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Jon Rosen: Rebuilt

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

Before the Los Angeles Kings had won two Stanley Cups in three seasons and had built up a 161-game sell-out streak, the thrust of the team’s off-ice practices was built around a single idea: prepare for when you’re good, and be ready to strike while the iron’s hot.

“Every time you have one of those moments, no matter what moment that big moment is, in this business you have to be able to capitalize on it,” Kings/AEG Sports COO Kelly Cheeseman said. “If you aren’t prepared for that moment, you’re going to miss something with it.”

That moment, which followed flashes of attention and partial successes amidst the semi-regular disappointment associated with a team that had reached the conference finals and a Stanley Cup Final once in the 44 years prior to 2012, was born when the Kings, as an eight seed, sprung to the heights of the hockey world with a 16-4 postseason record and a Stanley Cup in 2012.

A primary example of their ability to capitalize on their success came two years later, when three days after having drawn approximately 250,000 fans downtown for a traditional parade downtown and Stanley Cup rally inside STAPLES Center, they held a second parade in the South Bay cities that all of the players and so much of the team’s staff calls home. The event in the organization’s adopted backyard drew another six-figured crowd.

“You see them all over town. They’re part of the fabric of our community, former Manhattan Beach Councilman Richard Montgomery told the Daily Breeze.

“There’s a joke — if you throw a rock, you’ll hit a King.”

And if you throw a dart towards the list of those up for awards at this year’s Sports Business Awards nominees, there’s a good chance you’ll hit an AEG-owned team, venue or endeavor. The Los Angeles Kings, along with the LA Galaxy, are up for the Sports Business Journal’s Sports Team of the Year award, as are the Charlotte Hornets, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Cardinals and Team Penske. Teams and entities up for awards will be judged on their “excellence, growth, creativity, innovation, sound planning, implementation and outcomes” between March 1, 2014 and February 28, 2015. The winner will be announced at a gala in New York on Wednesday, May 20.

When speaking with Cheeseman, he made clear that of the team’s successes over the past year, he’s proudest of the team’s contributions to the community. Following the donation of a million dollars to the Ronald McDonald Camp for Good Times at last year’s Stadium Series game, a brand new dining hall and activity center at the rural Riverside County camp was constructed, helping to increase capacity by 35 percent. The Kings also committed $2.5-million over 10 years to the Science of Hockey exhibit at Discovery Cube LA and opened the first year, of a one-million dollar, five-year commitment to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles’ Department of Pathology and Department of Neurology in addition to raising $300,000 through Tip-a-King and more through other community outreach projects.

While the largesse is both beneficial to the community and helps to grow the game and attach those at a young age to the sport of hockey, the South Bay parade remains the event that serves as the past year’s crowning stroke.

“The parade on the beach was something that will be talked about within this community for years and it’s something our players talked about,” Cheeseman said. “That’s something that’s hard to do in this business, to get your players excited about a moment like this because it’s connected to their community where they live.”

Parades can also run up some costs, and the South Bay parade required the coordination of multiple cities, police departments and community officials.

“People don’t realize you don’t make money on parades,” said Team President of Business Operations Luc Robitaille. He’d know; the team has thrown three of them since 2012.

The way the team organized the parades is an example of the business operations’ ability to clearly delegate and delineate responsibility at a juncture where there’s minimal time to plan. Danny Zollars, the Vice President of Game Presentation and Events – he helps set the atmosphere at SBJ-nominated Arena of the Year STAPLES Center – worked with city managers in Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach to coordinate a parade through three cities. Conversations with sponsors resulted in the group receiving a convoy of Toyota Trucks, and discussions with security operations and civic officials cleared the way for the team to travel the four-mile-long route, culminating in a hero’s shot as players lifted the Stanley Cup from a balcony at the Strand House restaurant in central Manhattan Beach, where they celebrated well into the night.

“Still in the South Bay, it’s talked about amongst the city managers,” Cheeseman said.

It’s part of an intricate and ably communicated plan that required better specialization in responsibilities amongst the business staff, the establishment of what Cheeseman referred to as a service culture, and the clear communication of a concerted rebuild through multiple channels – even coming from Dean Lombardi himself. Remember the age distribution charts?

“The service culture was around building from within,” Cheeseman said. “We rebuilt our season ticket account executive staff, our service staff with the sponsorship side, so that you had a group of people who instead of working on multiple different entities, they’re focused just on servicing the season ticket holders and retaining season ticket members and servicing our sponsors and retaining them with the goal of ultimately growing them as well. Back in 2005-06, a season ticket member maybe heard from their account executive when they wanted to, or we would call them a couple times a year to talk to them about their renewal and maybe talk to them about their playoff invoice. It was very transactional.”

By finding on-ice success, the team was able to satisfy the core fans that had remained ultra-loyal as the team experienced changeover in management, personnel and philosophy for much of its history.

“I remember one of the biggest things we used to say is, actually the NHL started it by saying, ‘let’s focus on our fans. Let’s make sure our fans understand what we’re doing,’” said Robitaille, who was appointed to his current position in 2007. “In those days, the team wasn’t great, but our fans have been the 16,600 plus the people who were watching on TV, wanted to make sure they understood Dean’s message which was going to be to rebuild. That was very, very important because if they understood that and were willing to live with that, then we knew at some point it was going to turn around. You don’t know when and how it’s going to happen, but you knew at some point that was the goal.”

That zenith was reached during the 2012 Stanley Cup sprint and maintained through a trip to the conference final and a second Stanley Cup two years later. The Kings have been very good over that span, and to capitalize, they’ve been vying to continue to build and satisfy the core while reaching out to create new fans. The Lil’ Kings Learn to Play Hockey Program, started in 2012, provided 720 children between the ages of four and eight over brand new equipment from head to toe, courtesy of the Kings, CCM and Hockey Monkey. With the Discovery Cube, these programs are designed both as a tool for community outreach and a means of bringing fans into the fold for life.

The Kings did raise a banner over the past year, but not all moments were banner moments. Defenseman Slava Voynov, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the club, was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence on October 20 and ultimately charged with a felony. Since then his legal case has hung over the team like a black cloud.

And while the team’s television ratings grew 43% over the last year, according to the Sports Business Journal, the 0.57 RSN rating still ranked 26th in the league. Four of the five teams with the lowest television ratings were based in warm-weather markets.

“Along the way, we know things need to change,” Robitaille said. “It’s like there’s a tunnel with a light at the end and there are doors along the way. Every once in a while we take that door, but come back into the tunnel. That’s our plan. We have growth plans. We have, obviously, revenue plans and a budget. We stick to it.”

That plan was articulately conveyed to owner Philip F. Anschutz as it was to fans, sponsors and partners.

“Whatever we wanted to do, his one question for us is always ‘Is this part of the plan?’” Robitaille said. “Mr. Anschutz is about a plan. You lay out a plan of where you want to go and want to be, and if it’s part of the plan he just lets us do it. We’ve laid out that plan. We want to be the best franchise in sports, that’s our plan.”

That the team’s hockey operations has established a culture of winning and expectations, and that the business operations has surrounded recent on-ice success with a sustainable business model is an illustration that the club’s commitment to an inside and out rebuild has passed – and its success is reflected in the two Stanley Cups and a Sports Team of the Year nomination.

“It’s incredible to me that the Lakers are losing this year and everybody in this town are saying it won’t take them long, they’ll come back. That’s their culture. That’s what everybody knows about them,” Robitaille said. “Our goal for us, the LA Kings, is that. We want everybody to believe our philosophy is we’re trying to be the best. Like Dean this summer, when we [missed the playoffs], we all know he’s devastated because he knows he wants to be the best.”

“We all know that since we lost, you can’t even reach him because he’s trying to make us better. He wants to get us right back to where we belong and that’s what we’re doing here. Everybody who works for the Kings is trying to do that.”

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