By Steve Keating
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hockey royalty in name only, the Los Angeles Kings have a chance to finally be crowned National Hockey League (NHL) champions as a seed planted 45 years ago by an ambitious league is finally bearing fruit.
Los Angeles is not yet planning a victory parade through its gridlocked streets but hockey fever has gripped the city with the Kings in the Stanley Cup final, starting May 30 against the New Jersey Devils, for the first time since 1993.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks have all proven you can ice a Stanley Cup winner in steamy southern U.S. markets better suited for pools than pucks.
But it was the Kings that established the NHL's southern initiative in 1967 with Canadian business tycoon Jack Kent Cooke buying in as part of the league's grand expansion plan of adding six new teams.
The NHL endured a bumpy ride trying to establish the game in non-traditional markets and that includes Los Angeles, where the team went from Kings to paupers surviving bankruptcy, fan apathy and flamboyant owner Bruce McNall who was responsible for the franchise's biggest boom and bust.
Before his empire spectacularly collapsed and landed him in prison on fraud charges, McNall put hockey on the map in the southern United States, pulling off what is widely regarded as the most important NHL trade of all-time.
Needing a star to make a splash in city packed with the rich and famous, a brazen McNall went after hockey's biggest name and acquired Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers in 1988.
The deal remains a watershed moment in the NHL's attempt to grow the game as Gretzky's arrival in Los Angeles offered the league instant cache where it had little, the Kings becoming the hottest ticket in town.
"We were trying to get the interest in hockey nationwide, not just in Canada and on the East Coast," McNall told QMI Agency. "Wayne brought a lot of attention here and in Phoenix (after his playing career).
"There wouldn't be a team there without him. It showed hockey could work in those places."
Gretzky's presence raised hockey's profile but after winning four championships in Edmonton not even the Great One or Hall of Famers like Marcel Dionne and Luc Robitaille could bring a Stanley Cup to Los Angeles.
In the 19 years since Gretzky guided the Kings to the 1993 final, Los Angeles has missed the playoffs 11 times, leaving the California hockey spotlight to the Ducks, who won a Cup in 2007.
Mired in mediocrity, the Kings brought in Dean Lombardi as general manager in 2006 and pushed ahead with a slow and steady rebuild through smart draft picks and crafty trades.
Defenseman Drew Doughty (second overall in 2008), Slovenian sensation Anze Kopitar (11th overall in 2005) and captain Dustin Brown (13th overall 2003) form the Kings core but it is a third round pick in 2005 that may have been the most significant.
With the 72nd overall pick, Los Angeles took Jonathan Quick, who has blossomed into one of the NHL's best goalies, a Vezina Trophy finalist this season as top netminder and early candidate for Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable playoff performer.
After years of patient progress, it appeared the Kings would take a step back this season as they faltered out of the game.
A mid-season coaching change that had Darryl Sutter replace Terry Murray and some trade deadline wheeling and dealing that saw the Kings acquire high-scoring forward Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets failed to produce instant success but as the post-season approached the pieces began to meld together.
After scraping into the playoffs, the eighth-seeded Kings have reigned supreme, going 12-2 in knocking off the top seeded Vancouver Canucks, number two St. Louis Blues and number three Phoenix Coyotes while winning an NHL record 10 straight playoff road games.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)