October 3rd marks a small but seminal event in my life: I start my 20th year as a season ticket holder for the L.A. Kings hockey team. We play the Phoenix Coyotes tomorrow night. Which is fitting, as their managing partner (and former coach) is Wayne Gretzky, The Great One.
When Gretzky was traded on August 9, 1988 from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings, the landscape of hockey changed forever for both the United States and warm weather cities. His arrival in the Southland resulted in the Anaheim Ducks being born and the transferral of half of the Minnesota North Stars becoming the San Jose Sharks in the early 90s. #99 black and silver jerseys became the rage back in the late 80s, just like Kobe jerseys are today.
I am part Canadian (dad) and part Texan (mom). The Canadian side of me – that’s loved hockey since I discovered at age 12 the immortal Bobby Orr – now took notice of the Kings at age 32. And with my move from Duarte to the Fairfax district of L.A, in October ’88, I was now only 9 miles from the Forum rather than 42 miles. In the winter of ’89-’90 I bought a 10 game mini-plan (along with good buddy, Jimmy Hodson). Then went whole hog with a full season in Sept. 1990.
Gretzky’s impact was immeasurable. When he played, he was considered larger than hockey itself, just like Michael Jordan and Reggie Jackson, who transcended their sports to become more than just great basketball and baseball players. Stars of this caliber attract crowds, fill stadiums, go on talk shows, meet presidents. Wherever Gretzky went, the arenas were packed. Being a Kings’ ticket holder was chic. Tickets were in great demand. Sellouts were common.
On a personal level – until #99 was traded to the St. Louis Blues in March 1996 – I had the opportunity to watch Wayne play for nearly 7 seasons. He was and is the greatest player I have ever seen. For he instantly made everyone on the ice better, much like Magic Johnson did with the Lakers. Gretzky’s playmaking abilities were so fine that many novice hockey fans missed the quiet subtlety of his prolific goals, passes and vision. It was a true pleasure to watch the man glide down the ice or set-up “office” behind the opposing goaltender’s net.
To be sure, life as a Kings’ fan has had its ups and downs since 1996. The new downtown arena – Staples Center – is a cavernous barn that you could shoot a cannon through. Its been our home for 10 years, and serves the sport well, when not playing host to the Lakers, Clippers, Sparks, award shows and concerts.
As I’ve moved around greater L.A. and Orange County, the trek to Staples has been both easy and hard: 9 miles from West L.A., 25 miles from Fullerton, 14 miles from Playa Vista, 34 miles from Brea, and now 39 miles from Costa Mesa. Getting there is challenging, home at 10 p.m. easy.
But I still enjoy a hockey night out. I figure that I’ve seen at least 400 live games over the 2 decades. Everyone, they say, needs a hobby. Mine is hockey. And – through the urging of my gorgeous wife, Rebecca – we’ve got pretty good seats now. No nose bleeds.
My daughter, Anneke, loves hockey too, having been raised on the game since in diapers. How she ever grew to become a Detroit Red Wings fan brings constant questioning, utter shame and painful pity to my eternal soul.
Just as with Cubs fans, we Kings’ die-hards have some real hope for this year. The team is finally on the rise after 4-5 seasons of mediocrity. Our core of young players is the best in the NHL: Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar, Wayne Simmonds, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov and Jack Johnson are skilled and talented. And a few good impact players – Justin Williams, Ryan Smyth and Rob Scuderi – arrived through signings and trades recently. We have the true potential for a really solid team, one that should get into the playoffs and, perhaps, do some serious damage.
So, when you’re safely snug in your bed on most Thursday and Saturday nights – or popping popcorn and plopping on the couch – remember my L.A. Kings for just a moment. Say a little prayer for them:
“May their skates move swiftly, the power-play goals (for us) be plentiful, may our goalie cover the pipes with a perfect calmness. Lord help us to stay out of the dreaded penalty box, score on every 2-on-1 breakaway and may we always win every fight. Amen.”
Then, with my full permission, please feel free to go back to whatever you were doing.
And remember, it was Gretzky’s fault all along.