Elliott: Kings look to take next step to contention, starting with Australia trip

Los Angeles Kings center Phillip Danault (24) in the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Kings center Phillip Danault is fluent in French and English, but he was baffled by the sound of Australian slang.

As he approached the speaker’s chair at a news conference Friday before the Kings' departure for their NHL Global Series trip to Melbourne, someone greeted him by saying, “G’day, mate.” Danault’s usual smile gave way to a puzzled expression.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“G’day mate,” came back at him.

“I don’t know what it means,” he said.

It’s what people in Australia say to greet one another, he was told, a valuable lesson for the NHL’s first foray to the land Down Under. Thankfully, no one asked Danault if he wanted a vegemite sandwich. That might have been impossible to explain.

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The NHL apparently will go to any lengths to promote the sport — except to put a franchise back in Quebec City. In this case, the league is sending the Kings about 8,000 miles to expose Australian hockey fans — and there are enough to sustain a 10-team semipro league — to the NHL product in two preseason games against the Arizona Coyotes.

Since Melbourne is 17 hours ahead of Los Angeles, the teams will face off Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m. Pacific time. The games will be simulcast by familiar Kings announcers Nick Nickson, Jim Fox and Daryl Evans on NHL Network and iHeartRadio, a rehearsal for their simulcasts on Bally Sports West in the first year of a new three-year agreement with Diamond Sports Group. The games will take place at Rod Laver Arena, home of the Australian Open.

The Kings’ traveling party will include defenseman Jordan Spence, who was born in the Sydney suburb of Manly. Nathan Walker grew up in Australia and represented the country in international play but was born in Wales. Spence can’t double as a tour guide: his family left Australia for Canada when he was 1½, too young for him to remember his native land. This is his second trip back; his parents, Kyoko and Adam, will be among the fans in Melbourne.

“I think they’re more excited just because they lived there longer,” said Spence, who has Japanese and Canadian citizenship through his parents. “They have some friends they’re going to reconnect with and they’re going to come to the game and stuff. Yeah, it will be pretty cool.”

It’s a long way to go for two games that won’t count in the standings. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the NHL had wanted to send teams to Australia for a while but the logistics didn’t work until now. It probably won’t be an annual destination because of the distance, and the NHL isn’t likely to threaten the popularity of Australian Rules Football or rugby, but it’s a toehold for a league seeking a bigger international footprint.

Players are making the best of the long journey.

“The flight time is not ideal, but I think once we get there it’s going to be the start of training camp and everybody’s excited to get going with that,” said team captain Anze Kopitar, who signed a two-year, $14-million extension in July that runs through 2025-26. “I guess we have a day or two to explore the city, too, which should be fun.”

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Danault was eager to look for spiders. Kevin Fiala, healthy after being slowed by a lower-body injury late last season, said he hoped to find “some dangerous animals I know of. It would be cool maybe to see something.”

The upside of the trip is the chance to create team chemistry. “The bonding thing is probably the best part about it. We got to spend a lot of time together,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “It’s really good for the team. It’s a bit of a challenge getting used to time changes coming back, but we’re fully prepared for that.”

The Kings have previously journeyed far and wide in the name of expanding the NHL’s global reach and revenues. In 2007, they opened the season in London by splitting a pair of games against the Ducks. The Kings played two regular-season games in Stockholm and Berlin in 2011, and in 2017 they played a pair of exhibition games against Vancouver in the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Beijing.

Kings President Luc Robitaille endorsed the Melbourne trip from a business standpoint. “I think it’s good for the game. It’s good for the NHL to go there. We need to expand,” he said.

First, the league might have to educate prospective fans. “I think it’s important to make sure to communicate to people there’s three periods in hockey,” Robitaille said, “because I remember the first game in Shanghai, people were leaving after the second period.”

The scheduling for this trip is tolerable in that the Kings will stay in one city and they’ll have time to recover from jet lag before they open the season Oct. 11 at home against Colorado. They have to be ready when the puck drops for games that matter because this season is all about building up to a deep playoff run after two straight first-round losses to the Edmonton Oilers.

Another early exit won’t be conducive to the job prospects of coach Todd McLellan or to a rebuilding process that advanced again with general manager Rob Blake’s offseason trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois. They should be formidable up the middle with Kopitar, Danault, Dubois and buzzsaw Blake Lizotte; the defense has a solid top four in Doughty, Mikey Anderson, physical Vladislav Gavrikov and Matt Roy. Goaltending looms as a question in the hands of Pheonix Copley and Cam Talbot, though Talbot had his best seasons when he played for McLellan in Edmonton.

The pressure is real this season. And that’s absolutely fair.

“We’ve got to take that next step. It can’t be [a] we’re almost there type thing,” Doughty said. “We’ve got to take it this year, there’s no doubt about it. We have a very good squad.

“There’s no excuse for us. It’s within the room, within the team, just all the players. We have to step up and make it happen. It doesn’t matter what everyone’s saying. It matters what we think.”

Danault compared the Kings’ quest to climbing a mountain. “We’re almost there. It’s still a big part coming up, though,” he said.

Their quest to rise above the pack will start Down Under, where they can hope for a few g'days and good days.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.