And to think this odyssey began on a farm in Viking, Alberta, which is much closer to the continent’s polar regions than any palm tree or thong. Darryl Sutter was doing what a Canadian farmer does, scooping up manure on a cold day, when the phone rang in December of 2011. The Los Angeles Kings wanted him to coach a talented team, a situation that could make him look very good if he injected quick doses of energy and purpose. This would seem to be a three-second decision, and for Sutter, it was.
No, he said.
But really, how could he refuse? He still was in his early 50s, too young to join his cattle in the pasture. Sure, he had coached several postseason disappointments in Chicago, San Jose and Calgary over 12 seasons — losing with the Flames in his one Stanley Cup finals appearance — but a five-year hiatus was long enough. The man doing the asking, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi, remembers the sequence differently, telling the Los Angeles Times that Sutter was ready and eager from the minute he asked.
The story may have started as crap, literally, but it ends in glory. Sutter was exactly the presence this young team needed, preaching no-nonsense discipline and intensity while maximizing the skills of gifted players such as defenseman Drew Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick. The Kings won a Stanley Cup two seasons ago with a defense-and-Quick web, and when Lombardi blowtorched the offense with a deadline deal for Marian Gaborik this year, it inspired a once-forgotten franchise in southern California to its second Cup in three years, which qualfies as a budding dynasty in hockey’s salary-cap era.
“I don’t know if we’re part of (a dynasty) yet, but hopefully we’re on our way to that,” Doughty said. “I believe this group could be at that point. … Now that we’ve won a second one, it shows how well our team is put together.’’
It’s no concidence that championships are won these days with a dynamic bond between a front-office boss who finds the talent and the coach who hones it — see Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford in San Antonio, Pete Carroll and John Schneider in Seattle. Sutter and Lombardi are in the same class, having won 10 of their last 11 playoff series. The only loss was last year to Chicago, which wound up winning the Cup. This year, in a breahtaking run that included seven overtime games and three Game 7 wins on the road, the Kings avenged that blip. There is no telling how many more Cups they can win, with Gaborik expected to re-sign a long-term deal.
Not that Sutter wants to coach forever. To understand his life priorities, check out his reaction after Alec Martinez beat Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers in the second overtime of Game 5. Sutter showed no emotion as he walked across the ice, but it wasn’t until he was handed the Cup — and was able to share it with his 21-year-old son, Chris, who was born with Down syndrome — that he could cherish what was most precious to him. In due time, Sutter hoisted the Cup for all the fans to see, then drank out of it with his players in the locker room.
The farm will be there. In a hockey life, these moments in L.A., of all places, will define Darryl Sutter, part of a legendary family that has maintained a regal niche in hockey for four decades. “The best and worst part of winning is till you’ve won it, you don’t really understand what that is,’’ he said. “Then when you lose, you’re pretty close to understanding it. Anybody that’s never been in either one of those positions, they’ll never understand it, never. That’s why not many people or teams win it, because it’s hard for them to take on the whole challenge of what it is to win and the price you got to pay and the sacrifice you got to make.”
His message has resonated. “Intense dude,” defenseman Willie Mitchell told NHL.com. “He wants everyone to get the proper focus. That’s the biggest thing. You’re always prepared. He’s a master motivator, knows when to push the buttons and how to push the buttons. Sometimes you don’t like it, but look at his track record … it works.”
Downtown? This time, the parade should be done exclusively at the beach, ditching the customary procession from 5th and Figueroa streets to the Staples Center. What is so charming about the Kings culture is that the epicenter of the championship buzz was nowhere near downtown, the Westside, Hollywood, the Valley or any of the other southern California population pockets that seemingly would adore this team.
No, they ought to be called the Manhattan Beach Kings. Because that’s where they live, train, eat, drink, date, hang out — all of them, either there or in neighboring Hermosa Beach — in what is the 73-and-sunny antithesis of where they grew up, from New England and Michigan to little towns in Canada to the wilds of Russia and Slovenia. Want to find the most famous of female sportscasters, Fox’s Erin Andrews? Please don’t follow her, but she spends time in Manhattan Beach with her boyfriend, center Jarret Stoll. When Sutter was asked by the New York Times about how the Cup Finals was generating interest in L.A., he offered a correction.
“I live here in Manhattan Beach,” he said. “Everybody here knows what’s going on with the Kings.’’
But what about L.A.? I was in Malibu on a Saturday afternoon in early June — and felt no sense of Kings pride in the hours before Game 2. I was in Culver City and Venice on Saturday night, and while a whoop did go up in the restaurant bar when the Kings won another overtime game, it lasted about five seconds. I saw two t-shirts Sunday in Santa Monica. Even if the Kings are building a mini-dynasty, they are still a niche team in a town where the entertainment pecking order is the beach scene first, marijuana second, meth third, Hollywood fourth, Dodgers fifth, the gallery/museum scene sixth, marijuana seventh, mixology bars eighth, the fading Lakers ninth and the Clippers still 10th even with Donald Sterling gone. Cocaine is either 11th or first, depending on one’s disposable income. Farmers markers and swap meets are somewhere in here, as are USC football and Charlie Sheen sightings.
Much like the L.A. myth, the Kings liked to live dangerously on the ice. To survive the conference playoffs, they had to overcome an 0-3 series deficit against San Jose and a 2-3 series deficit against freeway rival Anaheim. They blew a 3-1 series lead versus Chicago, then had to overcome a 2-0 crater in Game 7 to win in overtime at the United Center. In the Finals, they fell behind twice by multi-goal deficits, only to storm back and win both games in overtime against the sometimes impenetrable Lundqvist. In the clincher, they were down 1-0 and 2-1 before recovering. Were the Kings so good, they slipped into deficits subconsciously so they could challenge themselves to climb out of them?
Doesn’t matter. They have done what Wayne Gretzky couldn’t in his celebrated tour of Hollywood: Win two titles for a franchise that went Cup-less for its first 45 years. Once, L.A. was a place where opponents knew they could hit the beach and party. Now, the resident team is the pride of the NHL. “I might be biased here, but this has got to be the best place in the league to play, with how well we’re treated, our fan base, how everything has been turned around,” Stoll told the L.A. Times. “There’s various things to do in L.A., yes. If you want to get distracted you probably can, but if you’re going to get distracted, you probably won’t be in the league very long.”
The only distraction now is a summer at the beach. As for their coach, consider this: Gretzky came from Alberta (via Edmonton) and couldn’t win a Stanley Cup, but Darryl Sutter made the same trek (via Viking) and has won two Cups.
Seems we should start describing Sutter as The Great One in L.A.