Puck Daddy - NHL

Every airport has its Hudson News-esque shop filled with local keepsakes, overpriced beverages and the latest issue of every magazine except the one you're looking to read.

The one I ducked into at Los Angeles International Airport this week was no different, prominently featuring swag from the local college and pro sports team ... and yet nothing from the Los Angeles Kings.

Seriously, there were more "Star Trek" T-shirts than anything Kings-related in the store.

This isn't to say that the Kings are invisible in that part of town. A giant billboard with the team logo, the word "PASSION" and ticket information casts a shadow over the freeway. Then again, it sort of looks like an ad for a designer men's fragrance, and the slogan sort of misses the mark in the eyes of LA-based hockey blogger Dave Bartkowiak:

Here in LA, I see Kings billboards with one-word phrases like "Passion," "Pride" and "Believe". My first question is, what have the Kings done since the Gretzky era? I don't think there has been much "passion."

There is now, of course, with this collection of hungry young talents meshing with cagey vets for what's been a thrilling journey to the top of the Pacific Division, with 47 points in 37 games. (The San Jose Sharks also have 47 points, and are technically the top team in the division because they have two games in-hand.) They've got the passion, the fan base believes ... so now the question is whether the rest of Los Angeles will once again take pride in its NHL franchise.

In our conversations with LA fans, it may not be anytime soon, for a variety of factors.

In the flawed and unreliable public attendance numbers for the NHL, the Kings are listed as averaging 16,325 fans per home game, good for 88.2-percent capacity. They've had a loyal following, a thriving blogosphere and the promise that years of building under GM Dean Lombardi were eventually going to lead to success.

What they haven't had is buzz in a city were it's mandatory for any media or cultural traction. You know the drill: Lack of chatter in local media; televisions tuned to hoops in most bars; and, as mentioned above, a lack of gear in airport newsstands (which is, of course, the ultimate barometer of a team's success, right?).

In reading Stephen Brunt's book "Gretzky's Tears" about The Great One's trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings (hopefully reviewed here next week), it's incredible to think how instantaneous the transformation of Los Angeles into a "hockey town" was upon his arrival. Brunt, on the massive interest and ticket sales after the trade:

"They were responding to Gretzky's star power. They had bought into the idea of Gretzky -- faster than anyone could have imagined. No one dismissed the phenomenon by suggesting it was just the Kings, it was just hockey, so it couldn't possibly matter."

Right there is the issue for the 2009-10 Kings, from the conversations I had with Los Angelenos of all types: No matter their success in the standings, they are just the Kings. It is just hockey. And Anze Kopitar's(notes) 38 points in 37 games does not a star make, let alone one that would bring Neil Diamond to hockey like The Great One did.

Bartkowiak, from his blog in October:

Although the California hockey market has continued to flourish thanks to Anaheim and San Jose, the Kings are all but forgotten. It's a dead franchise lurching in the shadows of it's two younger brothers - the Ducks and Sharks. LA is experiencing its own curse of The Great One.

In fact, the team has made the playoffs just four times since '93. They haven't played a series since 2002, and they haven't won one since 2000 - against Detroit. That is the one highlight of the last 15 seasons. The Kings have had seven coaches in the past 15 seasons. They've had a rotating roster of rejects and has-beens.

The best that could happen to the Kings would be another Gretzky figure. Someone like Alexander Ovechkin could save this team and this market. But what if there isn't anyone to do that? This is where the Kings stand - without a savior and with little faith.

Here's what I see now: A team with a bunch of young guys who have something to prove. This may be the first year since the '90s the Kings have even the slightest chance at making the post season.

But that doesn't translate to buzz. LA fans aren't opening the paper, looking at the standings, seeing the Kings atop the division and calling their ticket broker.

It doesn't work that way. The fans I spoke to said it would take a run -- potentially as deep as the Stanley Cup finals -- to turn the Kings into a must-see-and-be-seen event in town. That's a hell of a marketing challenge.

Then again, so is a lack of media visibility. When the locals do open their paper, they might find NHL standings; they might not find any Kings coverage worth a damn, especially when the team travels. That's why the Kings hired Rich Hammond as their own beat guy from the LA Daily News; he's been dynamic for fans that follow the team, but the casual fan isn't being exposed to the Kings through dwindling mainstream media.

Television is a problem, too. Mike Dark, a Kings fan in Long Beach, contacted us about a lack of TV coverage for the team, noting that at least 11 games won't be televised from Dec. through April and that his cable system, Charter, doesn't offer Center Ice. (DirecTV does ... but then he loses Versus, of course.)

We asked Michael for his lay of the La-La land for hockey, and he passed along some eye-opening observations for fans outside of the Golden State:

The Kings haven't made the playoffs in six years so the buzz is LOW. Really what buzz?  Locally, the media focuses on the Lakers, Dodgers, Angels and USC football. The Los Angeles Times doesn't even have a beat writer that covers the Kings (or Ducks). The reality is that hockey is an after thought in LA. Since Gretz left things have gone down hill for the Kings and the media. It seems hard to sell a team that hasn't won for several years, without a marquee player who has an American/Canadian surname. I don't ever remember seeing Dustin Brown(notes) being thrust out in front of the media.

While the marketing of the Kings is a problem, I think that the greater problem is with the NHL. The NHL isn't trying to market their product to LA. While we get the NBC game of the week, the hype isn't there locally. Can I really get excited about another game that features Crosby? 

It seems to me that hockey players in general are very laid-back, cool guys from the farms of Canada. The interviews are honest, insightful and lack a lot of the ego that the NBA players carry. Can't the NHL through the NHLPA make the players do more media junkets?

The national Fox radio drive time show features two LA guys, Petros and Money, who will talk hockey, but it seems that it is rare. Actually, tomorrow at 1830 EST, they will be talking some hockey but it seems rare. Jim Rome used to have great interviews with Ray Ferraro and other NHL guys but it seems that those are getting fewer and father between.

I really think that the NHL needs to sure up their TV contracts to resemble what the NFL has. All games need to be televised in all markets. All games have to be in HD. The local teams need to parade out the local talent as much as possible (think Reggie Dunlop). If the Kings could get people talking about hockey, good bad or otherwise, then more people would want to be a part of the buzz.

Can winning accomplish that? Perhaps, but it's still a tough task in a town when it's all about names above the title, and for a franchise that needed the best player in the history of pucks and skates (pipe down, Gordie and Orr loyalists) to enchant the locals.

Can marketing accomplish that? The Kings are trying to prove it can. They've served hockey fans well, from the hiring of Hammond to ticket deals to -- let's face it -- one of the greatest team-produced commercials of all-time. Now, with the team contending, the focus expands; for example, the Kings' new initiative to share advertising space with sponsors. From All Business:

One co-branded billboard with sponsor San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino has the tag line "Great Games," with logos for both. Kings executives said that the double meaning emphasizes the partnership.

"This is a great example of how we can go that extra step with one of our partners and go beyond just the elements of a contractual agreement," said Luc Robitaille, Kings president of business operations. "We like this strategy going forward and believe it benefits all parties involved."

It'll take innovation to create buzz; sustaining it will be contingent on what the Kings do on the ice. The fans we've talked to said that there are scores of hockey fans who'd come out to support a winning product in LA; imagine who else would hit the rink if, say, the Cup was on the line?

And by "who" we mean "actresses who play indestructible cheerleaders on shows that set the bar way too high in Season 1":

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