Even though Kevin Westgarth was forced to be a spectator for the Los Angeles Kings during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that didn’t stop the former Princeton University men’s hockey standout from enjoying the moment when it came time to lift the Cup.
Westgarth is part of a Kings’ squad that shocked the hockey world by becoming the first eighth seed to win the Stanley Cup as it topped the New Jersey Devils 4-2 in the best-of-seven championship series.
Sidelined since March due to a hand injury, Westgarth was still allowed to take his turn on the ice lifting Lord Stanley’s cherished trophy over his head after the Kings had clinched the Cup on the evening of June 11.
“It’s one of those things that I don’t think your brain can really handle,” said the 6’4, 228-pound forward Westgarth, who had a goal and an assist and 39 penalty minutes in 25 regular season appearances in the 2011-12 campaign.
“You grow up watching your heroes doing that on TV. You see them lifting the Stanley Cup over their heads, and then it comes to you. It was an absolutely incredible feeling, but it’s one of those things that doesn’t sink in right away.”
Despite seeing limited action over the course of the season, Westgarth had plenty of enthusiasm when it came time to celebrate with his teammates after the Kings finished off New Jersey in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
“It was just incredible to celebrate that dream come true with my teammates,” asserted Westgarth, a native of Amherstburg, Ontario who plans to spend his day with the Stanley Cup at his family home in Canada.
“One of my favorite parts is when we got into the dressing room with the guys on the team. It was an incredibly special feeling. You’re going to be tied with those people together for the rest of your life.”
The journey to the Stanley Cup for Westgarth began at Princeton University as the bruising forward played four seasons for the Tigers from 2003-2007.
Over the course of his Tiger career, Westgarth collected 25 goals and 60 points at Princeton while racking up 160 penalty minutes, and the chance to play with his brother, Brett, for three seasons.
While Westgarth was thrilled with his hockey experience at Old Nassau, he was equally happy with his life off the ice during his college years.
“Princeton was four of the most amazing years of my life,” said Westgarth.
“I met my wife there (former Tiger basketball standout Meagan Cowher) and there were so many special people. There were guys who I’m going to be friends with the rest of my life. It’s a pretty amazing place.”
Westgarth arrived at Princeton at a time when the hockey program began its renaissance under dynamic head coach Guy Gadowsky. Although Westgarth graduated one year before the Tigers captured the ECAC title in the 2007-08 campaign, he was a key contributor to the program’s turnaround.
In reflecting on his development as a player, Westgarth gives a lot of credit to Gadowsky, who now guides the Penn Sate men’s hockey program.
“I wouldn’t have made it to the NHL without him as my coach,” Westgarth said.
“I’m a huge fan of everything he did at Princeton. They ended up winning the ECAC the year after I left. It was amazing to play for him.”
While there is no fighting allowed in college hockey, it was clear Westgarth brought an edge to his game. His physical style of play often drew the ire of Princeton’s opponents.
“I like to bring a little extra physical play,” said Westgarth. “It was that way even before college. I was hoping it could at least get me the opportunity to show that I can play in the big league.”
It was Westgarth’s physical style, which earned him a chance to play professionally. Westgarth went to the Manchester Monarchs (N.H.) of the AHL after he left Princeton, and the Kings’ AHL affiliate gave Westgarth a chance to show off his skills as a fighter.
Westgarth accumulated 191 penalty minutes during the 2007-08 season and earned his first call-up from the Kings the following year.
“I had a great time in Manchester,” asserted Westgarth. “Being up and down with the Kings and finally making it was an incredible journey with the teammates I played with through the years. That’s always been the dream.”
After spending another full season in Manchester in 2009-10, Westgarth returned to Los Angeles for good the following year. Westgarth picked up 105 penalty minutes in 56 games in the 2010-11 campaign and quickly established a reputation as one of the NHL’s toughest fighters.
While Westgarth has often left opponents bruised and battered, he said there is little bad blood before the gloves are dropped. “Most hockey fans would be intrigued to learn how cordial and civil the whole pre-fight routine is,” Westgarth said.
“They understand the game and they understand their job. If things start to bubble over, you can get in a fight and maybe cool things off. Everyone kind of knows what the deal is.”
Westgarth is keeping busy in the off-season as a member of the NHLPA Player Negotiation Committee. He is one of several players (including fellow former Tiger George Parros) who are working to help create a new collective bargaining agreement. If an agreement isn’t reached by September 15, the players and owners will be faced with a lockout.
“It’s a volunteer position,” said Westgarth. “It obviously has a huge impact on the game. I take it as an opportunity to use my brain for something other than blocking fists. It’s been interesting to get this process going. Obviously, we don’t want to get locked out again.”
Even if the NHL season is delayed, Westgarth can take comfort knowing his days of bouncing between the AHL and NHL are apparently over.
The Kings have made a commitment to Westgarth, but the former Tiger promises to never take his roster spot for granted.
“You only get to a point like this if you’re never satisfied,” said Westgarth. “When you’re playing in the AHL, you just want that one NHL game. When you get that one NHL game, you want to be there as long as you can.”