It's Mid-September and the Kings are in the throes of an intrasquad scrimmage. In one corner, newly acquired former Los Angeles left wing Luc Robitaille and newly acquired former Los Angeles defenseman Garry Galley battle for a loose puck. Their bodies clatter against the boards, where a painted black-and-silver sign implores, PLAY LIKE DAVE TAYLOR IS WATCHING. "That means hard," says Taylor, who is viewing the action at rinkside. "That means play hard every practice, every game."
Taylor was well-known for his determination during his 17-year career with the Kings, which ended in 1994. Now, at 41, he is L.A.'s rookie general manager, and he's trying to revive a club that is looking for a future in part by harkening to the past. "Anyone who played with him knows how much he put into the game," says Robitaille. "These days he's at the rink every day. It's the same thing."
Along with his work ethic, Taylor would also like to bring back some excitement. Nine years ago the Kings traded for Wayne Gretzky and instantly became a glitzy team. As recently as 1993, when Gretzky-led Los Angeles made a stirring run to the Stanley Cup finals, celebrities routinely were seen among the 16,000-plus sellout crowds at the Great Western Forum. But L.A. has missed the playoffs three years running, and last season the Kings averaged about 12,000 fans per game.
Robitaille, who averaged 49 goals per season for Los Angeles between 1986-87 and 1993-94 but less than half of that since then playing elsewhere, is a short-term fix. "Bringing him in had two benefits," says center Ray Ferarro. "The fans love him, and he can still score."
Robitaille won't be the only player giving his all for the club. Matt Johnson, the team's enforcer, has taped a series of radio promotions called Thoughts from the Penalty Box. Johnson's delivery brings to mind deadpan comedian Steven Wright. In one promo Johnson intones in a Wright-like manner, "One time I hit a guy so hard I thought his head came off in his helmet. It didn't."
"Luc and I heard that driving one day, and we started talking about how much fun this city was for us a few years ago," says eight-year defenseman Rob Blake, the Kings' captain and longest-tenured player. "We have to make it like that again."
With a thin cast, the Kings will have to work hard just to be competitive. Taylor wouldn't have them do it any other way.