LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Kings' often-tortured trail to the Stanley Cup was 45 years long but infinitely longer measured in the amount of frustration, bad trades and painful losses they and their fans endured.
They couldn't win the Cup when they had Wayne Gretzky, the game's greatest player, in their lineup. They couldn't win it with the fading veterans they acquired at the price of first-round draft picks in their early years, when owner Jack Kent Cooke ruled with an iron hand. They built and rebuilt their roster endlessly, shifting strategy too often for any plan to take root.
Finally set on a sure path, first by former general manager Dave Taylor and more recently by Dean Lombardi, they reached the ultimate hockey destination on Monday before an enraptured crowd at Staples Center.
When silver streamers fell from the rafters after the Kings finished off a 6-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils that ended the Final in six games, more than a few tears fell, too. Everywhere in the arena parents lifted kids in their arms to give them a better view of history, sharing an event they never got to experience when they were small enough to be held in their own parents' arms.
"I've done it before and this is just as good if not better," said burly winger Dustin Penner, who won the Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. "Especially to do it and know what it's like and know what other guys are going to feel.
"I'm so proud of everybody here and so happy to do it for everybody in L.A."
Decades of despair fell away, as Jonathan Quick embraced New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur in a symbolic passing of the torch. Players shared in the celebration with the family and friends who slid on the chopped-up ice, and with the fans who had suffered when the Kings slumped and rejoiced when they thrived.
In the happy chaos Anze Kopitar skated along the boards wearing a paper king's crown and carrying the Cup, drawing cheers and laughter. Forward Brad Richardson, relegated to the bench for the last few games, skated up to the glass and displayed the Cup as if to say it belonged just as much to the fans as the players.
"Look around," winger Justin Williams said, turning his eyes to the still-packed stands. "This is what we wanted. This is what this city's wanted. It makes it extra special that everyone is as excited as we are."
This team wasn't supposed to get this far, not after struggling to score goals all season and barely earning the eighth seeding in the Western Conference playoffs. Through the bad times that seemed to outnumber the good ones they never lost faith in themselves, always believing this could happen though few others did.
"We knew we had the guys in the room to do it. We knew we had the group. We just had to find a way to get in," center Jarret Stoll said after the Kings became the first No. 8-seeded team to win the Cup. "You've just got to get in the playoffs to make some noise. We all came together at the right time, peaked at the right time."
They raced through the first three rounds with only two losses but met considerable resistance from the Devils, a similarly defense-minded team with great goaltending. The Kings won the first three games and lost the next two, awakening fans' fears that a historic collapse was looming.
Not for this team, which began to take shape when Taylor drafted Kopitar, Quick and Dustin Brown and was molded by Lombardi's emphasis on drafting and leveraging assets to fill the holes they couldn't plug on their own.
"I think this team represents the best of L.A," said Tim Leiweke, the team's governor and its greatest fan. "I don't know about history. I just wanted to win the Cup for the fans and the players. These guys worked hard all season long. They deserved it. They never gave up faith."
They began the season with one coach, Terry Murray, and finished with another. Darryl Sutter proved to be one of the last elements they needed, reinforcing the battered confidence of the lagging scorers and loosening the reins a bit without compromising their defensive play.
They even managed the perfect ending.
Brown, as the captain, received the Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Brown passed it to 35-year-old workhorse defenseman Willie Mitchell, the team's oldest player and a first-time Cup finalist. Mitchell passed it to Simon Gagne, who missed nearly six months because of a concussion but worked diligently to return because he saw something special in this team. "I played only four games but it means so much to me that guys gave me the Cup that early," Gagne said.
Mitchell had hoisted the Cup in his driveway and his dreams but never in reality. "You've done this since you're 4 years old and you play for a little green garbage can a few times," he said.
"It's just unbelievable."
Believe it. The Kings are the Stanley Cup champions.