In the 18 years since the Los Angeles Kings lost the Stanley Cup to the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, the team has missed the playoffs more than half the time, falling short in 11 seasons.
It’s been so bad that the Kings’ victory over the Vancouver Canucks marks just the second time L.A. has managed to hurdle past the first round of the playoffs since the long-ago Cup run.
Luc Robitaille was on the ice for the Kings in four of the seasons that ended before spring was really in bloom. So, for Robitaille, it was elsewhere in his National Hockey League career that the highest-scoring left winger ever got an inside look at far more successful organizations.
Robitaille, while playing, always had an eye towards business. He took some business courses at Loyola Marymount University during his time as a King, and when he met various corporate executives along the way through his hockey career, he soaked up whatever he could glean. The book What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School was a big influence. And playing in places such as Detroit, where he won a Cup with the Red Wings in 2002, Robitaille studied how the organization was built, what made it a winner.
As success finally arrives on the ice in L.A., the business of hockey also flourishes in the city, and Robitaille is a key player, just as he was on left wing in 1993 during the Cup run that fell short. In 2007, a year after he retired, Robitaille became president of business operations for the Kings, joining the start of a major rebuild headed by president and general manager Dean Lombardi.
“I was always a great student of the game,” says Robitaille, referring not to scoring goals but the business of hockey, citing, beyond Detroit, time spent in Pittsburgh and New York in the 1990s when those franchises were strong.
“I saw the culture of those organizations.”
When Robitaille was hired by Kings’ owner Anschutz Entertainment Group, the large sports-music-arenas company, the team on the ice completely crashed, finishing last in the Western Conference. Per-game attendance plummeted by several thousand people and the Kings’ focus was to staunch the bleeding, preaching a plan of major rebuild to their most-devoted fans.
At the same time, the Kings used billboards in a city of multilane freeways to stoke general interest in an urban sprawl of intense competition from other sports teams. The Kings used images of their promising potential stars, the likes of young forward Anze Kopitar and defenceman Drew Doughty, at first putting up only their pictures and the team’s name, but not the players’.
Success on the ice percolated and then took hold, though it has been jagged. Even this year, which was supposed to be a big success for L.A., was a near disaster, including the firing of a coach amid a severe goal scoring drought and a near-emergency blockbuster move for Jeff Carter at the trade deadline. The Kings barely made the playoffs but now the entire season is validated with the win against the Canucks.
“For the next seven to eight years, every year we want to contend,” says Robitaille. “[This season] I don’t think there ever was a panic button, internally, but that being said, we knew we had to win. For us, we’re not about making the playoffs any more. We’re about trying to win the whole thing.”
To be a contender in the second largest city in America, winning is a prerequisite. Of the 13.5-million adults in the Los Angeles area, according to sports consultancy Navigate Research, 1.1-million - 8 per cent - watched or listened to the Kings game in the past year. That is a fraction of the 6-million (44 per cent) that tuned in at least once to the Lakers and is even behind the L.A. Galaxy, the soccer team that caught attention from 1.2-million, or 9 per cent, of Angelenos. The Kings’ popularity ranks only slightly ahead of the Anaheim Ducks.
“You have to win in this town,” says Robitaille. “Because there’s always something to do. You can go see a movie premier, you can go see the Grammy’s, next thing UCLA, or the Dodgers, or the Angels, the Clippers, the Lakers. There’s always something.”
When Lombardi came to the Kings, one of the first signs of rot he saw the weight room at the team’s practice facility, old equipment in a dark room, which he likened to a “prison cafeteria.” When Robitaille came, one idea important idea he had was to reengage the glitz - “our neighbours in Hollywood” he said at the time. Examples of the effort include what’s called the “ice box,” 11 very VIP seats (total price tag: $4,000) used during the season between the two teams’ players benches. The Kings have staff that cater specifically to celebrities, with a Ritz-Carlton inspired “never say no” attitude.
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.”