By doing right, Kings find their place in L.A.
It was the Year of the Unpredictable in Los Angeles sports: USC football’s plummet toward a 7-6 season after harboring national championship aspirations; a Lakers team beset by instability after acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard; the Clippers engineering a 17-game winning streak; the Dodgers out-spending the New York Yankees; and, oh yeah — the 45-year-old Kings capturing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
It’s the type of chaos most accurately described by Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters — dogs and cats living together.
“In the eyes of many, it was one of the most incredible sporting environments in the history of Los Angeles, certainly in the history of Staples Center, and in the history of the National Hockey League,” said Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of AEG, of the team’s Stanley Cup run at the team’s FOX Sports West-televised press conference last week.
And though the Kings were afforded the opportunity to parade the Cup around the region in a six-month victory lap, they weren’t able to immediately hit the reset button, jump back on the ice in September and capitalize on the city-wide devotion and media attention that hit heights not hit since Wayne Gretzky was setting records at the Great Western Forum.
“It was interesting how the city got attached to our team, because they saw . . . a real team. We had such a great team concept,” Kings director of business operations Luc Robitaille said. “Even though we have stars and some superstars, our guys won as a team. So you never know — sometimes the best things happen organically. The city of L.A. kind of embraced that we were a real team.”
The city of L.A. will also never let go of its Lakers, no matter how many points they’re allowing per night. And on top of being National League contenders in 2013, the Dodgers are foremost a civic institution. There are personal ties to local colleges — not that Robitaille has been caught keeping tabs on other area teams.
“For us, we worry about what we’re doing. We know if we keep doing what we do, we’re going to have our share in this city,” Robitaille said. “People will get excited about the L.A. Kings as long as we keep doing everything right. This is a big city, and there’s room for every team to have success.”
But there was no hockey played in the fall of 2012 in Los Angeles, and as UCLA surged, USC spiraled, and the Lakers did — well, whatever it is that they’re doing — the Kings were relegated toward Cup appearances at local rinks, to charity work and community visits by the Ice Crew. They hosted junior hockey games in Valencia and Long Beach, bringing in organist Dieter Ruehle, in-arena host Jay Flats and Bailey, the team’s mascot.
Now, with hockey to be played, there’s certainly the possibility of winning over some local sports fans disenfranchised with the direction of the current Lakers season.
“To see what’s been going on in basketball has been interesting this year,” Robitaille said. “But I think, for us, we know our fans are focused into our organization, our team. They love our players, they love what we do.”
Every ticket for the upcoming season will be sold, though that’s not the most accurate gauge of the team’s progress in gaining recognition — the team has traditionally drawn well at Staples Center.
“We didn’t win for eight years, and we were averaging 17,000 a night,” Robitaille said. “So I’ve never even doubted the hockey fans in this town. I think the opportunity we have is to grow. If we know that there’s about two-and-a-half million hockey fans, we can get that to three-and-a-half, four million hockey fans.”
They’re planning on rewarding those whose visions of a triumphant banner-raising ceremony gave way to annoyance and frustration over inert labor negotiations. The team hosted a three-hour autograph session last Saturday. Ticket holders will receive a mini replica banner on opening night against Chicago this Saturday and a replica ring later in the season. Robitaille also mentioned a potential march with the Stanley Cup on opening night, one of several ideas in development at team offices.
To help make quick amends, the team also announced it would be donating $1 million in the fans’ honor to the Ronald McDonald House, Children’s Hospital of LA, Boys and Girls Club of America, and City Year.
“When you win [the Stanley Cup], it’s kind of a very special feeling when you get on the other side and you realize that you’re touching thousands of lives,” Robitaille said. “Just being part of that game, and being on the ice at the end and seeing grown men crying in the stands was certainly very special.”
Whether or not they’ve made strides locally, they certainly found their way into the country’s popular culture discussion last spring. Charlie Sheen was denied re-entry to a game. Conan O’Brien and the team’s social media engaged each other, issuing lighthearted taunts and digs. David Beckham won over a Montreal press corps with his account on hockey’s hierarchy, a moment fondly recalled by Leiweke.
“For a town that some wondered whether or not was a true hockey town, I think our fans created an environment that let everyone know — as David Beckham said, ‘We are a hockey town.’”