I grew up a hockey-loving figure skater in Southern California. Needless to say, being Asian was the least of my minority issues.
In grade school all the kids wore fancy Starter jackets to show off their favorite teams, like the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bulls, and New York Yankees. I wondered if they had ever actually even seen those teams play.
I had a Kings windbreaker with the old Chevrolet logo on it that I allowed myself to wear on days I deemed special. People would react by asking: “You like hockey?” Or worse: “Is that hockey?”
As peeved as those comments made me, I was used to it – my favorite sport was extraordinary, and that made me unique. I had very few friends who knew that Robitaille wasn’t a cough syrup brand.
I was born and raised in LA, the South Bay to be exact. While I do have family in Canada, I promise I’m not a transplant. I fell in love with hockey exactly 20 years ago this season, when the Ducks (bear with me) broke into the League. My uncles, who lived in Orange County, became season seat holders that first year, and that’s all it took to pique my interest.
Since I lived in LA, I adopted the Kings as my home team, and Luc Robitaille my favorite player. I wanted to watch as much hockey as I could, and since I was lucky enough to live in a market home to two teams, there was a game on TV almost every night. I sat on the couch and spread out an ever-growing collection of hockey cards, magazines, and newspaper articles for each game. It’s safe to say that Bob Miller and Jim Fox can take credit for much of my hockey knowledge.
I was fortunate to have been able to attend many hockey games growing up, whether it was an NHL game, or a rec league one starring my dad, brother or uncles. I love everything about the sport: the speed, intensity, and constant action of the game; the skill, athleticism, and precision required of the players; even the sounds of hard edges in the ice and a perfect tape-to-tape pass; and the smell – I love the smell of an ice rink – that crisp, cold, face-slapping stench of rubber and sweat gets me every time.
Back then, I just wished I had friends that understood.
While studying English at UC Irvine, it was by gut-wrenching persistence and a good bit of luck that I managed to secure myself a position writing for the Ducks’ game-night magazine. For an aspiring writer like myself, it was a dream come true. But my stint in Anaheim yielded two other very important events, the first being that’s where I met my future boss with the Kings, and the second is a bit of a story.
One night when the Ducks were hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs, the southland was experiencing a torrential downpour (yes, it does happen). The anthem singer got stuck in traffic (no!), was unable to make it, and a coworker who supposed I inherited enough talent from my music-teaching mother landed me an emergency vocal test in the Game Entertainment Director’s office about an hour before game time.
My takeaway that night was not the height of my vocal career, although I’m relatively certain that’s true, too. It was that I literally watched so many hockey games back in the day when the broadcasts regularly included the anthems (remember Warren Wiebe?), that I learned the Canadian Anthem well enough to earn the right to sing it in front of nearly 20,000 people who shared the same passion as I did.
Crazy, I know.
Fast-forward to 2014, 20 years after I was gifted my first Robitaille jersey. The Ducks and Kings are playing a game at Dodger Stadium as part of the NHL’s Stadium Series.
Somewhere between a guy named Wayne Gretzky and outdoor hockey in 75-degree weather, California managed to pop up an onslaught of ice rinks, grow its own hockey talent, retain some of its biggest hockey stars, and win two Stanley Cups…which is two more Cups than the entire country of Canada since I’ve been a fan.
But who’s counting?
Even Teemu Selanne, who arrived on the SoCal scene in 1996, has noticed the difference in local hockey popularity.
“It’s like night and day,” he insisted. “Obviously the Kings and Ducks have done a great job and we both won the Stanley Cup, which brought a lot more fans and attention. It’s totally different.”
The entire week leading up to the game last Saturday was exciting – I was able to secure my family tickets for the game, was afforded the opportunity to take part in the Media Skate, and got to witness both teams practice and skate with their families at Dodger Stadium.
Something I noticed about all the festivities as a whole that I wasn’t necessarily expecting was how the event brought people together.
Everyone seemed genuinely happy. The atmosphere was lighthearted and rivaled that of Christmas morning. People were talking to people they had never spoken to or met before like they’d known each other for years, fans wearing opposing jerseys weren’t spitting on each other (heck, I saw many mixed-team families and groups), and one of the coolest things I saw all weekend was the players and coaches getting to share this special occasion with their loved ones.
“It’s obviously pretty special. One of the best things about events like this is sharing it with people you care about, so to have them out there was fun. I have a couple buddies from college out here and my family is here, too,” said Kings defenseman, Alec Martinez, who had 11 people in his entourage.
“This is something you can do only once-in-a-lifetime, and you definitely want to take advantage of that,” explained Kings forward Matt Frattin, whose friends and family surprised him on the ice after originally telling him that they wouldn’t skate.
I really believe this uplifting mood resulted from the fact that we were all truly inspired and mesmerized by what we had the chance to be a part of. We were making history that people 25 years ago would have laughed at the thought of. I thought my skating dreams were about complete when I skated at Rockefeller Center and Central park a couple winters ago, but on the ice at Dodger Stadium before the Kings/Ducks game? How does one even begin to dream of such poppycock?
“I was a part of the first one in Edmonton 11 years ago, and back then if somebody would have said I’m going to play for the Ducks and we’re going to play the Kings at Dodger Stadium I would have said ‘you’re crazy,’” admitted Ducks forward Saku Koivu, who previously played for the Montreal Canadiens. “But I think it just goes to show how well the NHL has done in the last 10-15 years, gradually getting bigger and bigger in Southern California.”
While in Spectator Plaza before the game I ran into a college kid named Spencer. Spencer was at the game with is mom and they were both wearing Sharks jerseys. Everyone makes fun of the guy at the game wearing a jersey of a team not even playing, so I took the opportunity to ask Spencer why he had escaped his tank.
A native of Walnut Creek, California, Spencer attends college in LA. He’s a huge fan of hockey and the Sharks are his home team. He said he was so excited for outdoor hockey in California that he had to come to the game, and he didn’t care who won between two teams he doesn’t care for.
I hate to say it, but the Sharks fan had it right – this game wasn’t about whether you’re a fan of the Ducks or the Kings or a different team entirely, it was about the united victory for all California and unconventional hockey markets. We managed to bring an outdoor NHL game to Southern California and sell tickets to 55,000 fans, which is more than each of the outdoor games at Yankee Stadium in the days following.
“I think the sport is evolving and growing and it’s good for California and it’s good for the game of hockey and people are starting to identify with it a little bit better. The fact that this game is happening is telling you how much growth has happened in the game here,” said Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell.
Despite the final score (or lack thereof), the weekend was a personal triumph for me, one that I was able to share with some of the most amazing people. Not only my family, but many friends and colleagues who were just as in awe as I was.
Since joining the Kings organization six years ago, I’m no longer short-staffed in the hockey friends department. There are plenty of people to talk hockey, watch games, and celebrate the sport with, and whenever something big (or even little) happens, I’m happy to see that 90 percent of the people in my social media feeds are just as emotional as I am.
Saturday was no different.
My favorite part of the night was Five for Fighting’s performance of ‘100 Years.’ The rewritten lyrics and accompanying video montage left me with tears in my eyes. To recognize all the players and moments in the montage made me feel like I was part of an elite few who lived through it, then lived to tell about it. Hearing those sentiments validated in a song reassured me I wasn’t the only one.
Near the end of the game I was looking at the spectacular view from the top deck at Dodger Stadium and I had a breath-taking realization come over me. I distinctly remember having that same feeling on June 11, 2012 while standing in the San Manuel Club victory party, listening to ‘Call Me Maybe’ for about the fourth time that night:
Wow – not everyone gets to do this in their lifetime.
Not everyone gets to experience and watch from their own backyard their favorite sport rise from the cellar-dwelling trenches, to the heights of international spotlight. Not everyone feels the satisfaction of something they’re passionate about being revolutionized in the eyes of disbelievers. Not everyone grows up in California as a hockey fan.
Congratulations, my fellow hockey-loving Californians. We did it.
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