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.
“Somebody put in the Hockey News last week, if they had an all-L.A. college team – they had Beau Bennett, Emerson Etem, my son, (Bill) Comrie’s sons (Ty and Eric), it would be the best college team in the country. That’s maybe the next move. Some day, one of the big schools, like USC, is going to have to put in a hockey team.”
TV ratings have been excellent thus far in the playoffs. Los Angeles drew a 7.1 rating for this past Wednesday’s opener against the Rangers, the market’s third-highest rating ever on NBC and trailing only Games 5 and 6 of the Stanley Cup final, when the Kings were in a position to clinch the Cup.
Moreover, the research firm Nielsen recently did a survey in which they compared the number of adults “interested” or “very interested” in professional sports leagues in the L.A. area, from 2010 to 2014. Among respondents who described themselves as “interested” in professional sport, the NHL was up 22 per cent, the NFL up 4 per cent, while the NBA was down 8 per cent and Major League baseball was down 5 per cent. Among those who described themselves as “very interested,” the numbers were even better. Interest in the NHL was up 48 per cent, the NFL 16 per cent, while the NBA was down 2 per and Major League baseball down 1 per cent.
The Kings have sold out 118 consecutive games going into Saturday’s second game of the Stanley Cup final against the New York Rangers.
“It’s starting to become a hotter ticket,” said Kings’ television host Patrick O’Neal, son of the actor Ryan O’Neal, who gets to interview some of the celebrities that turn up for Kings’ playoff games this spring. “There is a buzz now and social media helps that. On our post-game show, the fans come out to our set and they’re chanting and screaming. There’s so much passion behind this team.
“Listen, I was there when the Lakers won two championships. I was there for the Dodgers when they got to back-to-back NLCs and went on their 42-8 run, but for me, the passion for hockey with these fans in Los Angeles, there’s nothing quite like it. There’s something special happening. I’m sensing a turnaround – that we’re getting these fans because the team is winning and because they love these guys. I’d like to see more, but I do think we’re trending in the right direction.”
Kings’ broadcaster Jim Fox played with the team between 1980 and 1990 and upon his retirement, moved into the community relations department. One of the goals then was to get young players interested in playing hockey, in the hopes that they would become the next generation of fans. But it was a tough slog in the early days.
“The first Kings’ youth hockey camp, we scheduled it for a Monday through Saturday, and we learned from this that we better have an orientation day on the Sunday first – because three quarters of the kids didn’t know how to put on their equipment,” said Fox. “We knew they didn’t have the equipment because we were supplying it, but my wife Susie and I, we had to actually put on the equipment for 75 per cent of the kids. Gretz had already been here for three years; that’s when kids were coming to hockey camps when they never would have thought of it before; never even skated before. Now you see the difference. You have California teams winning national championships; California-bred kids drafted into the NHL. It is a generational thing.
“When I took my job in community relations, I was asked, ‘what was my goal?’ and I answered, ‘I want to make sure the Kings are popular after Wayne leaves.’ He was the ignition point; a lot of the credit goes to Wayne. But now, I think we’re a generation-plus past Wayne, in group sales and youth programs, those types of areas, now we get attention. People want to be part of it.”
General manager Dean Lombardi also remembers the bad old days after Gretzky left and before the Kings became competitive again, a period in which they missed the playoffs for six consecutive years between 2003 and 2010.
“I’d scout games here when I was working for Philadelphia, and there was unbelievable rabid passion in that upper bowl,” said Lombardi. “I thought, ‘these people are crazy, because the team wasn’t very good, and yet the people there were still going nuts.’ “So there was clearly a niche of hard-core fans here – and when I first came here and did the town halls and such, it was clear they knew what they were talking about and they’d had enough and so you weren’t going to fool them talking about this, that and the other thing.
“But I think what you see now, you go down to Manhattan Beach and the bridge is already decorated in Kings’ colours. Even my neighbours, who didn’t know who I was, they now know our players’ names. The guy at the gas station comes up and says, ‘man that (Tyler) Toffoli’s a good player.’ That’s different from when we won it.
“But it still comes down to what we always say, ‘you have to give them a good product.’ Even the Gretzky era, it never had any staying power. After that one year (1993), it went down in a heartbeat.”
The trick will be to sustain their current level of excellence, which has seen them win 38 playoff games over the past three years, most in the NHL over that span. But the nucleus of the team – Kopitar, Quick, centre Jeff Carter and defenceman Drew Doughty are all still in or approaching their primes and signed to long-term contracts.
The only downside to their increasing popularity is that the Kings’ players can no longer move around town with the same sort of anonymity as before, which was one of the perks of playing in a non-traditional market.
“That’s changed drastically – and I don’t know if I like it better or not,” said Doughty, who paused to think and then added: “I for sure don’t like it better, actually. We’ll go out for dinner – the beards we all have don’t help – but back in the day we could just pretty much roll in anywhere, and there’s no way anyone would know who you were, no possible way.
“And now it seems like everywhere we do go, we are getting recognized. It’s kind of more like Canada, when you’re back in home in Canada. It’s great because we’re bringing more fans to the game; we’re making hockey a presence in California. That was kind of the bonus of playing here too – you could do what you wanted and not get in trouble for it.”
Still, given the alternatives, this is better than before.
“I’d rather have the problem and be a winner,” concluded Doughty, “than not have the problem and lose.”