The Kings are dead. Long live the Kings. Though Wayne Gretzky's eight-year reign in Los Angeles ended in February 1996, the Kings only now are emerging from the Great One's grip. Night after disappointing night, players and fans would leave the Great Western Forum, gaze longingly into their rearview mirrors and reminisce about the Gretzky-led run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993. "I believe that's over," says general manager Dave Taylor. "We finally have a new identity."
What's changed? The Kings went 38-33-11 last season, their best record in five years. They did it behind defenseman Rob Blake, Los Angeles's first post-Gretzky superstar. Blake dominated games en route to winning the Norris Trophy and also cut a fine public image. He's a genial blue-eyed blond (sound familiar?) whose seaside ubiquity has locals calling him the Mayor of Manhattan Beach.
As they await their move to a new downtown arena next year, the Kings already have a new look. They have changed their logo from a crown to a coat of arms and have added purple sleeves to their home jerseys. In that fancy garb Los Angeles will send out a tough, able defense. Mattias Norstrom has developed a nasty hip check, and the off-season signings of 14-year veteran Doug Bodger and premier puck-mover Steve Duchesne provides strong blueliners for the power play. However, the Kings need another scorer before they can contend with the NHL elite. Center Jozef Stumpel, though, is a precise passer who elevates the play of solid wingers Glen Murray and Vladimir Tsyplakov. The Kings also have more young talent—notably 19-year-old center Olli Jokinen—than they've had since they mortgaged their future in a vain attempt to assemble a championship team around Gretzky. Says Luc Robitaille, who has played 10 years with the Kings, " Gretzky was what the Kings were about for a long time. But this is a new team. And we're good."