve raised their kids, Brenden and Keira, to taunt Ducks fans – they’re 5 and 4, respectively. (One time, I asked Brenden what number he wanted to be when he played hockey, and he replied, “Eight.” I asked him why, and he told me, “Because Drew Doughty is Eight.” When I informed him that a certain Mr. Teemu Selanne also wore number Eight, he replied, “I don’t like that guy.” Again: five-years-old.) To say that the Fletcher brothers are OG hockey fans, would be a bit of an understatement.
Now, this is not some elaborate set-up to a punch-line about how old Mike and Brian are (although I do take every opportunity to remind them of this) – no, the only purpose of the above backstory is to illuminate just how thoroughly entrenched the Fletchers have been in the hockey community, for a very long time – they grew up “hockey,” and now, they continue to live “hockey.” And now, finally, they can both celebrate their Kings having won the oh-so-elusive Stanley Cup. And as much as it pains me to admit this (Ducks fan that I am), I’m incredibly happy for them, just like I’m incredibly happy for all of the truly diehard Kings fans who woke up the morning after, absolutely over the moon.
Southern California and her hockey fans have received a lot of flak over the course of the Kings run to the Final, mostly over the downright embarrassing quality of local media coverage (and deservedly so), but also for the preposterous amount of easy-to-see-through bandwagon fans – which, to be fair, you’re going to get any time any Los Angeles-based sports team does anything spectacular – it’s just that it’s much more noticeable with bandwagon hockey fans. But getting lost in all of this is the much-deserved joy felt by all of the long-suffering true Kings fans. They’ve suffered through 45 years of mostly futility, pock marked with a few glimmers of hope. As Christine told me the other day, only half-joking re: the Kings sudden inability to close out the series against New Jersey, “I’ve already given up hope. I’m a Kings fan – we expect for these kinds of things to happen.”
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One of the beer league teams I play on with Mike and Brian has its games on Monday nights. Our game on Monday, June 11th was scheduled for 6:50 PM – or, in other words, right smack dab in the middle of Game 6. Being the Kings fans they are, I had the feeling that this Monday might have a certain, Fletcher-less quality. When I texted both of the Fletchers to ask whether they’d be playing, I swiftly received the responses I knew were coming. To paraphrase: “Hell no!” And I can’t say that I blame them – and in this case, especially Mike. Why? Because, well you see, Mike would actually be at Staples Center, watching the game, waiting for a chance to see his team lift the Cup in person. (Some friends who own a suite at Staples invited Mike and his girlfriend Jeanette to the game – good friends to have, no?)
And see the Cup, he did – up close and personal…like touch it, up close and personal…at the post-victory VIP Party in Staples Center. Yep, that’s right. (Mike’s also developed a bit of a friendship with Dustin Penner, who managed to get Mike and Jeanette into the party.) As a fan who has suffered through some truly awful teams, to get to enjoy that moment in such an immediate fashion…it’s a special thing, and I’m thrilled for Mike. And for Brian, who texted me the following when I texted him a congratulatory message:
Appears as though someone was having a good time. And as he should – as all true LA Kings fan should, after finally witnessing a moment that most could only dream about, but never seriously consider as a possibility. After all, they’re Kings fans – they actively expect disaster to strike.
Well, not anymore. At least not for this moment in time. Now when you say, “I’m a Kings fan,” you can say it proudly. They’re the Stanley Cup Champions. Enjoy it.