10:03 PM CST, January 19, 2013
The Kings' minds must have been floating in the rafters with their Stanley Cup banner when the puck was dropped at Staples Center to launch their title defense, so removed was their game from the precise, defense-minded performances they routinely pulled off while bulldozing through the playoffs last spring.
The only clean passes they completed Saturday occurred when they relayed the Cup from hand to hand during a pregame ceremony, the last time players would cradle the precious silver trophy before it went back up for grabs. At least no one dropped the boxes containing the diamond-encrusted championship rings each player received.
Before the game was 22 minutes old they had yielded more goals to the Chicago Blackhawks than they had allowed in any of the 20 games during their remarkable playoff run, quieting a standing-room-only crowd that had waited 45 years to celebrate a Cup triumph and was forced to wait a few months longer to see the banner raised because of a tedious labor dispute that delayed and shortened the season.
"Physically, I can understand most guys in this league not being ready because they haven't been playing overseas," defenseman Rob Scuderi said after the Kings' 5-2 loss. "But I think mentally is where we were hurting the most."
If their heads were somewhere else, at least their hearts were in the right place, and that counts for something. The festivities could have been crafted as a prolonged pat on the back but instead became a poignant and genuine wellspring of emotion.
Intent on not just doing well in the standings but doing good in a way that transcends the game, club executives included in the ceremony a family tragically affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. Eight-year-old Isaiah Marquez-Greene, a hockey player and older brother of Sandy Hook shooting victim Ana Marquez-Greene, joined their parents, Jimmy and Nelba, and Kings alumni Rogie Vachon and Marcel Dionne on the ice to present to players the banner that would soon be lifted skyward.
More than a few eyes misted at that moment.
After the game, the boy and his father were welcomed into the Kings' locker room to meet players and collect autographs. They posed for photographs with Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick of Hamden, Conn., who clearly understood the difference between losing a game and the loss the Marquez-Greene family is enduring.
"Awesome," Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said of the youngster's presence Saturday. "You know, that's way bigger, way more important than anything that went on today on the ice. That's pretty special to be able to include them in all of this."
As an organization, the Kings made several classy gestures Saturday that deftly balanced celebration and sorrow.
To ferry the Cup into the arena from the outdoor fan festival, where it had been on display before the game, club officials organized a relay of longtime season-ticket holders, recognizing the loyalty and suffering that all Kings fans have known so well.
Even better, when the Cup was brought onto the ice before the game, fans were able to hear the recorded words of the late David Courtney, the longtime public address announcer who died in November. It was only right that his familiar, booming voice should announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Stanley Cup," invoking his spirit and keeping it alive.
It was right too that after the on-ice ceremony Kings Governor Tim Leiweke pulled Vachon and Dionne aside and gave each a Stanley Cup ring identical to those the current players received.
The championship ring that neither could win while playing for the Kings was finally theirs. Dionne choked up a little while talking about it, saying the first thing he did was call his 85-year-old mother, Laurette, in Drummondville, Canada. He promised her that he'd bring the ring there for her to see.
"I didn't expect that. I was really surprised," said Dionne, who wore his new jewelry on his right ring finger. "That was a very, very nice gesture. It's going to mean a lot to my mother."
If the emotional aspects of Saturday's events came off better for the Kings than the hockey part, that was to be expected. It's asking a lot to have players celebrate a spectacular achievement and, a few minutes later, bottle up those emotions and hit full stride mentally and physically.
But in this 48-game schedule they will have no time to dwell on what they accomplished last season and no time for sentiment. They will cherish the memories but must move on, and quickly. Even more quickly than the speed Staples Center workers showed in moving their banner from its temporary placement above the tunnel where players enter the ice to a permanent spot beside banners that commemorate their two conference titles and one division championship.
"It's the same system. Everything's the same for us. We've just got to get back on track," team captain Dustin Brown said. "I think as a group we were ready with everything, with the banner, and everything we did last year, to close that chapter and we're ready to write a new chapter here."
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