On Saturday, they played a hockey game outdoors in California, and it says something about the evolution of the NHL that the whole thing didn’t seem all that remarkable.
That’s not supposed to be the case with these outdoor games, and it certainly wasn’t the case last year when the league set up shop at Dodger Stadium. That game felt like something wholly unique, with beach volleyball and a marching band and a performance by Kiss, as hockey fans across the continent tuned in to find out whether the ice would melt. It didn’t. In the end, it all came together perfectly.
This year’s game, played in front of just more than 70,000 fans at Levi’s Stadium, didn’t carry that same first-time curiosity factor, and that may help explain why there seemed to be so little buzz about it. Heading into Saturday, there was as much focus on the standings as on the setting. This was perhaps the league’s first outdoor game where the emphasis was firmly on the “game” part of the equation.
In the last decade, the state of California has won three Stanley Cups, one Presidents’ Trophy, and two MVPs, all while serving up the best three-way rivalry in the sport. The state’s teams have been so good for so long that fans around the league now warily eye their favorite team’s schedule for the dreaded California Road Trip of Doom.
So when it comes to California hockey, there’s an overwhelming temptation to ignore the past, because the present is just so much better. But you’d be missing out if you did, because the history of the NHL in California is rich and deep and completely ridiculous. And it was hard not to think about that on a Saturday night at a football stadium.
The L.A. Kings arrived in 1967 as part of the NHL’s first wave of expansion, and they weren’t very good. In the ’70s, they were best known for helping to build the Canadiens’ dynasty by continually giving their top draft picks to Sam Pollock. In the ’80s, their main job was to be just competitive enough to occasionally make the powerhouse Oilers (and later Flames) break a sweat. And they looked ridiculous, wearing awful yellow and purple uniforms. If you squinted just right, it looked like Wayne Gretzky and friends were skating circles around a bunch of bruised bananas.
That Gretzky guy turned out to be pretty important a few years later, when he was traded to the Kings in 1988. That move put the Kings on the map. They switched to modern-looking black and silver uniforms, and suddenly, almost overnight, the Los Angeles Kings were cool. But it was an L.A. cool, and in hockey, that’s not a compliment. After all, you still had the B-list celebrities and Barry Melrose’s mullet and that blue bandanna thing that Kelly Hrudey wore.
For most of their first four decades, the Kings were one big punch line. Two Stanley Cups later, nobody’s laughing anymore.
The San Jose Sharks entered the league in 1991 as a quasi expansion team, part of a complicated split from the Minnesota North Stars that nobody really seemed to fully understand. They played in something called the Cow Palace, took to the ice by skating through a giant shark’s head, and introduced the word “teal” to the hockey world’s vocabulary.
They were also terrible. They finished dead last in each of their first two years, establishing a league record for most losses in a season in 1992-93. But they made the playoffs in 1994 and even won a round thanks to Chris Osgood’s brain cramp. That would start a run of 17 playoff appearances in 20 years. They’ve won six division titles and had seven 100-point seasons.
They’ve also never lost a Stanley Cup final game, which sounds nice except that they’ve never won one either. That’s the reputation the Sharks have forged over two decades: Year after year, they’re good in the regular season and then find a way to fall apart in the playoffs.
And that brings us back to the Los Angeles Kings.
Until very recently, the Kings had spent the entire season desperately trying to look like a bad team and not fooling anyone.
When the matchup between the Sharks and Kings was announced last summer, it was projected as a grudge match between two of the league’s elite teams. The Kings are the defending champions. The Sharks have been one of the league’s top regular-season teams for more than a decade but just can’t get over the hump in the playoffs, and in each of the last two years that hump has been the Kings. These were two very good teams that didn’t like each other very much. That was the plan.
The first part of that plan hasn’t really worked out. Both teams have struggled, and instead of Saturday’s game being a showdown for top spot in the Pacific, it was a battle for the conference’s final wild-card spot. Despite a six-game winning streak, the Kings went into the weekend having lost more games than they’d won. They’ve been chasing a playoff spot for most of the last few months. And yet nobody seems to want to count them out, because they’ve been down this road before in 2012 and 2014, and we know how that turned out. A few Stanley Cup rings will buy you some benefit of the doubt.