The Los Angeles Kings president of business operations was standing in the Staples Center corridor after the opening game of the Stanley Cup final and said, “I gotta show you something.”
Luc Robitaille, who’d had a Hall Of Fame career mostly playing for the Kings and was now trying to solidify the team’s business foundation, then pulled out his cellphone, scrolled down and produced a picture of his Santa Monica neighbourhood that he took before Game 4 of the Chicago Blackhawks’ series.
There, in the middle of the street, were a handful of kids, playing hockey.
“That was my big moment,” said Robitaille. “I’m driving with my son and the kids were playing in the street like how we used to do it back home. One kid had on a (Anze) Kopitar jersey, one had a (Jonathan) Quick jersey, and they were playing on roller skates. I thought, ‘that’s just like Canada’ – except you could see the ocean at the end of street. I told my son, ‘stop the car. I got to take a picture of this.’
“I’m thinking, ‘oh my gawd, after all these years, we’ve made it.’”
Robitaille’s Kings are back in the Stanley Cup final for the second time in three seasons, but that’s where the similarities end. In the 2012 run, which required just 20 games and featured 3-0 leads in every series, they still seemed like something of a novelty act, a pleasant distraction once the NBA teams had gone away, but nothing more than an interlude until baseball season heated up and college football returned in the fall.
Now, the path has been harder – three consecutive seven-game series, leading into a final against the New York Rangers – but the roots of the game in southern California seem deeper. Earlier this season, the Kings hosted a successful outdoor game at Dodger Stadium and it is as if all the momentum they’ve created for the NHL is paying dividends.
“What’s happening now is, we’ve been seen a huge influx of players,” said Robitaille. “This summer, we’re trying to have a hockey clinic run by the Kings every week in a different rink, and we’re selling them out everywhere. We started at 300 the first year, sold out. This year, we went to 500, sold out in 24 hours. We’re going to 1,000 right away because the demand has been crazy. We’re really seeing this demand increasing. TV ratings are up. Everything is going up.”
It wasn’t always that way in L.A. The Kings always attracted a loyal following, even before Wayne Gretzky arrived in a 1988 trade with the Edmonton Oilers to create the first burst of interest in Kings’ hockey. But the Gretzky era didn’t last, and after their 1993 trip to the Stanley Cup semi-final, the Great One was eventually traded to the St. Louis Blues and interest in the NHL waned. What Gretzky’s presence did, however, was spawn a grassroots boom for hockey in Southern California. Now, a quarter of a century later, the calibre of minor hockey in California has grown so great that many of the traditional U.S. college powerhouses recruit heavily up and down the Coast, as does the Western Hockey League.
“I call them the Gretzky babies,” said Oren Koules, former Tampa Bay Lightning owner and producer of the Saw movie franchise, whose son Miles plays junior hockey for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL.
According to Koules, many of the players arriving in the NHL now from Southern California, from Beau Bennett and Rocco Grimaldi, to Matt Nieto and Emerson Etem, are “all the kids from when Gretz was first here, all grown up.
“When I grew up in Chicago, the Blackhawks were such a big deal in Chicago in the late 1960s, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, all of a sudden, Chicago hockey got better. L.A. hockey’s become great in the same way.