Whether You're in Menifee or Montreal, L.A. or Louisville, Hockey's a Winner; Go Kings!

When you're a Los Angeles Kings hockey fan, you learn to suffer in solitude.

Over the course of 45 seasons in a city as unfamiliar with ice hockey as it is with cricket or jai alai, the Kings rarely had more than a small following from a rabid core group of fans. Some were transplanted Canadians, others fans who had learned about the game in cold weather cities such as New York, Boston or Detroit.

Then there were those of us who simply became fascinated by a sport where you must not only be a skillful skater, but a strong athlete with lightning-quick reflexes and no problems flashing a toothless grin.

We have been joined by thousands over the years, especially since the Wayne Gretzky era and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1993. Even more jumped on the bandwagon during this year's improbable playoff run. But it was the diehard Kings fans I was most happy for -- and most identified with -- as the Kings won their first Stanley Cup Monday night at Staples Center in downtown L.A.

I had a hard enough time finding other Kings fans in the San Gabriel Valley, so I wasn't real confident about seeing any recognition of the team here in Menifee. I mean, the Phoenix Coyotes have proven that hockey can be a hit in the desert, but what about in a rural outpost a two-hour drive from the arena?

Fortunately, I learned that even out here, among the horses and rattlesnakes and in near 100-degree weather, one can find more than a few fellow Kings fans with whom to celebrate the team's first championship.

The excitement has been building for weeks, as the eighth- (thus lowest) seeded Kings dominated Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix in getting to the finals. By the time they got to last Wednesday's Game 4 with a 3-0 series lead, reality began to sink in: This might actually happen.

And so, seeking some companionship in watching what I thought would be the clincher, I accepted an invitation from my boss, Steve Johnson, to watch the game at The Beer Hunter. Who knew he was also a long-time Kings fan?

Well, guess what? The place was full of them. Probably about 40 or 50 Kings fans -- many clad in the team's purple and black jerseys -- watched the action as enthusiastically as if they had front-row seats at Staples. When the Kings scored, one guy stood on a table and waved a Kings flag. They must've had the game on 15 TV screens, and every one had many sets of eyes glued to it.

Unfortunately, the Kings lost that game. A bit depressed, I watched the Game 5 loss in New Jersey from my family room couch, telling myself I really wouldn't mind if they lost, because that would give them another chance to wrap it up at home.

When that actually happened Monday night in a 6-1 victory over the Devils, I was once again on my couch at home, having decided to share the moment via Facebook with others who had stuck with the team as long as I have.

I still remember vividly the night in November of 1971 when my dad took me to my first Kings game. I really had no idea what to expect. But before the game was over, the fast action and unique skating aspect of the game won me over. There was a bench-clearing brawl. The Zamboni (ice re-surfacing) machine broke down. The Kings won.

I was hooked. During high school, I attended many games with a classmate, often sneaking into the Forum through a gate manned by a buddy of ours. I remember sitting on the top step of the upper level to watch the Montreal Canadiens -- one of the few opponents to sell out the place. Years later, I covered the team, even traveling to Montreal for the Kings' ill-fated Stanley Cup Final series of 1993.

So as the Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup Monday night, I thought of my dad, who passed away in 1997; the folks at The Beer Hunter; my days as a Kings beat writer; and all the great memories in between.

Congratulations, Kings. Even out here in Menifee, we salute you.


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