Larry Robinson, coach of the Los Angeles Kings, is having breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. He reaches for the cream and pours it into his mug of steaming coffee. The cream curdles.
Robinson shrugs. He doesn't believe in omens. He will take forechecking over foreshadowing any time, including on this crisp day in San Jose, where in 11½ hours his Kings will play the Sharks, the only team in the NHL with a worse record than LA's. Robinson simply asks for a fresh cup. "The only thing lower than the prime rate is our power-play percentage," he says. This is a good line (Alan Greenspan 7.75%, Los Angeles 7.3%), one that suggests that this is a man with a sense of humor and a sense of the world beyond hockey. These are essential attributes when your team is getting creamed. The Kings have lost four straight and are winless at home in seven. Their best player, Norris Trophy-winning defense-man Rob Blake, and their No. 1 center, Jozef Stumpel, are hurt, but every team has injuries. It's all the paranormal stuff, like having more shorthanded goals than power-play goals, that wears on Robinson. Fueled by Raisin Bran and bemusement, he starts ticking off a list of the weirdnesses the Kings have encountered: Their No. 1 (Stephane Fiset) and No. 2 (Jamie Storr) goalies got hurt in the same game; one of their steadiest defensemen, Doug Bodger, tripped on a puck in warmups and broke his hand; defenseman Steve Duchesne hurled himself in front of a centering pass, and the puck deflected off his stick, over the shoulder of No. 3 goalie Manny Legace and into the net; in another match the puck hit a glove that Kings center Ian Laperrière had dropped, and changed direction, allowing the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Paul Kariya to pounce on it and score an empty-net goal. "I guess we just have to stay away from black cats and not walk under ladders," Robinson says.
Kings center Ray Ferraro wheels into the visitors' dressing room at the San Jose Arena and glances at the board on which one of the L.A. coaches has written this evening's lines and defensive pairings in a blue grease pen. Ferraro's eyes go straight for the middle of the board ("I don't even check the wingers," he says) and within seconds he knows he's not playing tonight. Ferraro is a garrulous man with a sharp mind, and tongue, but he takes the news with a vexed grace befitting someone with 334 career goals in a 15-year NHL career. "Now I've got nothing to do for the next 75 minutes," Ferraro says, gesturing to the TV mounted on the near wall, "except watch ESPN2 workout shows—soft porn in the morn—and call my wife and tell her she doesn't have to watch the game tonight."
Legend has it that the morning skate was created in the 1960s by Chicago Blackhawks coach Bill Reay, who figured it was a splendid way to get his players out of bed and to sweat out any excesses of the previous night. All of the Kings had observed their 11 p.m. curfew, and while the morning skates still serve as a brisk wake-me-up, they have become increasingly didactic. The Kings have a lot of meetings. Robinson says, "We had a meeting this year to decide when we were going to have a meeting."
Los Angeles's four coaches—Robinson and assistants Rick Green, Jay Leach and Don Edwards—will have three meetings this morning: with the power-play units, the penalty killers and a new line Robinson wants to use tonight. He has cobbled together a checking unit of center Nathan LaFayette and wingers Russ Courtnall and Eric Lacroix to match against the Sharks' top line anchored by right wing Owen Nolan. The players assemble in the coaches room, which is down the hall from their cramped dressing room. Leach and the power-play units are watching tape of San Jose penalty killers Nolan and Jeff Friesen, while Robinson uses a red laser pointer to identify players. The coaches remind the guys on the power play that when they dump the puck, they must do so quickly and put it in a corner, away from goalie Mike Vernon, who's a capable puckhandler.
"Stay ready at the [Sharks'] blue line, and I'll hit you coming across," says Duchesne, to Luc Robitaille, the 13-year left wing.
"What?" asks Robitaille.
"Stay ready at the blue line, and I'll hit you coming across."