If you drive down the I-10 freeway on the way to Los Angeles, you pass by a big sign that directs you to the Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario, California. There is where the Ontario Reign have called home over the last eight years. Former members of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), a league in which is lower than the minor hockey leagues that help feed off to the NHL. Most of the players usually fight their way to the American Hockey League, and many of the cities that have teams in the ECHL are rather small and scattered.
There has not been much dazzle from the Reign before, but hockey has certainly picked up somehow in the Pacific. While the Kings and Ducks back years back would make the playoffs but not travel very far, many of its citizens in the Inland Empire called this team theirs. Along with number of teams in the California Baseball League (an affiliate of Single A baseball for the major leagues), developing a fan base was not all that hard since teams out here thrive on fans of lower tier teams.
It didn’t take very long for hockey to make a splash in Southern California. With the Kings winning Stanley Cups in two of the last four seasons, hockey suddenly became a big thing. Both the Kings and Ducks saw a surge in merchandise and ticket sales, and the Reign saw their attendance rise. It slowly was becoming more than a baseball and basketball town. People wanted more than just the Hollywood lights and glamour that nearly everyone knows about.
With the Bakersfield Condors also picking up some steam, the Los Angeles Kings wanted to keep their prospects close. Their AHL affiliate at the time was in Manchester, Rhode Island. While keeping them close, it wanted to keep its fan base happy and give them a chance to keep tabs on potential up and comers. Anaheim also joined in and brought their AHL affiliate to San Diego, making now three teams that are within driving distance just a tier below the NHL.
All the hype about how strong hockey is in Southern California has become true. The arena always ends up two thirds full in Ontario, and it is mostly filled with Kings fans. That same trend continues with San Diego and Bakersfield.
The great thing about how the Reign have shown so much interest are those that fell onto the Kings lap and proving that their “farm” system is as strong as anyone in the league. While there are a number of veterans who are trying to find their way back (Paul Bissonnette and Paul Mara), others are beginning to make their mark, yet, are trying to find their break in the NHL (goalie Peter Budaj, who leads the league in goals allowed per game).
Currently the Reign are tops in the AHL with a solid 10-2-2 record, and people are noticing. Here in Southern California, the Reign are more than just your other team to see if there is nothing else to do on a Friday night. If this team can perform, wait until you see the Kings of the new begin to take shape.