Attendance has jumped, as 18,000 or so cram in for each game, the Kings selling out nearly every game this season. As the Kings rolled over the Canucks in five games, bold-print names such as Kobe Bryant, David Beckham and Will Ferrell were among the crowd. Games 3 and 4 of the second round against St. Louis, without doubt, will be hot tickets. L.A., more than most towns, loves a winner.
L.A., in 1967, was the NHL’s first foray away from winter. The Kings were one of the first two southern teams in the league’s push beyond the Original Six, the other sunny team being the California Seals, in Oakland. Jack Kent Cooke, who grew up in Toronto, had made money in cable television and already owned the L.A. Lakers and part of the Washington Redskins when he won the right to found the Kings.
On Saturday, the Kings begin the playoffs’ second round against another 1967 team that has never won the Cup, the St. Louis Blues. Beyond lack of excitement in an expected low-scoring series, the relative lack of prominence of either team involved will be a test for the NHL as it hopes to see TV ratings keep rising in the U.S.
Today, the Kings are a success for Anschutz Entertainment Group - AEG - which itself is now a titan of the sports-entertainment world. The Kings, in fact, were a foundation for AEG’s rise. AEG was started by Philip Anschutz, a reclusive Denver billionaire who first made his fortune in oil and then invested in railroads and telecommunications. He was recently profiled in a 10,000-word feature in the New Yorker. Anschutz bought the Kings for $113-million in 1995, a deal done with partner Ed Roski, a veteran L.A. real estate developer who was working on plans for a downtown arena.
That became the Staples Center, home of the Kings, the Lakers and the Clippers, and is the heart of AEG’s now-worldwide business. (The idea, however, isn’t new, as Jack Kent Cooke built the Forum in a L.A. suburb in the late 1960s to house his Lakers and Kings.)
Around the Staples Center, AEG has spent $2.5-billion to create what’s called L.A. Live, a large entertainment district. The new goal is to build a billion-dollar stadium to bring a National Football League team back to L.A.
Among AEG’s sprawling endeavours is a big project in Canada with Daryl Katz, the billionaire owner of the Edmonton Oilers. Katz wants to build a new arena in Edmonton and in January revealed a deal with Icon Venue Group, which is co-owned by Anschutz. According to an AEG spokesman, AEG and Katz may work together on an entertainment district in Edmonton around an arena like L.A. Live.
AEG tries to take very long-term views, seeing potential in a desert of nothing in downtown L.A. in the mid-1990s. Today, Anschutz is the “man who owns L.A.” going by the New Yorker headline in January. Soccer is where AEG has placed one of its longest-term bets. AEG helped start Major League Soccer and has owned at least part of seven franchises in the league. The championship trophy is named after Anschutz, and last year was won by the AEG-owned L.A. Galaxy, who beat the Houston Dynamo, also owned by AEG, in a game played in L.A. at the Home Depot Center, owned by, of course, AEG.
“It’s an extremely well-run company. It’s all superlatives,” said AJ Maestas, president of Navigate Research. “What they’re incredible at is they invest in things other people aren’t thinking about, years early. It’s like a great stock picker.”
With the Kings, however, AEG had long been criticized by L.A. hockey fans as an owner that didn’t really care about winning, not unlike criticism of the Toronto Maple Leafs and its corporate ownership. But AEG has invested heavily in the Kings of late, last summer committing almost as much on contracts for two players, Doughty and Mike Richards ($108-million), as the company did to buy the club ($113-million). The Kings are now near the top of NHL spenders, right there with last year’s Cup finalists, Vancouver and Boston, and the Kings have an average age of players two years younger than the Canucks or the Bruins.
The road from rebuild to Cup contention has been difficult. Tim Leiweke, CEO of AEG and the Kings’ governor for the NHL, said in a 2010 story of the long rebuild: “It was a painful five years. People hated me.”
Robitaille, too, struggled to instill the ways of a winner, a Red Wings West-type idea, even within the organization. As with bringing back fans, winning has help convince people what it means to be, and how to be, a winner.
“At first it was really hard,” said Robitaille. “But as the team started performing, and suddenly the expectations are a lot grander, it’s a lot easier to explain, even to my staff, what we stand for, because you’re seeing results.”