In February, the flailing Los Angeles Kings called up forwards Dwight King, Métis, and Jordan Nolan, Ojibwe, from their Manchester, New Hampshire farm team, looking for a spark. Last night, the Kings ended an improbable run by knocking off the New Jersey Devils, four games to two, to win the club’s first Stanley Cup.
Although it’s impossible to survive the grueling NHL playoffs, which requires winning four best-of-seven series to take the title, without solid veteran play and guidance, there’s a lot to be said for youthful enthusiasm—and legs. In a whirlwind, farm-fresh King, 22, and Nolan, 22, bolted out of the minors to deliver major success on hockey’s biggest stage. “Crazy things happen in hockey” King told ESPN, “and I just happen to be part of it right now.”
Few thought the “kids” were ready for the big leagues prior to the season, so both were sent to Manchester. One boisterous voice, team executive Jack Ferreira, disagreed. “He was the guy who was banging on the table in October, saying, “Get those (bleeping) guys out here. Get Nolan and King up here,’’’ General Manager Dean Lombardi remembered. “It was, `What are you doing?’ Not only did he think the kids would make us better, but it was like a fit and a feel thing.’’ Ferreira’s uncanny instincts were proved right.
Nolan, the son of former Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders head coach Ted Nolan, is a gritty six-foot-three-inch, 227-pound center with a deft shot and nimble feet. After his call-up, he impressed not only with his hard-nosed play (earning 28 minutes in the penalty box during his 26 games), but by tallying two goals, including a game-winner, and two assists. The squad flourished when he skated, outscoring their opponents by two goals.
Beating the Devils for the Cup is especially thrilling for Nolan. As he recalled to LAKings.com before the start of the series, his most memorable finals also had a Garden State connection. “I remember New Jersey winning on my birthday way back when (2003)…that can’t happen again!”
King, six-foot-three and 232 pounds, is a rugged winger from Saskatchewan acclaimed for his two-way play, including winning a best defensive forward award from his junior squad in 2008. His older brother, D.J. King, is a tough guy in the Washington Capitals system, so it’s no surprise that Dwight can hold his own on NHL ice. Usually lining up with another pair of young guns in the “preseason,” Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, King found the back of the net five times, one a game-winner, while adding nine assists; he finished at plus 3.
When the Los Angeles Times asked King if anyone who’s influenced him in the past reminded him of Kings coach Darryl Sutter, most expected him to say Rich Sutter, Darryl’s younger brother. Rich was an assistant coach when King played junior hockey for the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League. But King thought of someone else: “He actually reminds me of my older uncle [Daniel] in how he carries himself — he’s a hands-on guy,” King said. “He’s there when you need a kick in the butt or when you need a pat on the butt.”
The hard-nosed Kings coach shot back with an example of each when responding to a question about King’s growth as a player since February. “Still 232 [pounds],” Sutter said. “After games he’s 228. … Better than he was when we got him, right? Just ’cause he’s scoring, I don’t think it’s growth. That’s kind of been what he’s done in his junior career and his pro career. Same thing.”
But it’s truly been more than the “same thing” in the “real” season, the playoffs, where King and Nolan have really shone. Driving the Kings, the first eighth (lowest) seed to knock off the top three conference seeds to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, the indigenous duo dazzled fans and frustrated opponents. Solidifying the third line, King scored five goals—two game-winners and two assists—in 20 games. Bolstering the fourth line, which hassled and locked down the other teams’ top lines, Nolan added a goal and an assist.
And now, the names Dwight King and Jordan Nolan have been etched on Lord Stanley’s Cup, with all signs pointing to future returns. The close friends, both a source of pride for all of Indian country, had been living in a hotel, just as they did when they joined the Kings in February. That, along with any doubts about their belonging at hockey’s elite level, has changed. Hail to the Kings!