Sports Opinion & Analysis

I Left My Teeth in El Segundo

In NHL on February 6, 2013 at 3:04 pm

By Chris Carosi

For being a traditionally cold weather (ahem, designed by Canadians) sport, ice hockey has actually been a tradition in California for a number of years now. Well before “Gretzky  Fever” in the late eighties/early nineties, the California Golden Seals were established in the hockey hungry breadbasket of Oakland, CA and the defending Cup champion Kings near the icy fjords of the mighty Los Angeles River.

In 1967, the NHL expanded to twelve franchises, doubling its number of the “Original Six” with some teams that are today just as synonymous with the imagery and mythology of the game: the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota (now Dallas) Stars, Los Angeles Kings, and the Seals. Those Seals later became the Cleveland Barons, and then eventually merged with Minnesota in the 70’s.

Visual proof that the 1970’s were better.

What those Seals could not do (fill seats, win games, or find confident ownership), the rest of the expanding hockey world could. The expansion of 1967–and the subsequent 1979 merger with the World Hockey Association (WHA), which brought in four more teams–created a steady gravitational pull of attention to the increasingly fast and fabulous professional game. Wayne Gretzky at the beginning of the 80’s and Mario Lemieux at the end bookended a fast, goal-a-minute era that seems ridiculous when compared to today’s game: the lack of padding on the goalies make the nets seem enormous and the players seem untouched as they gallop down the ice in a far less-obstructed manner.

“What is French for, ‘I do not look like an actual Penguin?'”

The NHL’s Pacific Division debuted in 1993, when the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim joined the Kings and Shark as the third California franchise. Outside of the ubiquitous Red Wings and the young, fast, and dominating Chicago Blackhawks, this division has really done well, winning four cups since the division was founded and three President’s Trophies. Here’s a cheers to the great unsung sports division: the NHL Pacific Division!

Los Angeles Kings

The Kings’ snatching of Wayne Gretzky in the summer of 1988 was a dramatic shift for the NHL’s center of gravity. For a league more subservient to its history and forefathers than most North American sports and a strange conservatism that still in the year 2013 isn’t comfortable with displays of charisma, this was a shift of epic proportions. The Kings’ subsequent Campbell Conference Championship and loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 season was the first foray of West Coast championship hockey.

After losing that Cup Final his rookie season, Luc Robitaille went on to become the highest-scoring left winger in league history and still holds most of the Kings’ scoring records. And after slowly and smartly building up their franchise with pristine young leadership with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick, the Kings positively destroyed the competition last year in a march to claim their first Stanley Cup.

Barry Melrose’s mullet coached the Kings to their first Stanley Cup Final in 1993.

San Jose Sharks

The NHL returned to the Bay Area when the San Jose Sharks broke ground at the Cow Palace (still a cowboy and rodeo venue in San Francisco) in 1990. The Sharks have been one of the great unsung stable franchises in pro sports, being heavily supported by a devoted (albeit very suburban) fan base for over two decades and attracting great players such as Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley to skate in the lovely and clean HP Pavillion. However, not unlike the McNabb-era Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL, the Sharks seem to play great hockey in the regular season and then stumble tragically in the playoffs. This year, they are off to a great start. Perhaps this shortened season will keep them focused enough to succeed in this year’s playoffs.

Sidebar: They serve brisket sandwiches at the Cow Palace at minor league hockey games. Not joking.

Anaheim Ducks

A franchise with the peculiar designation of being founded as a result of a Emilio Estevez vehicle, the Ducks have surprisingly remained one of the most successful franchises in the modern game, thanks to a (yes) devoted Orange County fanbase and an often brilliant balance of great draft picks (Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan) and ageless, talented veteran leadership (Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne). Debuting as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1993, the Ducks wasted no time, making the playoffs in their third season, building a team around winger Paul Kariya, taking the hall-of-famer-packed roster of the New Jersey Devils to seven games in the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, and then winning the thing outright in a dismantling of the Ottawa Senators in 2007. While the Ducks have been steady recently, they haven’t exactly been dominant. There main forward lines are getting older (like, ancient) but have been competitive this year with new coach Bruce Boudreau.

Jean-Sebastian Giguere had the strange honor of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP) after losing game seven of the Stanley Cup Final in 2003.

Phoenix Coyotes

While not technically a West Coast team per se, the Coyotes are very much a part of the West Coast hockey conversation, although their main storyline is unfortunately their “will they or won’t they” game of relocation. The NHL has owned the Coyotes since 2009, and without a proper buyer, could very well be moved to Quebec City or some other ice chest in the fur-trapping wilderness of the Provinces. They began as the relocated Winnipeg Jets in the great franchise relocations of 1996, when two Canadian franchises moved west of the Rockies (the other being the Quebec City franchise, the Nordiques–confused yet?). It’s a damn good story that the Coyotes still have played scrappy, competitive hockey the last few seasons, led by unsung leader Shane Doan and skating against the Kings last year in their first Western Conference Final. Veteran leadership and scrappy-ness aside, these Coyotes (not unlike the actual animal they are named for) are a wondering spirit in the desert, and would likely excel better if laid in a nice firm base where they can be free.

A hockey player wearing a cowboy hat in full pads. Never thought of that, did you?

Dallas Stars

Though not a West Coast team, the Stars have been a great propagator of an expanded NHL in new markets since their founding all the way back in 1967 as the Minnesota Stars and move to Dallas in 1993. The Stars were the second franchise to ever win a Cup in a non-traditional American market (the first being the Colorado Avalanche). And being a frequent and beleaguered opponent to the teams mentioned above, this team is very much a part of the West Coast hockey conversation. They are re-branding their logos and uniforms next year, so look for that to be a resurgence for them.

The hockey world’s version of the Zapruder Film.

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