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Culture Shift

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

The Dodger Stadium parking gates will open at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, ushering in a crowd of over 50,000 while furthering the hockey advances made in Southern California that Wayne Gretzky breathed life into when he joined the Los Angeles Kings in August, 1988.

The Stadium Series event at Chavez Ravine would not have been possible without The Great One, and Gretzky knows very well the additional promotional and marketing acumen that goes into backing a quality product on the ice with the type of spectacle and excitement to help make the team stand out amongst a crowded Southland sports space.

“From Luc, to Marty McSorley, to Kelly Hrudey, to Tony Granato,” Gretzky said, “each and every guy understood that this was a different market than other markets throughout the NHL, and these guys always went above and beyond the call of duty to help and go out to promote the sport and get more and more kids interested, get more and more youth involved in our sport.”

The efforts that began at the Long Beach Arena in 1967 and continued through the eras of Rogie Vachon and Marcel Dionne before a new age was ushered in when Gretzky made Los Angeles a center of hockey excitement on August 9, 1988, the Los Angeles Kings won the 2012 Stanley Cup to expedite the process of hosting such a large-scale NHL event.

And along with the financial benefit that will be reaped by the National Hockey League – a recent LA Times article placed the total gross from the event at $20 million dollars – the event is an effort to continue to widen the scope of hockey appreciation in a region in which sports are popular but also must compete with a multitude of entertainment and outdoor opportunities available when winter mid-day highs can reach the upper 70’s, as the case has been this week.

“It’s going to help us elevate the growth of the game,” Kings President of Business Operations Luc Robitaille said. “There are a lot of people who are starting to pay attention because both teams are really good. This gives us an opportunity to maybe have fans who have never seen the game or new people that might say ‘I’m going to take a look at this.’ We believe that once they see the game, they’re going to go ‘Wow, this game is really fun to watch.’”

It’s part of a marketing outreach that has seen the Kings make inroads amongst the Latino population across the Southland. The Lakers are broadcast in Spanish on TWC Deportes and covered daily on; their Los Lakers jerseys have been popular sellers amongst Spanish speakers across the region. Ford C. Frick Award winner Jaime Jarrín has broadcasted Dodger games since the team’s arrival in Los Angeles on Spanish language stations KWKW and KHJ.

The Kings aren’t quite able to boast such broad ties with the Latino community, though they’re working on establishing their Spanish speaking credentials, which forms a sizeable portion of their fanbase.

With proceeds benefiting Para Los Niños, an East Los Angeles-based nonprofit agency that provides childcare, access to schools, wellness centers and improves the social services available to families at at-risk neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County, merchandise created by East Los Angeles-based artist, tattoo designer and community figure Mister Cartoon has been on sale throughout the season at and at the Team LA Store inside STAPLES Center. During the second intermission on Saturday, longtime Kings fan John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting will perform on a stage featuring a design created by Mister Cartoon and children who have benefited from Para Los Niños.

Los Angeles does not have the built in hockey culture prevalent in Minnesota and spread across Canada, and found firmly but to a lesser degree in places like New England, Michigan and the Upper Midwest. For Saturday’s game to happen, and for the Kings to thrive as one of four teams from the NHL’s 1967 expansion to remain in its original market and to host an outdoor game before many colder weather climates, the region needed a profound cultural shift towards hockey.

Though the importance of Stanley Cups won by the Ducks in 2007 and the Kings in 2012 can’t be understated, that profound shift was spurred in 1988.

“We used to go by this set of tennis courts and I remember we were stopped at a stop light this one time and I said to my wife ‘You know, back home kids would be playing land hockey or ball hockey on these tennis courts,’ and we didn’t think much of it. Two years later I went the same tennis courts and there was a sign saying ‘No Ball Hockey Allowed,’” Gretzky recalled anecdotally. “I remember thinking ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way.’”

“We’re having this game because he existed in L.A.,” said Kelly Cheeseman, Chief Operating Officer, AEG Sports.

And that clearly is true. It remains to be seen the longer term cultural significance of Los Angeles’ 2012 Stanley Cup triumph, but when looking at the local players who are beginning to make inroads in professional hockey, there’s one thing that unites them: their birth years.

Santa Clarita native Kevan Miller, whose two-year extension with the Boston Bruins was announced Wednesday, was born in 1987. First round draft pick and Long Beach native Jonathon Blum of the Minnesota Wild was born in 1989. Gardena product and emerging Penguins power forward Beau Bennett, another first round draft pick, was born in 1991. Red Wings prospect Mitchell Callahan of Gardena was born in 1991. Oklahoma City Barons forward C.J. Stretch of Irvine was born in 1989. Matt Konan, who debuted with the Philadelphia Flyers last season, is a Tustin native born in 1991.

These are all players who capitalized on the popularity of the game during Gretzky’s tenure in Los Angeles by playing at rinks that might not have existed if not for the presence of one of the most influential athletes in sports history.

“My dad always says things happen for a reason, and we had the right group of people and an owner that really believed in hockey and wanted hockey to excel here, and then Mr. Eisner came along with the Ducks of Anaheim and the rest is kind of history,” Gretzky said.

“And things changed from there dramatically. Two Stanley Cups later and two of the best organizations in all the National Hockey League – it’s a wonderful time for our sport.”

As Saturday will represent, it’s also a wonderful time for Southern California hockey fandom.

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