Go ahead, read that sentence again.
Before Wayne Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles 25 seasons ago, the LA hockey scene was pretty much the laughing stock of the NHL. Who ever heard of palm trees and hockey sticks in the same neighborhood block?
In 1993, the same year the LA Kings made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their team history, the city of Anaheim was awarded an NHL expansion team to be named after a kids’ Disney movie.
Those laughing then certainly weren’t laughing 10 years later when the then Mighty Ducks made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time, and they really weren’t laughing in 2007 when the Anaheim Ducks won California’s first Stanley Cup.
In 2012, those same people were packing in their winter clothes while scratching their heads, as they watched the LA Kings celebrate their first Stanley Cup win in parade attire comprised of a hockey jersey, shorts, and flip flops.
This season, the number of Californian teams to make it to the playoffs tripled the number of Canadian teams, and the Kings, going from the Western Conference Quarterfinals, to the Semifinals, will not have had to leave the state.
In fact, for the next two weeks, the Kings and Ducks will not even need to use an airport.
“It’s going to be nice, the travel this year with the way the different playoff format is, and staying within your own division has been a real positive for us,” expressed Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr. “You look at even just last year for example, having to make the long trip to St. Louis in your opening round match-up, that does have an effect on you and it wears on your energy levels. It’s been really nice having the short travel and I think everyone’s going to look forward to it.”
The Kings not having to get on a plane means fans don’t either, and it’s certain that each team’s building will be infiltrated more this series than usual.
“It’s good for the southern California hockey market,” notes Kings forward Dwight King. “Fans get to interact, and that’s probably the most unique situation.”
During the playoffs especially, teams are used to raucously loud crowds, so the Kings expect nothing less from the anticipated dual crowds at Honda Center and Staples Center in this series.
“Crowds will be good no matter what, it’s getting late in the year and people want to cheer and it’s going to be a good atmosphere,” offered Kings blueliner Matt Greene.
“It’s fun to have a cross-town rivalry like this, the fans are excited for it, the players are excited, so this is really a great thing for hockey in Southern California,” said Sean O’Donnell, who works as the Fan Development Manager for the Kings and Analyst for Fox Sports West.
O’Donnell is very familiar with both Southern California hockey teams as he spent eight years playing for the Kings and three playing for the Ducks, including winning his Cup ring in Anaheim.
“I work for the Kings now, I live in LA and I’ll be cheering for the Kings, but at the same time I think it’s great for those two franchises, and I’ll be cheering for whoever wins this series, let’s put it that way,” clarified O’Donnell, one of 27 players to have played at least one game for both SoCal teams.
“All eyes will be on hockey in Southern California because they are two great teams that are at the top of their game right now, so we’ll see what happens in the next two weeks.”
Hockey fans in Southern California are already familiar with the hockey frenzy that has been brewing over the years, one that was showcased earlier this year when the Ducks faced-off against the Kings at Dodger Stadium as part of the NHL’s Stadium Series.
“For California, it’s pretty unbelievable, the fans are really getting into it and it’s making hockey a lot better out here,” observed Kings forward Jordan Nolan. “I live right by the beach, so anytime I go for a walk everyone’s walking in Kings gear, whether you’re at the strand or the pier or anywhere really.”
Since the Ducks came into the League 20 years ago, the Freeway Faceoff rivalry was largely started and maintained by the fans, but it’s no secret that starting tomorrow night, that changes.
“The rivalry is really the big thing here – when you meet one another in the playoffs, that’s when you start really creating a dislike and sometimes even into a hatred for one another and the teams,” explained Regehr. “I think it’s going to bring out the best in both teams, and hockey wise it’s also going to be a good added bonus for the rivalry, not just for the players, but with the fans, too.”
“Each team has won a Cup in the last seven years, but they’ve never faced each other [in the playoffs], so this is just the last thing, the last box to check off in the history of these two teams,” added O’Donnell.
Not only does this playoff series mark the first time the two Southern California hockey teams meet in the post-season, but it is also significant because the Angels have never played the Dodgers in MLB playoffs, the Lakers have never faced the Clippers in NBA playoffs, and the Raiders and Rams, when they were both based in LA, never faced each other in NFL playoffs.
The only other previous major league SoCal playoff showdown occurred in the 2009 MLS post-season when the Galaxy faced Chivas USA.
By the time the puck drops for Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinal series between the Kings and the Ducks, the only people laughing will be the ones having to decide weather to wear shorts or jeans to all seven games.
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