A rollercoaster year that ended on top
The Los Angeles Kings made NHL history this spring when they won the Stanley Cup after barely squeezing into the playoffs. Former McGill Redmen Jamie Kompon was there for all the highs and the lows.
by Ben Makuch
In the summer of 2001, after trading for all-star centre Mike Richards, most pre-season polls by NHL pundits pegged the Los Angeles Kings among the favourites to win the Stanley Cup. The team didn’t lack for talent. Forward Anze Kopitar, defenceman Drew Doughty and goalie Jonathan Quick were all regarded as among the best young players in the league at their respective positions.
None of the experts could have predicted that, come December, the Kings would be toiling at the bottom of the Western Conference, or that they would miraculously turn things around by spring and become the first eighth-seeded team in NHL history to win it all.
Along for the rollercoaster ride was former Kings assistant coach Jamie Kompon BEd’89, one of many McGill grads earning a living by coaching in the NHL. His former McGill Redmen teammate, Mike Babcock BEd’86, coach of the Detroit Red Wings, won the Stanley Cup in 2008, while Guy Boucher BA’95, coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, took his team as far as the Eastern Conference final in 2011.
According to Kompon, the Kings’ early season woes could be blamed on several factors. “With the expectations of others brings a lot of pressure you put on yourself and that had a big part. A lot can also be said about our team chemistry and some of the summer additions we made,” he says. “Not to mention we were in Europe for the first few games of the season and the travel can really kill you. When we got back we just got a little bit of snake bite and couldn’t score.”
By midseason the team found themselves outside of the playoff picture, and in an 82 game season, where teams can miss the playoffs by a single point, every game matters. Head coach Terry Murray was eventually fired and replaced with Daryl Sutter, the hardnosed former coach of the Calgary Flames.
“Daryl did a really great job righting the ship,” says Kompon. “Terry made us the best defensive team in the league and [Daryl] knew that.” Sutter’s challenge was to preserve the Kings’ commitment to defence, while adding more spark to their scoring attack. “He made sure every day we worked and worked on an offensive system until we finally started to score and by the playoffs we had developed a great chemistry and culture of accountability.”
The late season acquisition of Jeff Carter, a proven scorer, helped. So did the fact that young defenceman Slava Voynov responded well to the increased ice time he received in the wake of fellow blueliner Jack Johnson’s departure (Johnson was the player the Kings dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Carter). The Kings also promoted Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, a couple of big young wingers from their farm team in Manchester, and the pair gave the team’s forward corps more size and depth.
Like many championship winning teams, the Kings began to peak at the right time and slid into the playoffs in the dying moments of the regular season earning the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and the right to play the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks.
“Our attitude was always, make the playoffs and anything can happen because the President’s Trophy winner rarely wins the Cup,” explains Kompon, referring to the trophy awarded to the top regular season team with the most points. “Then we win game one and you really start seeing the guys coming together thinking they can really do it.”
In their best of seven series, the Kings would go on to sweep the Canucks, then the St Louis Blues in round two, before casting aside the Phoenix Coyotes 4-1 in the Western Conference final for the right to face the New Jersey Devils for the Stanley Cup.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s a grind. I now know why people call it the hardest championship to win in sports,” says Kompon about the gruelling nature of the NHL playoffs where blocking 100 mph slap shots and putting up with painful injuries is par for the course. “You’re playing back to back games for two months. But I was so proud of the way our players responded physically and mentally. They showed up every night.”
For his day with the Cup, Kompon decided to bring Lord Stanley to his adoptive hometown of St Louis where he served as an assistant coach with the Blues until 2006. He continues to make his offseason home there and runs a summer hockey school for kids every July.
After their Stanley Cup winning campaign, Kompon was let go by the Kings, who decided not to renew his contract when it expired at the end of the season. But it didn’t take long for Kompon to find work when the Chicago Blackhawks hired him in July as an assistant, reuniting him with head coach Joel Quenneville who he served under in St Louis.
“Daryl wanted to bring in his own people, which is completely understandable,” says Kompon about the change in organizations. “I learned a lot from him about player management and I’m really proud of what we accomplished together.”
Now Kompon will have the challenge of helping the former 2009 cup winners return to being champions, a difficult feat to accomplish in a salary cap league where there’s so much talent parity. His former Kings will be facing the same task.
“For a cup champion it’s a battle to get ready for a new season. Think about it, after we won in June, it was already just 13 weeks away from training camp.”
Kompon has been involved in coaching for almost 20 years now, beginning as the co-head coach of the McGill Redmen. His ambition is to become a head coach in the NHL.
“There’s only a few of those jobs available,” admits Kompon. “If I have to go down to the minors and be a head coach I’ll do it. But for now I’m just going to keep banging on the door until my number is called.”