For the first time in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings are, quantitatively, hockey’s best team; champions of the gritty second season that begins in early spring and follows an arrhythmic cadence that favours deflected point shots and immovable objects colliding in corners. As a lifelong Kings fan, it feels both impossible and inevitable that my great childhood dream has become a reality. Monday night, when I finally saw captain Dustin Brown — with his doe-eyed toddler’s face and Asian mystic’s wispy facial hair — lift the Stanley Cup over his head, it felt less like a dividend paid to my decades of empathetic investment than a lesson in how to finally grow up.
Rest assured, mine is no fairweather fandom; I’ve been cheering for the Kings since I was ten years old. In fact, I can recall in vivid detail the precise moment I devoted myself to them.
November 11, 1989: It’s a sunny Saturday evening; I’m flipping channels and I land on Hockey Night in Canada. The Kings are playing the Canadiens. But something is wrong: the broadcast is in black and white. I open the television’s control panel and play with the dials: the balance, the brightness, the contrast. Nothing works. I turn the TV off, then back on. There’s colour now, but just at the margins — in the crowd, in the blue and red lines painted on the ice, in the Habs’ jerseys. It takes me a moment to realize the desaturation is an optical illusion.
The Kings are wearing silver and black. Having that summer played mistress in the big Wayne Gretzky drama — when the Edmonton Oilers traded away the game’s greatest player — the team has replaced its garish purple and yellow uniforms with sleek monochrome. The neon-bright ’80s are over. The Kings’ new jerseys recall the jumpsuits worn by utopian space explorers in science fiction films. They seem like a team that has travelled back in time from some wonderful future where altered laws of physics allow them to skate faster and shoot harder. They seem a team of destiny. But all that is peripheral to the fact that they look so cool. When you’re ten, that’s all it takes.
My mother and I spent the following Christmas in California. Disneyland and Universal Studios were necessary entertainments for a fifth-grade kid, but the highlight of the trip was attending a hockey game at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood. We watched the Kings play the Flames to a 5–5 tie. Gretzky had a goal and an assist. My voice was a note in the chorus that sang “Flames suck!” and joined, too, the concert of cheers and boos that met each Kelly Hrudey save and Larry Robinson bodycheck. Team captain Dave Taylor, former member of the Triple Crown Line, was out of the game with an injury. He sat just a few rows ahead of us. I was too shy to meet him, but my mother approached him and got his autograph for me.
You take full possession of a thing when you reconcile your love for both its ethereal and tangible qualities. I had already embraced that abstract, larger-than-life, Hollywood-cool notion of the Kings. But now I had seen them in the flesh, had met one (by proxy), and by confirming their material existence — and being, materially, a participant — I had determined my allegiances for the rest of my life.
During that season’s playoffs, with my newfound fanaticism at its apogee, Oilers winger Esa Tikkanen tied Game 4 of the Smythe Division Final with an unlikely wrist shot over Hrudey’s shoulder, and Joe Murphy clinched the series sweep over LA just minutes into overtime. The Kings were eliminated. I spent the evening huddled in our upstairs hallway, openly weeping.
You never live more fully in the moment than you do in those years before you understand the true elastic nature of time. For me, that night, the Kings perishing in the playoffs was no different than the Kings perishing forever; the team plane might as well have crashed into the side of a mountain. This happened a few years before I was introduced, by a coy and cool female classmate, to the existential pain of an unreturned crush. Therefore, the Kings’ elimination that season was my first broken heart.
At the height of my Kings zealotry, I filled the margins of my schoolbooks with caricatures of opposing teams’ star players picking their noses, falling through the ice, and being decapitated by Darryl Sydor slapshots. I lulled myself to sleep at night by listing Kings players by line, then position, then jersey number, then alphabetically: Peter Ahola, Rob Blake, Paul Coffey… I have fond memories of my mother tucking me in on the living room couch at forbidden hours to watch West Coast playoff matchups (a late Kings game was the only reason I was ever allowed to stay up past my bedtime on a school night). She understood how much the Kings meant to me, and perhaps, preternaturally, how rare such playoff appearances would be.
And so this spring, as I followed my Kings through the post-season, I once again tucked myself in on the couch and, lucky to have a wife who is just as lenient as my mother, indulged in staying up far past what might be a reasonable bedtime for a nine-to-fiver. During client meetings, I caught myself doodling the Kings logo in the margins of notebooks. At night, I repeated a new mantra: Brown, Carter, Doughty…
The two decades since their appearance in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals have been unkind to Kings fans. Until this year, the team had only made the playoffs six times: losing in the first round all but once, and twice failing to win even a single game. I thought, perhaps, that by invoking these familiar childhood routines I was stoking my passion for the team back to life, rediscovering the unconditional love that only a child can feel.
As I discovered before Game 6, that wasn’t quite it.
My wife and I have been trying to have children for several years now. Denied by fate the biological privilege of creating human life, we have turned to science, to which we have donated various bits and pieces of our genetic material (and no small amount of dollars) in hopes that a tiny version of ourselves grown in a petri dish might eventually accept us as parents.
The morning of the Cup-clinching game in Los Angeles, we discovered that our latest attempt to perform that simple human miracle had, once again, failed. Like the Kings’ playoff run, it had seemed simultaneously impossible and inevitable. All the signs were present: the soreness and headaches and minor cramping. But nature, in her careless cruelty, has built the female body in such a way that all the signs that point to yes are also the signs that point to no.
It feels foolish, now, to have considered the actions of cute junior high girls and Finnish left-wingers heartbreaking. However, the mere idea of fatherhood has been enough to swing the lens of my attention, for so long focused on the past — on myself — toward the unknowable future. Monday night, tucked in on the couch, watching the Kings dismantle the Devils for the final time, the team’s long-dormant power play calamitously reawakened by Steve Bernier’s reckless check, I realized that this whole self-conscious reproduction of the sensual and mental circumstances of my childhood has been a way for me to express my latent parental urges. Not toward my own child, but toward my ten-year-old self. After all, this big win means so much more to the boy crying on the hallway floor than it does to his cynical, wiser, grown-up self. Conjuring his spirit with these rites and rituals — the late nights, the doodles, the mnemonic games — and giving him a chance to see his dreams come true is how, right now, I’m able to be a father.
For the time being, of course.
Because if my wonderful Kings have proven anything, it’s that even an eighth-seeded team, under the right conditions, with the right people to love and support it, can survive and triumph in the end.
Jared Young is an Ottawa writer.