Officially, the final reward of the Kings’ Stanley Cup championship comes tomorrow, when the team raises its first championship banner before the season opener at STAPLES Center. For President/General Manger Dean Lombardi, President, Business Operations Luc Robitaille, and Head Coach Darryl Sutter, however, the riches came a day early as the three were rewarded with multi-year contract extensions.
Lombardi said his four-year extension was a reflection of the entire organization.
“First of all, you got to thank your owners, Mr. (Philip) Anschutz and Tim (Leiweke),” Lombardi said. “It’s a tribute to the staff. But most of all, like I have always said, a GM. is only as good as his players. In this instance, I really got to thank my players. Generals manage, soldiers win. They are the guys who got it done. A longtime (football) G.M. told me, ‘Never forget, you are only as good as your players.’ I guess getting four years of security is a reflection on them.”
When Lombardi arrived in Los Angeles in 2006, he spoke of a five-year plan. Now that his plan has been successful, the goal is not only to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but also to become a franchise that competes for titles on an annual basis.
“This is a new challenge,” he said. “I think this is ultimately what teams strive for – to be the Detroit Red Wings, or the New England Patriots.”
Sutter pointed to Lombardi as the architect of the Kings’ success.
“The best part of this,” Sutter said, “is Dean’s, not Darryl’s. He’s the guy that put all this in place, so that’s what’s more important.”
Sutter made it clear that he has reached a point in his career where he can be selective about when and where he works. He believes coaching the Kings is one of hockey’s choice gigs.
“I’m not a starting coach,” he said. “I’m an older coach. I will be 55 this year, so don’t have to coach to coach. I want to coach good people and good players. That’s why I came in December last year. It didn’t matter if they won the Cup or not. You see the young players that they have and you want to be a part of it.”
Twenty-four hours before the Kings see their championship banner unfurled in the STAPLES Center rafters, Sutter talked about the challenge his team faces in staying focused.
“They are not machines, they are players,” Sutter said. “They have to go through the ceremony tomorrow and, at the same time, be ready to play the game. As awesome as it is that we get to raise the banner, being a noon start, it’s not easy for the players.”
Sutter said it is safe to assume Anze Kopitar, still on the mend after suffering a knee injury while playing in Sweden, would not be available for the opener.
Asked if anything concerned him as is team enters the season, Sutter responded with a deadpan: “Chicago tomorrow,” Sutter said. “That would be a big one for me.”
WILLIE MITCHELL SKATES
For the first time since the Kings’ shortened camp opened, Willie Mitchell was able skate, spending about a half-hour alone on the ice after practice. Mitchell said he felt no pain in his surgically repaired knee, but said he was merely taking “baby steps.” He downplayed his injury, calling it a “wear and tear thing,” and said his surgery was nothing major. “They just went in and cleaned it up. Not a big procedure. A lot of guys have this all the time. No ligaments, no nothing like that.” Mitchell declined to assess his health on a percentage basis. “I can’t say that,” he said. “I just twirled around.”
While speaking to the media for the first time this year, Mitchell said winning the Stanley Cup has left him hungry for more.
“I get it now, why guys want to repeat so bad,” he said. “You get a taste of that, a taste of what it all feels like, a taste of what your summer feel like and I absolutely get why guys want to do it so bad again.”
A FORMER KING’S VIEW
Tomorrow’s opener vs. Chicago will be televised to 55 percent of the country by NBC, with former King Eddie Olczyk joining Dave Strater in the broadcast booth. Olczyk, who scored 21 goals for the 1996-97 Kings, was at practice today. He talked about how far the organization has come since he played here, and said that even in the late ’90s, there was a sense something was building.
“When you have outstanding people that are hungry to do what is right,” Olczyk said, “at some point you are going to be rewarded. You look at STAPLES Center, at the outstanding work in the community. Being part of the Kings family for a short time, you knew the leadership was in place. There was no doubt the foundation was there. It was just matter of building on it.”
Olczyk offered a one-word description of the Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup last spring.
“Domination,” Olczyk said.
He believes the Kings and Blues are the early favorites in the West, and likes the fact that the Kings have been able to retain, essentially, their entire team.
“Familiarity is an important part of the game and if you can have it, it’s going to bode very well for you in a lot of situations.”
Olczyk knows a thing or two about wearing a target on his back. He was part of the 1984 United States Olympic team that failed to medal four years after the Miracle on Ice, and also played for the Rangers’ 1994 Cup team. He and the Rangers were ousted from the playoffs in the second round in ’95.
“Everybody knew who we were,” Olczyk said of his Olympic experience. “We didn’t take anyone by surprise. It’s a little different in an Olympic era than it is in the NHL, but I know exactly what it is like. We won the Cup (with the Rangers) in ’94, and then we had the work stoppage so I know what these guys are going through. But it is a different animal in that they got a lot of rest and are, for the most part, healthy. The Kings can play any way you want; that’s what makes them so dangerous.”
Olczyk stressed that getting out of the gate fast is imperative in a 48-game season.
“The first 14 games to me are key,” he said. “I don’t think you can make the playoffs in the first 14, but I think you can miss the playoffs in the first 14.”
Q&A WITH JARRET STOLL
Jarret Stoll’s overtime goal to close out Vancouver in the opening round of last spring’s Stanley Cup Playoffs was one of the many memorable moments in the Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup. Just as important to the Kings is Stoll’s penchant for playing a tough brand of hockey, night in and night out, while providing veteran leadership. The 30-year-old Stoll, who centers the Kings’ third line between Dwight King and Trevor Lewis, sat down for a short Q&A after today’s practice.
Q: What was it like taking the Stanley Cup to your hometown of Yorkton, Sask.?
A: It’s a small town, (surrounded by) farming communities. Everybody knows everybody. When you grow in a small town like that, there is a big emphasis on hockey. In the winter, you play hockey. In the summer, you play baseball. You go to church, you go to school, and that’s your life. It’s fun. It’s good to go back and see people that have supported me for so many years and helped to get me to where I am today. A lot of them have never seen the Stanley Cup in person, so to see all the kids who came out was special. I think it was the first time it was in Yorkton, so that was pretty cool. It was a quick day, but it was pretty special.
Q: Does it feel any different now when you step on the ice as a Stanley Cup champion?
A: That’s over with, now. You look back on memories and how much fun it was, but it’s over with. It’s a new season. Everyone has a chance to win it, and that’s how you have to look at it. Teams are going to prepare for you no matter what. I don’t think it really matters that there is target on our back. We have not used that word in here. We have not used the “R” word once. We are just going about our business and trying to win our first game. The focus is on the Chicago Blackhawks, and then go from there.
Q: You had a huge overtime goal to close out the Vancouver series. That was early in your playoff run. It looked to be one of the bigger goals of your playoff run. Did it feel that way to you?
A: Yeah, for sure. Any time you score a goal in overtime in the playoffs to win a series it’s big. I am a Canadian guy and obviously in Vancouver, they love their hockey. They had a big year and deserved to go farther, but we caught them at the right time and played well. It was a big goal, but there were a lot of big goals. You don’t just look at one or two. In playoffs, every goal is huge. You look at Kopitar’s goal in Game 1 (of the Final), Carter’s goal in Game 2 (of the Final). Those are huge goals. But, at the same time, we needed to get over that hump of winning a playoff series, and that was the first series win for a lot of these guys.
Q: You mentioned that you are a Canadian guy. You seem to play what we would consider a Canadian style of hockey. Is there any truth to that?
A: Yeah, I just like a simple game, nothing fancy. Play both ends of the rink and chip in when I can offensively. I hope to have a better year offensively than last year. The little things are important – be a good teammate, be a good professional. All those things go into being a good player.
Q: How do you explain your uncanny success on shootouts?
A: I just try to find openings. I look at video, watch goalies on shootouts to see what their tendencies are, what holes you can find, and try to hit your shot. You have to be confident going in. Don’t be wavering; be confident. I have had some luck, too. I have hit some posts and had it go in. You need those bounces.
Q: When you take the puck and skate in on the goalie, do you feel like you are going to score?
A: That’s what I feel. Maybe that helps going in. I just want to hit my shot and go from there. We have a lot of great shooters and we also have Quickie back there and Bernie back there. It helps having two great goaltenders at your end.
Tomorrow’s festivities will begin at 9:30 a.m., with a special pre-game Fan Fest presented by Bud Light outside STAPLES Center. Among the attractions will be the LA Kings Holiday Ice at LA LIVE, with ice skating beginning at 11:00 am. The Stanley Cup will be located at center ice from 9:30-10 a.m.
Former Kings Marcel Dionne and Daryl Evans will sign autographs at the Toyota display on Chick Hearn Court from 10:15-11:15 a.m. Rogie Vachon will also be apart of Opening Day festivities.
“I think we are excited,” Dustin Brown said, the day before the season. “With everything that’s gone on, we are excited to play hockey.”