Warning: This week, I'm talking all about the Los Angeles Kings. Even though we've had a team here since 1968, the First Rule of Being a Sports Fan In Los Angeles dictates that relatively few people follow the Kings or care about the game, because the Kings have struggled - not "The Clippers" struggled, but still struggled - for much of their existence. I understand that there is another team, somewhere near Anaheim. Because I am a Los Angeles Kings fan, this team does not exist for me, and I will not speak of it again.
PRO TIP: Get into the Kings now, because they're about one season away from being a great team that can seriously compete in the playoffs. All your friends will think you're ahead of the curve and you can charge them for hockey insights!
I've been in love with ice hockey since I went to my very first Kings game, at the Forum, during the magnificent purple and gold era in the early '80s. I was 13, and all I remember about that game was how bad the Kings played, how awesome the fights were, and how much I wished I'd discovered the sport earlier.
One year later, Star Trek made it possible for me to be a rabid hockey fan for the rest of my teens. I bought my first pair of season tickets in the 1987-88 season, and kept them until 1992-93. When I was a teenager and traveled to a different city almost almost every weekend to attend Star Trek conventions, I made a special effort to go to cities with NHL franchises, so I could see what it was like to watch hockey where the fans were as passionate as the buildings were old. Boston, New Jersey, Montreal, Calgary, even Hartford all provided memorable experiences, and I got to see some truly outstanding games over the years.
Time flows differently when you're a teenager than it does at any other time in your life. As your self-awareness and identity develop, months and years feel longer and mundane events more significant than they do after you hit your 30s. (Well, at least if your name is Wil and you're writing this column.) So after two years of serious hockey mania, including watching as many games as I could on television, and mail ordering video tapes of out of market games, I started playing as a goalie when I was 15. For the next four years, I played in several house leagues around L.A., until I took a slapshot to the skull and was forced into early retirement at age 20.
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At the height of my obsession, I was playing three or four times a week, and loving every second of it. One of the highlights of my life remains going to the Hockey Hall of Fame when I was 17, and somehow lucking into a private tour, including a stop behind the scenes where they kept items that they hadn't put on public display, yet. Because that wasn't awesome enough already, they let me see legendary Montreal goalie Ken Dryden's leg pads, which I got to actually put on and wear for a few glorious, magical moments that to this day I am convinced made me a better player.
I introduced my son Nolan to hockey during the playoffs two seasons ago, when he was 15. The Versus network had just picked up NHL games in HD, and we watched almost every game together (SECOND PRO TIP: If you're going to introduce anyone to a new sport, do it during that sport's playoffs. If it's the NHL, you get the bonus of showing them nearly all of the teams.) Last month, thanks to a post-holiday ticket sale, I took him to three games, where we watched the Kings play some of the most listless, uninspired, terrible hockey I've seen in over 20 years, but it didn't matter, because we went together. Saturday night, Nolan decided to list the various ways I've influenced his life, and one of the things at the top of the list was introducing him to hockey, which he loves. I choked back tears when he said that, because watching games together not only keeps the bond to my youth alive, but it strengthens the bond between us.
So if my adoration of hockey and the Kings seems well out of proportion to the NHL's influence in Los Angeles and the Kings' on-ice performance year after year, it's because hockey - and Kings hockey, in particular - is a lot more than just a game to me; it's a direct connection to a time in my life when I was coming of age and the world was about The Exciting Mysterious Future instead of The Terrifyingly Uncertain Present.