Kings Report – Jan. 21

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, one of the side rinks at the Toyota Training Center was open for pleasure skating, but on the main sheet, it was back to work for the Kings. Coach Darryl Sutter put his team through its first practice after Saturday’s 5-2 season-opening loss to Chicago in preparation for a three-game road swing that takes the Kings to Colorado (tomorrow), Edmonton (Thursday), and Phoenix (Saturday).

Both Anze Kopitar and Willie Mitchell participated, and Kopitar said he would play tomorrow in Denver, but Matt Greene was absent due to an undisclosed injury. Sutter declined to reveal the specific nature of the injury, calling it “mid-body.” Greene suffered the injury vs. Chicago Saturday, and Sutter said the team would know more about his status after a doctor’s examination.

“He was one of the guys that played hard for us,” Sutter cracked, “so there is a chance that he is going to get banged up.”

While Greene’s status is unknown, Mitchell will travel with the team but won’t be available while continuing his rehab. Kopitar will play with a knee brace.

“I have felt good for the last four days,” Kopitar said. “This was a practice where we were skating up and down quite a bit and working on stuff and if felt good. I will be ready to go tomorrow.”

Kopitar said it was difficult to sit out the Kings’ opener after participating in the pregame ceremonies, and joked about attempting to slip onto the bench unnoticed. Ultimately, he said, the decision to sit out was for the best.

“It’s tough,” Kopitar said. “The guys are getting pumped up for the game in the locker room, and the juices are flowing. It was hard to skate off the ice. But it was a smart decision.”

Mitchell said practice offered a nice break from drudgery of his off-ice rehab program.

“Playing hockey is fun,” Mitchell said. “Working out is not.”

Mitchell said he is still not quite ready for full contact at full speed.

“It felt good. (But) I couldn’t really get into any major battle drills. That is probably the next step. So far, so good.”

Anthony Stewart, acquired eight days ago from Carolina, was placed on waivers, with Sutter saying the forward got caught in a numbers game that necessitated a roster move.

“If Anthony had been out there (at practice),” Sutter said, “we would have had 15 forwards. You can’t play 15; you can play 12. And you need six healthy defensemen. We are going on a three-game trip and need a roster spot, unless we are going to move one of forwards to defense, and I don’t think we can do that.”

Falling down after raising a banner up, the way the Kings did Saturday, is nothing new. The last 10 teams commemorating Stanley Cup championships have gone a combined 3-5-2 in games after raising their banner, so the Kings are not alone. Drew Doughty said a key to tomorrow’s game would be establishing a different tone early.

“Obviously, we didn’t show up at the start of the last game,” Doughty said. “We were on our heels right off the beginning. (Colorado) has a fast, good team, so we have to come out hard, get in on the fore check and be the better team in the first ten minutes, no matter what.”

With the lockout shortened season starting with the benefit of an exhibition slate, the three-game swing will mark the team’s first excursion of the campaign.

“I think it’s always nice to get on the road and kind of bond over certain things,” Jordan Nolan said. “We will go for dinners with teammates and spend nights in hotels together, so I think this road trip will be good for the team. It’s going to be a tough road trip, but we are excited for it.”

Nolan said it’s nice to have the hoopla of Saturday’s opener in the rear view mirror.

“Everyone was looking forward to the home opener; raising the banner and getting your rings,” Nolan said. “It’s definitely a tough atmosphere to play in. We didn’t really perform the way we wanted to, so we are looking forward to regrouping on the road.”

Sutter downplayed the notion that playing at Denver’s mile high altitude would be a factor in tomorrow’s game. “I coached at high altitude in Calgary,” Sutter said. “I coached San Jose and we would go to Colorado, and it very seldom affected the team.” If anything, Sutter said the altitude can be a factor a in “the next day or so” after playing in Denver.

The retired numbers of Rogie Vachon (30), Marcel Dionne (16), Dave Taylor (18), Wayne Gretzky (99), and Luc Robitaille (20) hang above the rink at the Kings’ El Segundo headquarters. On the ice below, no number is necessary to identity Bernie Nicholls, one of the franchise’s most recognizable presences. Nicholls, who is a Kings coaching consultant, still has that same unconventional skating style and the undeniable charisma that helped make him an ’80s fan favorite. The 327 goals he scored in a Kings’ uniform didn’t hurt his popularity, either. Nicholls, who at 51 still looks like he could play, took time to chat about how far the organization has come since he first joined it during the 19821-82 season, how thrilling it was to be part of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, and his love of golf.

Q: What are your responsibilities on Darryl Sutter’s staff?

A: I work with the guys and try to help them out with anything I can see, anything I can add. Whatever I can add, and whatever I see, I try to help by adding my two cents.

Q: You played for Darryl Sutter before; is your relationship with him what brought you back to the organization?

A: Yes. I played for Darryl in Chicago for a year, and then I played for him in San Jose as well, so I know Darryl quite well.

Q: Before the Wayne Gretzky deal, you, Luc Robitaille and Jimmy Carson were the core of the Kings’ offense. What were those days like?

A: I was a little bit older when Luc came, and Jimmy Carson, too. Even coming back now, the thrill for me is watching the young guys. Watching these guys win the Cup last year and seeing the look in their eyes, the time they put in, the hard work. You understand that, being a former player. It’s just so good to watch young kids come up and do well. I am so happy for them.

Q: A lot of Kings fans were heartbroken when you were traded for Tony Granato and Tomas Sandstrom in 1990. Were you heartbroken, too?

A: Absolutely. I played a year with Gretz, and I would have loved to play more time with him. I was hoping to spend my whole career here. You always hate to get traded. I was here for nine years and I loved LA. I was devastated.

Q: You finished with 475 career goals; do you think you would had 500 had you not been traded?

A: If I had been able to play with Gretz, there is a good chance I could have done that.

Q: You had 70 goals playing with Gretzky, a feat that has only been accomplished by eight players. What do you remember about that 1988-89 season?

A: It’s tough to score goals in this league. It was one of those years that was magical for me. Playing with Wayne every day was a lot of fun. He brought the best out of me. I just wish I had played with him a little longer.

Q: What did it mean for you to come back here last season and be a part of the Kings’ first Stanley Cup win?

A: I was here for nine years and I was traded, and went on to play 18. But LA has always been my team. I enjoyed every place I was, but it just feels like home here. When Darryl came here, knowing him as well as I do, I thought there was a good opportunity to come and help out. To see the run the boys went on, to see how well they played, and to be a part of all that, it was really something special.

Q: When you first arrived in LA, you gained notoriety because you came from such a small town. Exactly how small is your hometown?

A: West Guilford (Ontario), which is about 10 miles outside Haliburton, has about 75 people. I had the Cup there for a day, which was pretty cool.

Q: Did growing there make you an avid outdoorsman?

A: I hunt all fall. I was hunting pretty near every day from Sept. until we got called back here in the first of January.

Q: You still look like you could play. Do you feel that way?

A: These guys are a little different breed than when I was playing. They are a lot bigger, faster, and stronger. But it’s fun to get out on the ice and have an opportunity to just hang with them.

Q: People still talk about your “Pumper Nicholl” goal celebration. When you first started doing it, did anyone give you a hard time?

A: I think Bob Miller named it. I was just excited to score. It’s tough to score in this league and I celebrated. I think it’s great to see guys celebrate in this league. It’s a tough thing to do, so why not have fun with it?

Q: You had hat tricks in three consecutive home games when you first joined the team. How were you able to do that?

A: You play with guys like Dave Taylor, Charlie Simmer, and Marcel Dionne, you are going to get opportunities to score. I took advantage of it and, like I said, I got excited when I scored.

Q: Do you get the sense that nobody in this room is content to win one Stanley Cup and everyone is determined to repeat?

A: I think so. You try to win one, which is great, but last year is gone. As much fun as the guys had, as hard as it was to do, the ‘hard’ is what makes it good. I always said it if was easy, we would all do it. They know what it takes to win now and hopefully during the regular season they can get themselves in good position to make another run.

Q: Is there any truth to the legend that you once beat Tiger Woods in golf?

A: I did. He was only 18 years old, but I did beat him. We were playing down at Big Canyon (Newport Beach). There were four players from the Kings and five from the Angels at the time. We were having a match and there was Tiger Woods on the driving range, so we asked him if he wanted to play with us. He said he would, and he shot 74; I shot 72. It was pretty good. I don’t think he was really a hockey fan at the time, but I have seen him since a couple times and he has been great with me. I want to get him to sign my card one day. Maybe ask him for a rematch. I was a lot of fun. Obviously, playing with him. I think he went out in the NCAA there (at Big Canyon) and shot like 29 and 61. He holds the record there. I obviously caught him on a practice day, which was good for me.

Q: Do you still play a lot of golf?

A: Still play all the time. I was out yesterday.

Q: Best course you have played?

A: I still say Pebble Beach is the best. I played Pine Valley, but there is nothing better than a day at Pebble Beach.

Q: So many hockey players are good golfers; is there a natural correlation between the two sports?

A: Oh, sure. Hockey players are just good athletes to start with. But their hand-eye coordination is really good; their touch is really good. We have got some guys on this team that play pretty well.

Kings fans should check often, beginning later tonight from Denver, and during the entire three-game road trip for periodic updates.

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