The Kings’ newfound status as a member of hockey’s elite will likely be on display at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
To see how far the Kings have come in the hockey world, look to Russia.
When the 22nd Winter Olympiad kicks off along the shores of the Black Sea in Sochi, Russia, four nations will likely be ruled by Kings: Jonathan Quick and Dustin Brown figure to have large roles for Team USA; Anze Kopitar will lead Slovenia; Drew Doughty, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter could all suit up for Team Canada; and Slava Voynov will likely suit up for host nation Russia.
“For our players to be on that stage is a once in a lifetime experience,” says Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi.
Lombardi, too, will have an impact on hockey’s world order as a member of Team USA’s advisory council. Indeed, the Sochi games, which open Feb. 7, will be a culmination of lifelong dreams and will enhance the resumes of everyone involved.
Although it has been 34 years since the United States took home the gold at Lake Placid, winning the 2014 tournament won’t require a miracle. That could be due, in large part, to the King-sized presence of Jonathan Quick in goal. Quick is the presumed No. 1 among a goaltending trio that includes Ryan Miller and Cory Schneider.
“It’s fair to say Jonathan is a strong horse to be the No. 1 guy (in net),” says Lombardi. “There is no question he is committed. When the money is on the line, he is always there. He is as driven as I have seen him. He is a competitive guy who wants to win the job.”
Quick was a member of the Team USA’s silver medal team at the 2010 games in Vancouver, but did not appear in a game. Still, he says being there was beneficial.
“It was a great experience,” Quick says. “I learned a lot from watching Timmy (Thomas) and Millsie (Ryan Miller) and how they prepared. Just to be up there and be part of the team was great. Vancouver was a great city to do it in. There are a lot of things that went on around the games, too, and it was an awesome experience.”
Quick believes the Americans’ silver medal performance in Vancouver will have a carryover effect in Sochi.
“We accomplished a lot,” Quick told Puck Daddy of Yahoo! Sports. “We weren’t expected to do much as a team going in to that tournament and the way we came together as a group and what we were able to accomplish means a lot. It’s something that we can build off.”
There are other reasons Team USA won’t need to catch lightning in bottle in order to win the cold war in Russia. For starters, Lombardi says, American hockey players no longer take the ice with an inferiority complex.
“America is getting really good players,” Lombardi says. “We are getting the prime athletes. Guys like (Dustin) Brown, (Zach) Parise, (Ryan) Suter, and (Joe) Pavelski. I have seen a shift, in that they are going to the Olympics to win gold and not just to put on a good showing. It used to be, ‘we can’t compete with Canada, so if we get bronze, let’s have a parade.’”
Slovenia, on the other hand, might be warranted in throwing a parade. The nation will make its first appearance in an Olympic hockey tournament. Kopitar, who has emerged as one of the sport’s most complete players, will lead Slovenia.
“It’s hard to describe what I am going to feel but I know it is going to be a thrill,” Kopitar says. “It’s the biggest sporting event in the world, and to be a part of that will be very special.”
Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, will serve as Slovenia’s head coach, while his brother, Gasper, figures to make the team as a left-winger.
“The best thing about it is, hopefully, my brother is going to make the team, and my dad will be coaching,” Kopitar says. “To share it with them is going to be something else.”
Slovenia earned its berth in the games during a qualifying tournament held in Denmark last February. Kopitar was busy with the Kings’ season and unable to participate.
“Kudos to the guys that did it,” Kopitar says. “I wasn’t able to help them out to qualify, but we had a great group of guys that took the next step in terms of making history and qualifying for the Olympics. Everybody was really excited when it happened and the guys are going to be thrilled to be playing there.”
While playing on home ice has helped to make Russia an early favorite, Team Canada is the defending champion and the Canadians will once again be stacked with talent that could include Doughty, Richards and Carter.
“I think every single guy that plays on the Canadian team knows how deep Canada can be,” Doughty says. “They could make two teams and they could both do really well in that tournament. So definitely, every Canadian player believes they can win that tournament. Even though they know that other teams are strong, we always feel like we have the strongest team.”
Doughty says his homeland’s infatuation with the game serves the players well in international play.
“Growing up in Canada, you realize how much hockey means to that country,” Doughty says. “When the Olympics roll around, the whole nation is watching. There is a lot of pressure, but every time you put on that Maple Leaf, you feel so much pride.”
Doughty says he drew on his 2010 Olympic experience in Vancouver during the Kings’ run to the 2012 Stanley Cup.
“In Vancouver, I learned how to deal with pressure, I learned how to deal with that level of play,” Doughty says. “At the Olympics, especially that final game (vs. Team USA), that was the highest speed game I have ever played in my life. It was crazy, and it was tough to play in. I learned a lot from other guys who had already won gold medals and won Stanley Cups before that. I used that when I came back to the Kings and it worked out pretty well.”
The larger international ice service and travel will be among the challenges faced by NHL players who participate in the Olympics. Kings players, in particular, will be taxed by the travel to Sochi, which is located 6,911 miles from Los Angeles.
“The travel is going to be one of the more difficult challenges,” Brown told E.J. Hradek of the NHL Network. “Everyone adapts differently. It might be harder for some players than others.”
As for the larger ice sheet, Brown believes patience is the key.
“Luckily for me,” Brown said, “I have some experience playing on the big ice playing internationally with Team USA. It’s about adapting your game for the big ice. For me, it’s about having a little more patience and letting the game come to you.”
While Lombardi says there is always a concern about potential injuries and fatigue, ultimately the opportunity to be a part of the Olympics is irresistible.
“You are happy for your players to experience something that lasts a lifetime,” Lombardi says. “The Stanley Cup will always be No. 1, but this is second best. Players take their play to another level to play with the best in the world.”
And, when you talk about the best players in the world, you have to talk about the Kings.