Sunday, April 15, 2012
Kings change the hockey culture in L.A.
By Arash Markazi
LOS ANGELES -- Recent results would indicate Staples Center has been far from an intimidating place for the Los Angeles Kings’ opponents in the postseason.
After winning the first two games of their playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks, the Kings had surprisingly won four straight playoff games on the road, dating back to last season, for the first time in franchise history. The true test for this team, however, was always going to be at home, where they had lost their previous five postseason games at Staples Center.
Those dreary numbers fed into every negative stereotype about Los Angeles not being a good hockey town.
Maybe the Kings’ 1-0 win over the Canucks on Sunday to a take a 3-0 series lead will go a long way in changing that perception and establishing Los Angeles as a hockey town on the rise. After all, in the past it had been nothing more than a city that had given opponents home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
The Kings hadn’t just been dreadful at home in the postseason the past two seasons; they allowed the Canucks and San Jose Sharks to clinch their past two playoff series over them in Los Angeles. They held leads in both of those games but lost them and both series in six.
If this year, this series, was going to be different, a lot of things had to change, primarily the results. But the atmosphere at Staples Center was never one of them.
Anyone who has been to a Kings playoff game at Staples Center will tell you it's where stereotypes about West Coast hockey go to die. It is unlike any other sports event in Los Angeles. Whereas fans arrive two minutes into the game when the Los Angeles Lakers play, they arrive two hours before the game to see the Kings.
Three hours before the Kings played the Canucks on Sunday afternoon, the L.A. Live plaza across the street from Staples Center was filled with fans playing street hockey, drinking in makeshift beer gardens and dancing in the closed off Chick Hearn Court, the street that separates the two.
Inside Staples Center, most of the 18,352 fans wore black and waved white rally towels as pyrotechnics and rock music welcomed the Kings to the ice in a scene straight out of an episode of WWE Monday Night Raw. By comparison, Lakers games seem like an afternoon at the library.
The fans cheered every Jonathan Quick save, jeered every Canucks dive and absolutely lost it when Kings captain Dustin Brown scored what would be the game-winning goal with in the third period to give the Kings their first-ever 3-0 series lead. A second straight home win on Wednesday would give the Kings their first-ever playoff sweep and first playoff series win since 2001.
Before Sunday’s game against Vancouver, the Kings didn’t shy away from the topic of their difficulty winning at home during the playoffs. In fact it was the central theme of many conversations in the locker room.
“We definitely talked about it, for sure,” Jarret Stoll said after Sunday's game. “We haven’t had very many home victories in the past couple of years and you have to play well at home. Your rink has to be a tough place to come into and play and tonight, to be honest, it really wasn’t but we have to be better in that area. Our goaltender was our best player and that’s why we won the game. The bottom line is we won and we have to win one more.”
Perhaps the problem hasn’t been so much Staples Center, which during Kings games is an anomaly from a greater Los Angeles area still apathetic about hockey, even during the playoffs. Most of the prominent players on the team -- such as Mike Richards and Jeff Carter -- live in Manhattan Beach, where interest in hockey is on par with bobsledding. To some, this laid-back atmosphere is a welcome respite, but to others, this might be seen as a loss in focus during a time when your life needs to revolve around the game.
That may be why the Kings have had greater success on the road in hostile environments in San Jose and Vancouver.
“It’s not a hockey environment, is it?” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said last week. “It may be why they haven’t won too many division titles here.”
It is an environment and a perception that will slowly change if the Kings are able to upset the top-seeded Canucks and continue winning games at home. Brown, who has scored four goals this series and nearly knocked Henrik Sedin into next week early in the second period, understands as well as anyone that Los Angeles loves a winner, and the Kings will have to start winning playoff games at home to change this team's and this city’s perception around the league.
“L.A. is a unique and there is a lot of things to do,” said Brown, who was drafted by the Kings in 2003 and is the longest-tenured player on the team. “This is a town if you want the cool atmosphere you got to perform.”
On Sunday there was no cooler atmosphere in Los Angeles, despite wins by the Lakers and Dodgers, than the Kings game, evidenced by the familiar trio of Kobe Bryant, David Beckham and Will Ferrell sitting near the Kings’ bench during the game and cheering as loud as anyone else in the sold-out crowd after the Kings had won.
“You could start to see the atmosphere change,” Brown said. “My first six years when we didn’t make the playoffs the atmosphere was definitely different. Once we got to the point where we’re at, in the playoffs, people start to get interested and that’s just how it is. But once they’re there, it’s pretty cool.”