Kings' Hockey Fest: Wrapping up
Final events of the Kings' Hockey Fest and some final thoughts:
Much of the talk at the Sunday morning Hockey Operations panel centered on Jonathan Quick and whether he's ready to keep the starting goaltending job, and assistant general manager Ron Hextall was frank in saying that would-be starter Jonathan Bernier, who began the 2007-08 season with the Kings, had pouted after being sent to the minor leagues last season and didn't turn his attitude and play around until the second half.
Not once was Erik Ersberg's name mentioned, but Hextall said the Kings have the Swedish goaltender ranked second behind Quick. However, Hextall added that the rankings could change according to what happens at training camp, which begins with physicals on Sept. 12 and on-ice work the next day.
"To me, Quick is the guy going into camp. Erik's the backup going into camp and anybody underneath would have to beat those two guys out," Hextall said. "We signed Erik to a two-year deal because we believe in him. He's a talented guy. If I have a criticism I would say, 'Can Erik last a 60-, 65-game season?' I don't know the answer to that. Quite frankly, right now I wouldn't want to bank on it because he has't done it and he's played in Europe all these years and he's not a big guy," at 6 feet tall and 168 pounds.
Hextall praised Ersberg's ability to play exceptionally well after long periods of not starting, and said that attests to the goalie's mental toughness. Ersberg's physical stamina is less proven. "Two years ago he played the 13 games at the end and he really held up," Hextall said. "Whether he can hold up over the course of the year, who knows?
"I believe mentally, he can do it. Physically, it's just wearing down," Hextall said. "I don't have the answer. When we go through the process as a staff we say, 'OK, if Erik was our guy this year, i'd be nervous. Can he hold up 60 games? I have the same questions about Quick, but he's a bigger guy and he's done it at the minor-league level, so he's a little bit more established, I guess, in terms of playing the bulk of the minutes in the games and not wearing down."
Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations and soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee, participated in a panel Sunday afternoon with Mark Hardy and Bernie Nicholls. Entitled "Growing Up Kings" and moderated by broadcaster Jim Fox, the discussion allowed the three to trade stories about their younger days. But Robitaille, the NHL's all-time leading scorer among left wings, has one more highlight coming up: He will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 9 in Toronto, with fellow players Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman and Brian Leetch and longtime executive Lou Lamoriello.
Robitaille said he hasn't begun to write his acceptance speech yet.
"The cruel thing about it is they sent me the schedule and I think we have only four minutes," he said. "I figure Brett Hull is going to take all my time."
Robitaille, Hardy, Nicholls and Fox spent more than an hour discussing the good times they had as players. Maybe too many good times
"When Mark was playing, I think it was safe to say that his teammates would not think ahead and think that Mark Hardy would be a coach," Fox said of Hardy, now a Kings assistant coach in charge of the defensemen and penalty killing .
Said Nicholls: "You mean when he came to training camp drunk?"
The crowd at the Nokia Theatre laughed. "I always thought training camp was overrated, anyway," he said.
But Hardy acknowledged that he reached a point where he realized he had to take better care of himself and become more disciplined.
"I think you mature as a person and a player. I think we all did as we got older," he said. "I think when you first come into the league, you’re thinking you’re going to be around for 20 years and will win all kinds of Stanley Cups. There is a time where you’re coming to Los Angeles and coming to any town, you have to grow up and you have to grow up fast. Being 20 years old or 18 years old, the way kids are now, you have to have some good direction.
"I think it took me a little while to realize what it took to be a pro and how hard you had to work at it everyday. I think every year, as players came in and how serious we got around here, I was able to grow. Being traded to New York was a devastating day in my life, but knowing to be a hockey player you have to make those transitions in your life. Wherever you’re going to go, you’re going to work as hard as you possibly can. The goal is to win the Stanley Cup. That’s one of the things that I learned going to New York. Being set up with Mark Messier, when Mark Messier came with the team, Bernie was there with the team at the time. We just had some great teams there. With his leadership and the guys they brought in there, we learned how to win.
"Winning is everything. That’s how it’s been since I’ve come back here. The year after we went to the Stanley Cup Finals, I was sent to Phoenix and Rick Dudley had come in there. Obviously he noticed something in me and put me in charge of the penalty killing and made me a player-coach and that’s where it started. I fell in love with coaching. You never know what’s going to happen as far as being a coach, or whether you’re the right person to be a coach. But I find that if you work as hard as you can, good things will happen."
The Kings' first Hockey Fest was judged a good thing by fans who attended, many of whom texted club executives with thanks and suggestions. Chris McGowan, the Kings' senior vice president and chief marketing officer, said he's already looking ahead to next year, when the event will likely be moved into ballroom space shared by the J.W. Marriott and Ritz hotels at L.A. Live. He said about 2,000 fans attended on Friday and 2,500 on Saturday. The Sunday number wasn't yet available.
"We're pretty happy with how things have gone," he said. "We're going to send out post-event surveys to see what our fans say.'
Robitaille said he expects bigger and better for future Hockey Fests.
"The goal and the idea is we want to talk about hockey all year long," he said. "As players, if you care from the top and you do everything right, usually it trickles down to the players and they feel that certain pressure that it’s about winning. We’re thinking about the Kings all the time. The real goal is to be playing hockey until June, do a draft party, July 1st you talk about free agents. And then in August, Hockey Fest. So we’ll have hockey 12 months out of every year."
But staging the event has some logistical problems.
"It's such a big city. You do an event like that and you're in a city like Edmonton, it's pretty easy to market. In Los Angeles, there's so many events and so much to do," Robitaille said.
"We went real big this year and we're never going to change. We want to go as big as we can and make this as important as we think it is.... Plus the playoffs next year is going to help us tremendously, too."
Not that he'd go so far as to guarantee a playoff spot. "Every year I guaranteed the playoffs in my career, I can tell you that," he said, laughing.
"I love the attitude this year. There's expectation. The fact that there's expectation I think is a great thing. We're going to see our guys get to another level. We have some amazing young players and to see them come in this year and for them to have that much pressure and expectation I think is great."
That pressure will set in soon enough, with rookie camp starting next Sunday and full camp starting Sept. 13. The Kings should be better next season, but the West is a tough conference and it's not easy to figure which team the Kings can knock out of the top eight if they're going to make the playoffs. Maybe Robitaille is right, and the next Hockey Fest will celebrate a season that included a playoff berth and look as much to the future as this Hockey Fest celebrated the past.
-- Helene Elliott and Mark Medina