A Team Built on Hockey Terms

Nothing like waking up to a cliché, and here’s one for you: everyone loves a winner. This might be the best answer to the question people around the country and perhaps the world are asking this morning, and that is whether LA is a hockey town.

The president of a local college last week said something like this in a public memo he wrote on an issue entirely unrelated to sports (this is a paraphrase): “People are good at jumping onto bandwagons. Who knew, for instance, that LA was a hockey town?”

In answer, I’ll put up my hand and say, “I knew.” Not that it’s up to me, but I can attest that there are many loyal hockey fans in what insiders call SoCal. The LA Kings team, in fact, has done a good job over the past few years featuring those who have been supporters the longest, putting them on the big board at intermissions and rewarding them with custom guitars.

Most have held season’s tickets over the decades, not just for a few years, and every time you see them, the message is clear: people in this town have cared about hockey for a long time. The flip side of that, of course, is that people who have this level of devotion to hockey in LA have also experienced lonely moments which sometimes stretched to decades.

The early days were, as anyone with a knowledge of history can attest, a little bizarre. To start, there was an owner who was kind of out there in the form of Jack Kent Cooke. One of the best sources of stories about him is Bob Miller’s book, Tales from the Los Angeles Kings. In there, he talks, just to cite one example, about the fact that every day as Cooke got to the arena (the Forum in Inglewood in those days, a place now owned by a large local church congregation), people would call ahead of him and warn others that he was there so they could be on the lookout.

There were games which were played, for the first few weeks anyway, in an arena in Long Beach which resembles a giant fish tank from the outside. It later housed the ECHL’s Long Beach Ice Dogs. Then there was the practice facility, located in what is loosely termed “up in the valley,” but which, by the word of at least one former player, was kind of lost and mostly somewhere where the players showed up, practiced, and dodged out of as soon as they could.

When Gretzky came, as attested by everyone who was here and perhaps most expertly told in Stephen Brunt’s book Gretzky’s Tears, things changed. Suddenly, a golden sheen covered the franchise and every move was watched over by the media and the famous people who live in the area. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell are those who seem to be most often cited as adherents to the team, but from what I’ve been told, every day in the arena brought a new star citing.

At this point, LA was a hockey town of sorts, but, I’ll argue, not in a true sense. Gretzky was a shining star, and his feats of hockey glory magnificent and never to be repeated, but he was a media star also, an attractive and successful person in a city where being those two things, in that order, is what matters. People loved hockey less for its history and more for its glamour in the form of the atmosphere that surrounded the Kings when he was with them.

Since that time, and it’s hard to believe that it’s two decades since the Kings were last in the Finals (1993) and sixteen years since The Great One left for St. Louis (1996), the team has struggled. There were a couple of good years in the early part of the decade (2000-01 season and the next) and then the fallow years followed. In that time, a series of bizarro-world goaltending misadventures condemned the squads in front of them to lose no matter how much everything was put in order other than the netminding. Those who watched the team just hoped that somehow, something would change.

All the while, the faithful kept buying tickets, but they were just the thinnest core. The hangers-on disappeared, because of the before-cited factor that everyone, at least in this town, loves a winner and the Dodgers, but that depth of misplaced devotion is not something that I plan to spend any bits and bytes discussing.

So here we are, with the Kings bringing the Finals back to SoCal, and the town is suddenly alight with hockey energy. This is perhaps helped by the fact that the team is not just hanging by a thread and hoping. By the looks of it, there’s pretty much no way they can lose this series. If one person doesn’t score, someone else does. The OT games keep going their way. The consistency of any player you can name up and down the lineup hasn’t varied.

This, in other words, is nothing like anything ever seen before in LA as far as hockey is concerned, and that, for my money, is what makes LA a hockey town, if anything ever will. It’s the fact that the team doesn’t have to ask fans to watch. They’re worth watching on their own. They don’t have the pretty boys. They’ve got a gritty bunch of guys led by a captain with lots less teeth than he had when he was a teenager and a coach who is hardly the type to look pretty on TV. They are being successful not on LA’s terms, in other words, but on the same terms that have always made hockey teams win: they’re playing the game the way it must be played, and the hockey gods are noticing and rewarding them with the close games and the OT contests.

What changed? LA, in the form of Dean Lombardi and his associates, is not trying to entertain people with hockey. Rather, they’ve built themselves a team that can win on hockey terms, knowing that if they did that, the glory, and hence fan interest, would follow. How did they do that? The only way you can: from the net outwards. Jonathan Quick, it need not be cited, has never faltered. If it were him alone, you’d have a situation like Anaheim 2003, when Giguere lit it up in the playoffs on the way to the Conn Smythe trophy and a seven-game loss to these same Devils of New Jersey. Quick is not doing it alone, however.

The defense is big, tough, and unflappable. And the lineup staged night after night up front has solidified into units, with little need to tinker and tweak, as was true earlier in the season, when you could pretty much count on a new experiment on any given evening in the hopes that the group would finally figure out how to score.

Further, to cite one of my oft-repeated themes, the management have built themselves a Canadian team (certain key players, notably Quick, Brown, and Matt Greene excepted). What that means, and this is hardly something to be ignored, is that night after night, when these players take to the ice, they’re doing something they’ve done every day since they were five or seven years old: they’re playing for the Stanley Cup, believing that it will be them who scores the goal which wins it.

And so fans, both diehard and short-term, have responded, as they might anywhere. They’re on board. They suddenly see the game as something worth spending time and emotional energy on.

Has everything changed in this town? It looks like it, but no, because when the Cup’s been won, if it is, and the tents are folded, the arena is empty, and it’s all just a memory, it will be an event which resonates much more strongly with a small core than in the town at large. That’s just how it is in LA. But that takes nothing away from the present moment, and it certainly will make the memories no less precious, nor the history any less real, because if the Kings win the Cup this week or next, they will have won it forever. This franchise will never, ever again, have to justify its existence to anyone.

Local writer Gann Matsuda weighed in on the matter, discussing whether the potential win of the Stanley Cup by this team would change the way they are viewed by people outside the market, on the East coast, for instance, where the team is barely noticed most of the time. His story, entitled, “2012 Stanley Cup Final: Eastern Media’s Ignorance Of All Things LA Kings, Shines Through” is featured at Frozenroyalty.net, and in it, he concludes that even if the team wins, the obscurity issues the team faces outside of LA may not disappear.

He could very well be right, but for this moment at least, the town is alight with hockey energy. This afternoon at 4pm local time, people will gather in the large square called LA Live, across from Staples Center, for a rally in support of the team. The game begins at 5pm local time, so there’s no way the players will be able to take note of the gathered group. They will hear the spillover when they skate onto the ice thirty-five minutes later, a roar that will likely set records for its duration and intensity.

If this is not a hockey town, don’t tell anyone that at that moment. As for the future, LA fans would have every right not to care what anyone else thinks if their team wins the Stanley Cup, because, in the end, none of the frustrating and bizarre times of the past will matter anymore. Next year, there will be a banner hung at the end of Staples Center, the team will have a tiny silver patch on its uniform with an image of the most beautiful and sacred history in sports pictured on it, and anyone who wants to ignore them can freely do so, because they and the people who treasure them most will always have this Cup.

Brian’s book My Country Is Hockey discusses the Gretzky era in LA, among other things.

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