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Hockey Fest has Kings fans revved up for season

Sunday, 08.30.2009 / 10:18 AM / News

By Eric Stephens - NHL.com Correspondent

LOS ANGELES – Fans filtered in and out of the large air-conditioned tent that was buzzing with all things Los Angeles Kings, in the center of a metropolis where creating a buzz can be quite the challenge on a sweltering Saturday afternoon.

Players were signing autographs and posing for pictures as part of their devoted following stood in lines for up to 45 minutes. Kids and adults alike were anxious for a chance at EA Sports' impressive brand-new "NHL 10" video game. Small children were trying their hand at being a goalie or seeing how hard or how accurately they could shoot a puck.
 
All of this took place while the attendees — many of them in the various Kings uniforms they've iced over their 40-plus NHL seasons — braved 95-degree temperatures and hazardous air quality created by several brush fires around Southern California. But LA Kings Hockey Fest '09 was enough for fans like Ken Coffman to drive 40 miles from their home in suburban Upland.

"It gets the juices moving, to get ready for the season," Coffman said. "It's been too long. We watch hockey constantly so we watch it right until the end in June."

"But for us," interjected his son, Scott, "the Kings' season ends in April. And there's still two months to play and we're sitting out."

And therein lays the test of this three-day fan convention of sorts that began with fanfare Friday night and culminates Sunday afternoon. The Kings are looking to get their supporters excited about the 2009-10 season but it's also a devoted, faithful group that isn't easy to win over.

It isn't for a lack of effort. The club not only introduced all of its current players Friday night (save for Ryan Smyth and Alexander Frolov, who could not attend because of prior commitments) but they brought back many former players from Gary Edwards, Mike Murphy, Jim Fox and Bernie Nicholls to Mark Hardy, Ray Ferraro and Glen Murray.

The highlight of the weekend was the reunion of the famed Triple Crown Line – Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor -- which became the first line to have each of its members top 100 points in a season. The trio, whose members rarely have been able to get together in recent years, shared stories of their exploits in front of a highly appreciative crowd.

Luc Robitaille, the Kings' longtime star left wing and now the club's president of business operations, said the goal of the inaugural Hockey Fest is to get people talking about hockey during the summer and keep the club relevant in the proliferated Southern California sports marketplace. The recent Hall of Fame inductee is planning to make it an annual event.

"I remember two years ago, we were talking about doing some kind of event in the summer," Robitaille said. "We were doing the draft party and we saw how our fans loved it. And we were looking to do something else. But at the time, the theater [Nokia Theatre] has just been built and the hotel wasn't in.

"We were thinking at first to start it next year. But when we started asking around and we had done a bunch of research, we saw that our fans were excited about it."

"It is a tight community here. Montreal might have 100,000 fans. We might have a good 30,000 Kings fans but you know a lot of them. We see the same people every game. They show up in the same jerseys or different jerseys. But they show up."
-- LA Kings fan, Ken Coffman

A season-ticket holder since 2002, Coffman said the event shows that there are passionate Kings fans – and hockey fans in general – in L.A.

"It is a tight community here," he said. "Montreal might have 100,000 fans. We might have a good 30,000 Kings fans but you know a lot of them. We see the same people every game. They show up in the same jerseys or different jerseys. But they show up."

Now they're ready for a team that can win. The fans have endured three rebuilding seasons under General Manager Dean Lombardi's watch, believing in his plan that once they do win, they'll do it for a long time.

Rising young players such as captain Dustin Brown, first-line center Anze Kopitar and defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson form the nucleus that Lombardi would like to build around. The play of goaltender Jonathan Quick and forwards Oscar Moller and Wayne Simmonds also portend to a bright future.

The roster is also spiced with veterans such as Frolov, Sean O'Donnell, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll and Michal Handzus.  But when Lombardi signed free-agent defenseman Rob Scuderi away from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and dealt for the veteran goal-scoring winger Smyth from the Colorado Avalanche, it suddenly made the Kings a sexy pick to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

"I think the biggest thing that we sense is expectation," said Robitaille, the most prolific goal-scoring left wing in NHL history. "You play sports to win. Sometimes you have to be patient. It takes time.

"There's expectation this year that we're not going to surprise teams. You go around the NHL and they're talking about our team. They're seeing it. Last year, they were talking about our level of talent. It's kind of fun to know that there's expectations."

Ferraro, a King for three seasons in the late 1990s and now a popular hockey analyst in the U.S. and Canada, said they have the makeup to take the next step, but added that it will be a difficult one as they compete with the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Division in addition to a treacherous Western Conference.

"One fan said he's been a fan for 41 years," said Ferraro, who co-hosted an NHL experts panel with Fox and Hrudey. "He asked me why is this rebuild different than any other one that we've had. I said the difference is between being young, and being good and young. The players are good. They're just young.  The organization has really tried to manage the expectations. They're tried to build this thing along a little bit. And it's hard to not get really excited.

"There just seems to be a sense of cautious optimism. The fans sense it but they're almost scared to believe it. And so now it's up to the organization to prove that now it's time."

Caution is what Ken and Scott Coffman are preaching. They still believe in Lombardi's plan, or as Ken says, "He's got to put the Kool-Aid out and we've got to drink it." But they've also seen too many good starts dissolve into meaningless April games.

Still, there's hope. Real hope.

"I think now we truly see it," Coffman said. "The fans see that. We've seen the excitement. At least we have that now."

Kopitar spent part of Saturday answering questions from kids and mingling with fans. The prevailing sentiment from them came across very clearly.

"They're all telling me that we've got to go to the playoffs," he said. "And that's what we're expecting around here. We've been building this team for three years now. They've been coming to games and maybe they're not really happy with the results we've been giving them back.

"It's definitely a year for us to break through and show everybody – not just our fans but around the League – that we can play hockey and we can be a playoff team."
Quote of the Day

They said, 'You're going to love the city. It's smaller than Philadelphia, but you're going to love it. You're going to love the fans. Just watching the playoffs last year, the fans seemed louder there than they did anywhere. I'm really excited about that.

— Forward Scott Hartnell on his upcoming season with the Columbus Blue Jackets