California puck love: Hockey popularity surging in the Golden State

Puck Daddy
California puck love: Hockey popularity surging in the Golden State
California puck love: Hockey popularity surging in the Golden State

The song “California Dreaming” blared from the loudspeaker at Honda Center in mid-March.

Fans clad in orange, black, gray – maybe a little purple, crowded into the building for that night’s tilt between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.

There was no novelty between the two teams and their fan-bases, just utter stone cold hatred from the stands on down to the ice. The rivalry was intense, just as any major pairing of two squads with a high amount of dislike and disdain toward one another.

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Hits, slap shots, boos, cheers – they were all present that night.

Hockey in California is not the same as the rivalries in Canada. Teams and players haven’t lived and grown up with it the same way.

But as far as the rest of the United States, California has become every bit the equal as some of the more traditional spots.

Rangers/Islanders? Sure it’s got history in a market that’s seen NHL hockey since the 1920s. The Flyers/Penguins is nasty – and have viewed some battles from the Mario Lemieux/Eric Lindros years through Sidney Crosby against Claude Giroux.

Blackhawks/Red Wings has been dumbed down by realignment, but there’s definitely hatred between the two markets.

Hockey in California isn’t a novelty anymore. It’s an important deal, and it’s going to get bigger, stronger and more important.

I moved to Los Angeles a little over a month ago. My first game post-move was that Kings/Ducks contest. And it was as intense as anything I’ve seen regular season wise from the Rangers or Islanders in games I saw live since my birth in New York City in 1982. OK, there were no fights in the stands, but that may have to do with this state’s lax drug laws.

People here have their own little slice of hockey heaven. The sport is big, but it doesn’t dominate the market. The passion level amongst the diehard fans is strong. Teams have their own pseudo celebrity fans, from Colin Hanks and Wil Wheaton with the Kings to Milo Ventimiglia and Snoop Dogg with the Ducks – unless Snoop Dogg has a kid who commits to the Kings.

Here is my story as how I’ve seen hockey through over one month as a Southern Californian.

Go to the rink on a Sunday …

At the Toyota Sports Center the Kings practiced. There were several hundred fans in the crowd at the triple-rink building in El Segundo, California. For supporters this proved the the final chance to see their group practice as defending Stanley Cup champs. The Kings were about to embark on a Western Canada roadtrip, one that eventually broke their season.

Were some of these people bandwagoners? Sure. Whenever a team has success, people start leaching on.

But there was definitely some old Kings paraphernalia in the crowd to indicate fans were a lot more into the franchise, which expanded in 1967-68, than some of the people who discovered the game in 2012, the year of LA’s first Stanley Cup.  

The most interesting part of the scene involved a curious longhaired viewer of a youth game at the other rink. He had dashing good looks and a foreign accent. This was Ducks legend and Orange County resident Teemu Selanne, whose children play youth hockey.

He chatted with other parents, and went through his life anonymously at the rink – at least as much as you can for a guy who has scored more than 600 NHL goals.

From a youth hockey perspective, California is not a Northeastern or Midwestern state with more tradition in cold weather environments. But this place has grasped onto the novel concept that it doesn’t need to be freezing outside to play hockey indoors. And even outdoors in the winter, it’s cold enough in California at night to build a rink – as the NHL showed us with two Stadium Series games here.  

According to USA Hockey’s registration on its website California had 25,288 USA Hockey players in 2013-14. This trailed just Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Granted, California has 38 million people, the largest population in the United States, so the numbers aren’t completely equal from a proportion standpoint. But the growth is there. In 2004-05 the total was 16,758 per USA Hockey’s website. In that same timespan, for example Massachusetts went from 44,515 to 48,074.

The Kings recently started a high school hockey league. And according to the Ducks, youth hockey participation in Southern California has grown 40 percent in the last five years. The Ducks also have a high school league that has 41 teams. Per the Kings, there are 28 ice rinks from Bakersfield to San Diego. The Sharks say there are 13 full sheets of ice for playing in the Bay Area.

Plus, there’s the street hockey element that enhances the ability of youth players to work on the finer points of hockey 12 months out of the year.

 “It works on your open-ice game and your hands,” said Ducks forward Emerson Etem, who grew up in Long Beach.

In California, former NHL players stick around. Hockey Hall of Famer Rob Blake works for the Kings as does Luc Robitaille. Selanne has shown no desire to move elsewhere and same with Ducks assistant coach, and former player, Scott Niedermayer.

“They’re fortunate in Southern California to have people around who are still ambassadors of the game that still have homes there and kids involved in youth programs there,” said Norfolk Admirals (and soon to be San Diego Gulls) general manager Bob Ferguson. “You can’t put a price on it for a young kid growing up who wants to be a hockey player and living in Southern California.”

Currently, according to Hockey-Reference, there are/were just 36 NHL players who were born in California. But if players like Etem and San Jose’s Matt Nieto (another Long Beach native) came of age during some of the less prolific times in the state. It should increase as this second boom continues to gain more momentum. 

Soon, the American Hockey League will move to California with teams in Ontario, Bakersfield, San Diego, Stockton and San Jose – giving high-level pro hockey to most major communities from Southern to Northern California.

“Nobody would have dreamed that would have happened five years ago,” Robitaille said.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 07: Los Angeles Kings Legend and President of Business Operations Luc Robitaille speaks at the unveiling a bronze statue in his honor in Star Plaza at STAPLES Center on March 07, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 07: Los Angeles Kings Legend and President of Business Operations Luc Robitaille speaks at the unveiling a bronze statue in his honor in Star Plaza at STAPLES Center on March 07, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

What’s the difference now?

After Wayne Gretzky was traded from Los Angeles to St. Louis in the 1995-96 season, NHL hockey in California went through a wilderness phase. The Kings weren’t cool anymore. The (Mighty) Ducks were decent – and Paul Kariya along with Selanne made for some incredible highlights, but never made it past the second round of the playoffs together.

The (Mighty) Ducks made Game 7 the Stanley Cup Final in 2003, but then lost Kariya, the face of its franchise that summer and tried to replace him with an aging Sergei Fedorov. This went horribly.

Remember that time when Steve Rucchin captained the (Mighty) Ducks and Mattias Nordstrom wore the ‘C’ for the Kings? Those were dark days.

Then the NHL lockout happened in 2004-05. New Jersey defenseman Niedermayer was an unrestricted free agent after the end of the lockout. And he opted to come to California. It was mostly for his brother, Rob, who played for Anaheim.

But Scott’s arrival helped in two ways.

For one, it made the (Mighty) Ducks a much more competitive franchise, combined with the return of Selanne and the rapid development of 2003 draftees Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Though Niedermayer retired at the end of the 2009-10 season, the Ducks have remained competitive, missing the postseason just twice since the lockout. They entered the Western Conference playoffs as the No. 1 seed for the second straight year.

Also, it brought a new hockey superstar to Southern California. His entrance, along with the 2005-06 Joe Thornton trade to San Jose in the North, gave both markets stability for sustained success at the same time. Tack on the rise of the Kings, and the end of the last decade and the beginning of this decade have been the golden years for hockey in Cali. Two California teams (The Ducks in 2007, Kings in 2012 and 2014) have won more Cups than the entire country of Canada combined since Montreal’s Stanley Cup in 1993.

“I think people would love to live here, but for me the biggest thing for 99 percent of the players is do you have a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup and I think most guys would go anywhere for that opportunity and the teams here have been competitive for a while and that’s the biggest thing,” Niedermayer said.

Nice weather? Check. Winning? Check. While the state income tax may keep someone like Jaromir Jagr away, it doesn’t matter as much for most guys making millions of dollars.

The league’s ability to make outdoor games anywhere also helped California NHL hockey to a degree. The Winter Classic remains the league’s signature regular season event, but the Stadium Series game at Dodger Stadium in 2014 was probably the most aesthetically pleasing atmosphere the NHL has hosted. The Levi’s Stadium game in 2015 showed greenery, ocean, mountains and ice.

“When I was with Jersey it was always a highlight for us coming to a place like this,” Niedermayer said.

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 28: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger greets Scott Niedermayer #27 of the Anaheim Ducks before dropping the ceremonial first puck to start Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Anaheim Ducks and the Ottawa Senators on May 28, 2007 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 28: California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger greets Scott Niedermayer #27 of the Anaheim Ducks before dropping the ceremonial first puck to start Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Anaheim Ducks and the Ottawa Senators on May 28, 2007 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Hockey in the playoffs

Game 3 between Anaheim and the Jets was supposed to be a showcase for Winnipeg fans. It was hockey-mad Winnipeg’s first playoff game since 1996, before those Jets moved to the Phoenix area and became the Coyotes. There was a beautiful innocence to this in Game 3, which included the much-anticipated white out in the stands – until the crowd chanted the name “Katy Perry” at “Corey Perry” – a poor attempt at an insult that drew some level of scorn across the hockey world due to its tone-deaf nature.

Meanwhile, almost 2,000 miles to the west, orange clad fans cheered, whooped and hollered for their team a few days earlier, in a more polite sense. Do the Ducks play to sellouts every night like the Jets? No. The Kings do, but that may be more of a function of recent team success. Do the Ducks have their share of fans who need sensitivity training? Sure, like any fanbase. But they’re as educated as any NHL fanbase in a “traditional” market.

In Games 1 and 2 of their series, missed calls by refs were respectfully booed as they are in every arena. And the crowd of 17,415 in the building hardly left their seats. California fans have a reputation for arriving late and leaving early in other sports – traffic is the main blame, which only after living here I can see as being a legit excuse.

“You get the diehards. I think our fans in our area are great,” Etem said. “A lot of them you see night in, night out and you recognize faces in the crowd, so the diehard fans are like any other city.”

Unlike some non-traditional markets that need deep playoff runs for NHL team survival, that’s not the case in California anymore. If the Ducks or Kings don’t go far, there’s no threat of moving, thanks to AEG with Los Angeles and the Samueli family with the Ducks. Both generally run their teams in a smart way, and have hired the right types of hockey people to steward their squads forward. Even northward, the Sharks have financially sound leadership in Hasso Plattner, and one of the top fan groups in the league.

As for the future of the sport here, there are chances for greater growth, but after the two booms, it’s a different type of movement.

The NHL has no official office in California, or the West Coast for that matter. Some people who work in the league’s situation room in Toronto or Department of Player Safety in New York have to wait until the last game in Pacific Time ends before heading home.

In the playoffs, that could go deep into the following day. With four teams (maybe five with Las Vegas’ likely arrival into the league) within driving distance of the Los Angeles area (Arizona is about five hours by car) the time has never been more perfect to test the waters of some sort of league bureau western expansion.

“Everybody knows what’s going on in California and they understand there’s room for growth,” Robitaille said. “It wouldn’t surprise me in a few years … why wouldn’t they?”

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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