Kings' Stanley Cup breakthrough bodes well for hockey in L.A.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – Some girls dream of a white dress. Lisa Gutierrez dreamt of a silver chalice. Born in Southern California as the daughter of an avid L.A. sports fan, the Kings were her team and hockey was her game. She listened to the voices of longtime broadcasters Bob Miller and Jim Fox. She cheered. She waited.

"I think it was the thing I wanted most growing up," she said. "It wasn't weddings and things like that. It was the Kings winning the Stanley Cup."

And so, though the Kings had moved from the Forum to Staples Center, though she had moved from the L.A. area to Denver, though she no longer had season tickets, the 29-year-old bought plane tickets and game tickets to the entire 2012 Stanley Cup Final.

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The Kings have a legion of hardcore fans, and that base will only get bigger after Stanley Cup win. (AP)

She flew to L.A. and to Newark and back to L.A. again, and she was prepared to fly to Newark for Game 7, if necessary. If the Kings were going to do it, finally, for the first time in the franchise's 45-year history, she had to be there. She would have hated herself if she missed it.

As she rode public transportation downtown Monday, people saw her old Kelly Hrudey jersey and greeted her with "Go Kings!" The plaza outside Staples was packed with fans wearing yellow and purple and black and white, partying, playing street hockey, anticipating the Cup to come. The sport was center stage, and the Kings put on a show by beating the New Jersey Devils, 6-1, and hoisting the prize at home.

"Literally," she said, "the happiest day of my life."

What does this Cup mean to the Kings? What will it do for hockey in L.A.?

First, understand that there are hardcore hockey fans in Los Angeles, have been for a long time, and this will satisfy them most. They have suffered supporting a team that has won little and hasn't been the most popular, in a town famous for celebrating winning and popularity.

[Related: Kings take Stanley Cup on late-night talk-show circuit]

Second, know that Southern California will never become southern Canada, and that's OK. L.A. doesn't need to be Toronto or Montreal. The Kings don't need to be the Lakers or Dodgers. But this should be the next growth spurt for the sport, following the Kings' arrival in 1967, Wayne Gretzky's arrival in '88 and the Anaheim Ducks' first Stanley Cup in 2007. (Yes, Canada hasn't won the Cup since 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens beat Gretzky's Kings, and SoCal has won two Cups in six years.)

"I would hope the people that jumped on the bandwagon would just stick with it," Gutierrez said. "They see something, they like it, they enjoy it, and [the Kings] build a loyal fan base. We have a loyal fan base. We're pretty loud. We're pretty boisterous. Some of us are a little crazy."

She laughed, at herself.

"I don't have any delusions that L.A. will suddenly become a hockey market, the greater L.A. as a whole," she said. "But I think just bringing in more fans and just that awareness, just a little bit, might be awesome."

* * * * *

Dustin Brown didn't know what he was getting into when the Kings drafted him 13th overall in 2003. He was a kid from Ithaca, N.Y. He had played junior hockey in Guelph, Ont. He had never really been west of Chicago.

Um, L.A.?

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Kings captain Dustin Brown endured several playoff-less seasons after he arrived in L.A. in 2003. (AP)

"You think of L.A.," he said, "you don't really think of hockey, necessarily."

In L.A., you don't really think of hockey, necessarily, and Brown joined the Kings just as they were about to go seven years without a playoff appearance – six seasons, plus the 2004-05 lockout. When the team held its annual local rink tour to connect with its core fans, Brown, as a young player, had to go out to Simi Valley, 50 minutes northwest of Staples Center (without traffic). He must have felt like Johnny Hockeyseed.

But the seeds already had been planted by players like Marcel Dionne and Gretzky, and the roots were already deep. The Kings faced the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2006-07 season finale. They were about to go five years without the playoffs at that point, and these were the two worst teams in the West. Still, as a rookie named Anze Kopitar scored the winner in a 3-2 victory, Staples Center was sold out.

"That was kind of an eye-opener for me, personally, the fact that we have those diehard fans here," Brown said. "I think the excitement has grown over the last three, four years, ever since we started kind of building the right way and getting that core group of guys that have started to make a little bit of noise."

Hollywood is about glitz and glamour – star power. But Gretzky trades are few and far between. The NHL is about drafting and developing in the salary-cap era, and the Kings built around Brown, Kopitar (11th overall, 2005), goaltender Jonathan Quick (72nd, '05) and defenseman Drew Doughty (second, '08). Once they were in position to win, they gave up assets in trades for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.

"It's very hard in North America to tell fans, 'Be patient with us, and we're going to rebuild,' " said Hall of Fame winger Luc Robitaille, now the Kings' president of business operations. "When you say you're going to rebuild, that means you're going to lose. You're basically saying in a nice way you're going to lose. We told them that, and we found a way to make our fans believers. The cool thing about it is today we can say, 'See, we didn't lie.' "

The Kings stuck by the fans who stuck by them. As the team improved, the prices rose. But for the people who bought season tickets while the team was rock-bottom, the prices stayed rock-bottom. The "Die Hard" seats in the 300 level cost only $12 per game during the regular season – and topped out at $30 for the final.

Thirty dollars.

[Related: Wayne Gretzky Oilers-Kings 1988 trade documents for sale?]

Season-ticket holders saved from 145 percent in the lower bowl to as much as 489 percent in the upper bowl during the final.

Some of those "Die Hard" fans couldn't resist cashing in by scalping their seats for thousands of dollars, but they reinvested their profits into the team. One fan wearing a Kings jersey on a flight from Newark to L.A. – who shall remain nameless – flipped some tickets and used the money to travel to New Jersey. He said others used their money to buy their seats for next season.

Tickets should be in higher demand going forward.

No one has repeated in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings won the Cup in 1997 and '98, so the odds are against the Kings winning the Cup again next season. But the Kings should contend for the foreseeable future. They have that young core and key players locked up long-term, plus the roster and cap flexibility – not to mention the credibility – to go after the biggest fish in free agency, including Devils captain Zach Parise.

Robitaille said the Kings' market research shows there are 2.5 million hockey fans in Southern California. That might seem hard to believe, because when you drive around the L.A. area, even now, you don't exactly feel Kings fever.

[Related: Hear Kings broadcasting legend give the Stanley Cup-winning call]

But remember: Southern California has 16 million people and billions of things competing for their attention – from the sunshine of the beaches, to the darkness of the movie theaters. Those 2.5 million hockey fans are spread out throughout the sprawl, diluted, and the Kings share them with the Ducks.

Robitaille said the goal is to increase the total number of hockey fans to 3 million and to claim as much market share for the Kings as possible.

"We know if we reach that," Robitaille said, "we're going to be very happy with what we're doing."

How's this for advertising? The Kings have been highlighted by the local media that used to misidentify them and mix up their mascot and logo with that of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. They have brought the Stanley Cup on the late-night talk shows. They are parading it down Figueroa and holding it high at a Staples Center rally.

They are like actors. They are like Lakers. They are celebrities, champions, and this is L.A.

"We have superstars," Robitaille said. "It's just, no one has watched them for the last four or five years."

They're watching them now.

* * * * *

Forgotten in a few months? Maybe the skeptics are right. Maybe this will be, on a grand scale, especially if a lockout disrupts the start of the 2012-13 season and delays the Kings' banner-raising ceremony.

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Los Angeles loves a winner, and the Kings' first Cup should mean good things for hockey in SoCal. (Reuters)

But this will never be forgotten by the hardcore fans, and it should have its biggest impact on the smallest scales.

Daniel Dobson was born two years before the Kings were born in L.A. He never had the opportunity to play hockey as a kid in Newport Beach, Calif., about an hour south of where Staples Center is now. But he grew up loving the Kings, and he watched what happened with the Ducks in his old neighborhood.

"I think you'll see a similar reaction to when the Ducks won," he said. "What that did for Orange County was amazing for the youth hockey. … I think it's going to be great for L.A. and it's going to be fantastic for the Kings."

After the Ducks won the Cup in 2007, they had to cap season-ticket sales and start a waiting list. They sold out the entire 2007-08 season. The merchandise sales at the team store went up 236 percent.

Some growth has continued, even though the Ducks have missed the playoffs two out of the last three seasons. Sponsorship revenue has grown by more than 200 percent since the Cup. The Ducks had 10,000 elementary school children enrolled in their S.C.O.R.E. education/street hockey program in 2007. They had 25,000 last year. They had 27,000 this year. A Ducks spokesman said local hockey programs are sold out and the team is continually looking to add ice rinks.

Dobson now lives in Calabasas, Calif., about 40 minutes west of Staples Center. He wore an old Marcel Dionne Kings sweater outside the arena before Game 6, as his 10-year-old son, Kelly, played street hockey.

Kelly plays hockey in Simi Valley, the same place where Dustin Brown used to go for the rink tour to connect with the fan base. He has the opportunity to play the game that his father never had.

Usually, Kelly wears an Anze Kopitar sweater. But the night the Kings won the Stanley Cup, he helped hold the American flag on the ice with some other youth hockey players, and the sweater he wore was his own.

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