Stanley Cup champions face battle to keep hockey strong in California
By Steve Keating ,Reuters
June 14, 2012, 12:14 am TWN
LOS ANGELES -- The National Hockey League's (NHL) Los Angeles Kings went to bed late on Monday as the city's newest champions, the toast of Tinseltown and rulers over all they surveyed.
But in a city built on celebrity, fame is fleeting, and so on Tuesday much of Los Angeles had already moved on in search of the next big thing.
The scene outside the Staples Center after the Kings' routed the New Jersey Devils to clinch the Stanley Cup was joyous but it is too soon to determine whether the 45-year-old franchise's first championship will be enough to increase its fan base.
While the eighth-seeded Kings' march to the Stanley Cup was as compelling as any imagined by a Hollywood screenwriter, large swaths of the sprawling metropolis seemed uninterested that the they were even competing for a league title.
The seed planted 45 years ago by an ambitious NHL looking to expand into the American south by placing a franchise in Los Angeles is finally bearing fruit, but there is still much work ahead for a league looking to grab a greater share of a highly competitive sporting marketplace.
"We know there are 16 million people here and we know we have 2.5 million hockey fans, we've done our research," said Luc Robitaille, who spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Kings and is now the team's president of business operations.
"We are very familiar with who likes hockey in southern California ... We know they are not all LA Kings fans but we are trying to reach them all. We know if we do that we are going to be very happy with what we are doing."
The Kings have established a solid fan base, selling out almost every home game this season with an average attendance of 17,920 per game.
Before handing over the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown on Monday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman applauded the franchise's loyal fans who had waited so long for the team's maiden championship.
Growing that fan base and the Kings brand is the next hurdle facing a team that has long been overshadowed by the Staples Center's other tenants, the National Basketball Association's Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers.
A championship team stocked with young dynamic talent will most definitely help the Kings' efforts but finding a true face of the franchise could go even further.
While successful, the Kings are a faceless team without a star, the biggest names during the post-season found in the stands with celebrities such as David Beckham and Tom Hanks taking up prime seats at the Staples Center.
Not since Wayne Gretzky have the Kings had a player who transcends the sport and could hold his own in a city packed with VIPs and the rich and famous.
The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, the Clippers have Blake Griffin and Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers have Matt Kemp but the Kings transcendent star has yet to be discovered.
Anze Kopitar may be a major celebrity in his native Slovenia but not so in Hollywood. Jeff Carter is a promising newcomer and goalie Jonathan Quick, named the most valuable player of the playoffs, has star quality but shrinks from the spotlight. Drew Doughty, a young player with limitless potential tipped to be a Norris Trophy contender as the league's top defenseman for years to come, could one day be the face of the team but is not yet ready to assume the role. "We have superstars it's just no one has watched them the last four or five years," insists Robitaille. "Anze Kopitar is a special player and Jonathan Quick has played like that for the last three years. "The one thing that is very special about them and I think that the city loves the most, they really play as a team.
"You are always going to have heroes but the team is number one."