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Central Coast bar in Newport Beach, Calif (Eric Duhatschek)
Central Coast bar in Newport Beach, Calif (Eric Duhatschek)

DUHATSCHEK

Maybe L.A. is a hockey town after all Add to ...

The NHL’s Los Angeles Kings share a practice facility with the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers in El Segundo, Calif. so if you’re looking for evidence that one team is preparing for the new season, while the other is locked out, that’s as good a place to start as any.

The Lakers are always the No. 1 attraction in town anyway, and after landing both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in off-season trades, the buzz is even greater than usual this year.

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On Saturday, leaving Lakers’ practice, after a funny exchange with Howard (more on that later), I ran into Kings’ equipment manager Darren Granger in the parking lot, who was bringing his son Chase to the rink for a practice. Granger said he’d brought the Stanley Cup over to the Laker side earlier so that Nash could look it over and check it out for names from his hometown of Victoria, B.C. – which should surprise no one. The Stanley Cup has that effect on people, no matter where it happens to be. There is just a greater cache with hockey’s ultimate prize than with, say, the Larry O’Brien trophy, which NBA teams play for every year.

One of the first casualties of the 2012-13 NHL lockout was the Kings’ banner-raising ceremony. It was supposed to take place at the home opener more than a week ago, and you wonder, when it does happen – and if it gets pushed back until the start of the 2013-14 season – will it be anticlimactic?

The Kings were hoping to get a little bit of a marketing bounce this year, coming off their unexpected championship last spring, and there genuinely do appear to be folks who miss hockey here, even in what would be the first days of the new season. On the hockey side of the El Segundo facility, there are two skating rinks, and even without official NHL practices, they were running full on this weekend. Hockey has developed roots here in the past decade and there is a steady stream of adults and kids playing the game, even in the absence of NHL action.

As the story evolved throughout the week, the L.A. Times had lockout-related coverage on the front page of its sports section on three consecutive days.

A year ago, the NBA was going through a similar dance with its players, and for the longest time, it looked as if there would be no hope for a settlement. Games were postponed three different times and right at the witching hour, the two sides came to their senses and salvaged a 66-game schedule.

Because they practice side-by-side, and they are owned by the same company – AEG – there is some overlap between the Lakers and the Kings. Kobe Bryant attended NHL playoff games last spring with his daughters. And after a summer of movement, Canadian content has never been higher on the Laker side, with Nash joining the team as its new point guard; and Robert Sacre from Vancouver trying to crack the roster as the team’s back-up centre (after being chosen as the 60th and final player in last year’s NBA draft). I showed up a couple of times last week to talk to both players and on Saturday, after my chat with Sacre ended, I wandered over to where Howard was holding court.

He’s the No. 1 story on the Lakers right now, because he’s recovering from off-season back surgery and at that point, hadn’t seen any action in the exhibition season. But Howard was getting closer and with the Lakers a dismal 0-5 at that juncture, the questions were all about when he might play. As I drifted over to the pack, and likely with a view to changing the topic, Howard called out to me: “Hey new guy, where you from?’ “Canada?” “What part?” “Calgary.” After digesting the news, Howard went off on a riff about how much he enjoyed Canada’s national anthem and then, unprompted, started singing it. Cracked the place up too. Sounds as if he’s waiting for hockey too.

Last week, just after commissioner Gary Bettman made the latest offer to the players, a bar in Newport Beach, Calif., posted the following message on the marquee: “C’mon hockey, take the deal.” Underneath, it outlined the major-league baseball playoff schedule.

Hockey getting top billing over baseball’s exciting post-season battles? Basketball players talking up the game.

Maybe L.A. is a hockey town after all.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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