SoCal's hockey roots go beyond Gretzky, Ducks' Cup

Updated: June 8, 2007, 10:55 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

In the wake of the Anaheim Ducks' triumphant raising of the Stanley Cup, and even Stanley's latest television guest-starring role on "The Tonight Show" on Thursday night, some of the talk about the sport's niche in Southern California is aggravating.

Much of it has been naive, overstated, misleading -- or just flat-out wrong.

First off (and this one always gets to me), just because nobody was turning cars over on Anaheim's Harbor Boulevard on Wednesday night, and the infamous "Orange Crush" interchange of Interstate 5 at California highways 22 and 57 wasn't at a standstill because of revelers, that doesn't mean "nobody" cares or is passionate about hockey in Southern California.

Beyond that, a lot of the post-series discussion, and perplexingly even in some segments of the Southern California media, has had an almost condescending, Hockey 101, nobody-has-cared-about-the-sport-before tone to it.

Scott Niedermayer
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesScott Niedermayer won the fourth Cup of his career this past June.

At best, there has been a halfhearted acknowledgment of a few linked and indisputable realities -- that Wayne Gretzky's trade to the Kings in 1988 was a flash point, heating up interest at the grassroots level and opening the way for NHL expansion to warm-weather and nontraditional markets; and that the Kings' 1993 appearance in the finals against the Canadiens temporarily put the NHL in the spotlight and had Kurt and Goldie leading the cheers.

Yet, if that's all that is conceded, it's folly.

Despite what so many seem to be saying or implying, hockey interest didn't arrive in Orange County when the Ducks were born in 1993.

Hockey interest didn't even land in Southern California when the Kings were born in 1967.

There wasn't a complete dark period -- a hockey eclipse, so to speak -- in Southern California between the time ESPN's own Barry Melrose was behind the bench in the finals and the Ducks came within one victory of winning it all in 2003.

Heck, nobody even seems to note that there are two more NHL franchises than NFL franchises in the Los Angeles metroplex.

This is ancient history, perhaps, but many hockey fans raised on the West Coast remember the Los Angeles Blades (and also the San Diego Gulls) of the old, minor-league pro Western Hockey League, and those spirited matchups with the Seattle Totems, Portland Buckaroos and Vancouver Canucks.

(This is an aside, but hockey fans in the Pacific Northwest always believed that Orson Wells' mysterious "Rosebud" reference in "Citizen Kane" wasn't just about a stupid sled, but about the Portland Rosebuds' 3-2 series loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1916 Stanley Cup series, the year before the Seattle Metropolitans whipped the Canadiens to claim the Cup.)

When the expansion Kings weren't an instant box-office hit, original franchise owner Jack Kent Cooke's famous musing that he discovered many of his fellow Canadians had moved to Los Angeles because they hated hockey was funny, but almost beside the point. It's not as if all the cities in that first wave immediately were knocking down the doors for the NHL. But when the Triple Crown line was lighting it up, and Rogie Vachon was being stingy, there was excitement in the Forum.

The Kings turned out to be like a lot of NHL teams, including the Red Wings, for example, who played to thousands of empty seats in the Olympia and Joe Louis Arena in the 1970s and '80s. They drew when they were winning, and they didn't when they weren't. But the standards that remain selectively applied today were being trotted out even then -- seats are empty for bad teams' games in traditional markets because the fans are smart, but seats are empty for bad teams' games in nontraditional markets because they're bad hockey markets.

And then Gretzky arrived.

One of the young fans was a kid from the suburbs named Noah Clarke.

"We used to have season tickets and we used to go to the Forum," Clarke told me. "I had the purple jersey and the Kings pucks and sticks and everything. I started skating at the public rink in La Brea and took some lessons and hooked up with a team. I stuck with it."

Multiply Clarke, who became the first Southern California native to score a goal for the Kings in March, by the thousands.

Or buy and watch "In the Crease," the movie about the California Wave Bantam AAA travel team from the program that has produced Robbie Earl, the former Wisconsin star and current Maple Leafs prospect; 2005 Hobey Baker award finalist Brett Sterling; Jonathan Blum of the Vancouver Giants, who is expected to go in the first round of the NHL entry draft next week; and dozens of other United States Hockey League and major junior players.

There always was hockey "interest" in the Southlands, whether it involved Los Angeles-area natives or the huge waves of transplants who first paid attention to the game as diehard fans of the Bruins, Red Wings, Rangers ...

Gretzky's influence, while huge, is only part of an inevitable growth being played out elsewhere in such places as Dallas, where StarCenter rinks are so numerous, visitors coming in for youth tournaments often end up at the wrong one; Denver, where rink construction and participation have boomed and the NCAA powerhouse University of Denver program now has Colorado natives as stars; and the Miami area.

Shortly after the lockout ended two years ago, I walked into the Kings' practice rink in El Segundo near midnight for the heck of it, and both rinks were being used. That's just the way it is with the much-coveted ice time. I immediately ran into television writer David Silverman, a Connecticut native who had just finished playing for his team in the adult no-checking league. One of his teammates is Mel Bridgman, the former NHL star and one-time Senators general manager. That's typical, too: Hockey men often settle in the Southlands. But even guys who were on sand more often than ice when they were kids are trying and enjoying hockey.

But the Southern California media aren't into challenging the urban myths. Perhaps that's because they're self-conscious of all the prattle they are hearing from outsiders and feeling too insecure to question it, and even buy into it to try to justify decisions that give the Clippers more staffing on the road than the Kings or the Ducks.

The Ducks now have had 34 straight sellouts. A bandwagon? Of course it is. But that's also a lot more consecutive sellouts than Detroit (factoring in the playoffs), Dallas and Colorado have had.

The Kings did some major league papering of the house last season, but come on, their official average of 16,859 was still over 90 percent of capacity, so it's absurd to portray them as a colossal box-office failure, especially since they were the second-worst team in the Western Conference.

I'm one of the few who thinks the Kings will be smart enough to take a run at signing Chris Drury, which would even catch the attention of the media because of his All-American ties, but, more important, would be a huge step in the rebuilding process. Drury and his wife and two children live in Manhattan Beach in the offseason, near their close friends, Rob and Brandy Blake. Kings coach Marc Crawford excitedly endorsed and plugged Drury as a prospect when he first saw him play at a National Sports Festival. He never got to coach Drury at Colorado, but he always has been a Drury fan.

So the NHL's death in downtown Los Angeles has been greatly exaggerated, and the league will be back.

And the notion that it took the Stanley Cup to catch anyone's attention, whether in Orange County or beyond the other county lines?

Off target.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."