There are so many things I love about hockey. There is no unmechanized sport that’s faster. Of course NASCAR is faster. Drag racing is faster. Those don’t count. Plus, it’s not just guys running around on a field. Hockey has the grace and skill of ballet yet the brute physicality of football—that makes it incredibly special. Nothing compares to the feeling of walking into an ice arena, being blown by the cold air, breathing it in, and hearing the sounds of sticks and pucks slapping against the boards. Hockey stimulates all of the senses in a way no other sport does.
I became a long-distance fan of the Kings in 1988, when Wayne Gretzky came down from Edmonton to play for Los Angeles. I was a teenager living 3,000 miles away in Buffalo, New York, but it created such a media fury that I was impacted by it. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Gretzky in person. The Kings played the Sabres in New York, and it was so exciting. Look, when you grow up in Buffalo, you’re a Sabres fan by birthright—but that game was an event. I can’t recall who won; the scoreboard just wasn’t as important as watching one of the most exciting players of all time.
In the late ’90s, I moved to Los Angeles. The Kings were competitive then. They had future hall of famers Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake, and they were really entertaining, but it was a strange time to be a fan. Phil Anschutz had just taken over the ownership of the team, and it was in a sort of purgatory—it was the last days of the Forum, the end of the Gretzky era, and there was a sense that the Kings were set for a rebuild. That’s exactly what happened, but it took time.
Robitaille retired in 2006, and soon after he invited me to lunch. He was serving as an ambassador to the Kings and had heard about a book I had written about becoming the oldest rookie in all of pro hockey. So I went downtown to the Palm to meet with him and AEG’s Kelly Cheeseman. The team had been struggling for years. They hadn’t made the playoffs for several seasons, and the fans had disappeared. Luc had been there for the Kings’ high times, back when Jack Nicholson, Ronald Reagan, Goldie Hawn, everyone would watch them. It was cool to go to a game in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but when the team went sour, that tradition didn’t carry. Luc knew they had to do something, so he was reaching out, trying to build relationships and starting from scratch, and they asked for help.
Over the next year the Kings formed an entertainment advisory board with guys like Jerry Bruckheimer, Cuba Gooding Jr., John Ondrasik from Five for Fighting, and me—people who cared about hockey and could help market the product. I worked for Us Weekly at the time and had a good feel for the zeitgeist. Once I dragged Kim Kardashian, Carmen Electra, and Ryan Seacrest down to Staples Center for a charity game. It went really well—until Ryan went out onto the ice and fans booed him. Kings fans, if anything, are honest with their feelings.
Over time the team found its stride. When I go to a game today, there’s an electricity in Staples Center that isn’t there consistently for the Lakers. The place is rocking. The entire upper deck is packed. Corporate seats that used to go empty? They’re packed, too. There’s an atmosphere of winning and hope and celebration, and 18,000 fans feel like they are part of the team to the point that they all put on jerseys—and that’s nothing like throwing on basketball jerseys. A hockey jersey is a borderline coat. It’s like a dress. It’s a commitment. And the stands reflect the diversity of this city. This isn’t a sport for elitists. All kinds of people are Kings fans, and the team will tell you: Their fans and that atmosphere make them better.
In January I took my family to the first outdoor hockey game in Los Angeles at Dodgers Stadium, one of the most sacred sports cathedrals in Southern California. The Kings played the Ducks, and it was magical. In that moment the Kings were L.A.’s team. They owned it. But whether or not they ever become what the Dodgers are or what the Lakers have been is immaterial. The best word to describe the Kings is organic. What they have isn’t manufactured. It’s true passion. It’s why I’ll be a fan for life.
THREE THINGS EVERYONE SHOULD—BUT DON’T—KNOW ABOUT THE L.A. KINGS:
Their players are the best—in the world.
With the current lineup the Kings are a world-class team. Six players went to the Olympics, representing all of the nations around the world. They work so well together, they’re a pleasure to watch.
They’re different in person.
If you haven’t seen the Kings play in person, you don’t know what they’re really like. Watching NHL hockey on TV is exciting, but seeing the Kings at Staples Center is a visceral experience you can’t understand until you’ve done it.
The team is totally involved with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings Hockey Club. The kids who participate get to practice and play on the same ice the Kings play on at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo. The kids really get to know these guys. I don’t see youth basketball players regularly shooting hoops on the same court with Kobe Bryant, and I don’t often see youth baseball players hanging out in the same dugout with Clayton Kershaw, but former Kings goalie Ben Scrivens once came out onto the ice to show my daughter how to play goalie. That’s incredible.
A self-described hockey dad, Ken Baker is senior correspondent for E! News and the author of They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven and five other books. He was the oldest rookie to play professional hockey when he tended goal for the Bakersfield Condors in 2001.