With the Lakers struggling and the Clippers missing superstar point guard Chris Paul, the L.A. Kings are the hottest ticket in town right now. Yes, the Kings. L.A. loves a winner, and since the Kings won their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2012, they've become the toast of Tinseltown.
It might be hard to believe that a winter ice sport could be so hot in sunny Southern California. But the Kings have been riding the momentum of their Cup victory; in November 2013 they set a franchise record with 76 consecutive sellouts - a streak that's still continuing.
Overall, the Kings rank 13th among 30 NHL teams in attendance. Two other California teams, San Jose and Anaheim, rank 16th and 22nd, respectively. And like the Kings, the Sharks have lately been selling out their arena. (The Ducks, winners of the Cup in 2007, are at 91 percent capacity in Anaheim.) Pro hockey, clearly, has won a steady fan base even in warm-weather California.
"I've always believed in the market of L.A. for hockey," says Luc Robitaille, a former Kings superstar who is currently the team's president of business operations. "We've had some fans follow us since the 1960s and 70s. These fans have never left us."
Longtime fans remember the exciting period of the early 1980s when the Kings showcased the famed "Triple Crown Line" of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer. But the biggest event in Kings history was a move that shocked the sports world: L.A. acquired Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton in 1988. Universally praised as the greatest hockey player of all time, "The Great One's" presence here meant that suddenly Magic Johnson's Lakers weren't the only show in town.
"(The Gretzky trade) had a huge impact," says Kings Hall of Fame announcer Bob Miller. "All of the sudden it made the Kings a team that everyone in town was talking about. Everybody wanted to get a ticket to see the Kings play, especially to see Gretzky play. So every game was sold out and the Hollywood stars came out."
Gretzky led the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993 before the team lost to the Montreal Canadiens. A few years later "The Great One" ended his career with the Kings when he was sent to St. Louis and later New York.
But though a hockey era had ended in Los Angeles, a new one was about to begin.
In 1999, the Kings moved from the Great Western Forum to the brand-new Staples Center, and attendance soared.
While some longtime Kings fans may miss the intimacy of the old Forum, there's no doubt the new 18,000-plus-capacity arena has its advantages.
"The Staples Center for hockey registers as one of the loudest arenas in sports," says Robitaille. "It's truly incredible how passionate the Kings fans are and how vocal they are. It's been an amazing experience for anyone who has ever had the opportunity to see the Kings play at Staples Center."
And in L.A., of course, everybody loves a winner.
"I see more people walking around with Kings sweaters and jerseys and hats," Miller observes. "So obviously winning the Cup increases the awareness of the team."
Adds Robitaille, "We have about 2 ½ million hockey fans in L.A. Everything we do involves growing that base. The most important thing is to put the right product out there and try to win the Stanley Cup every year."
Last year the Kings came close, making it to the conference finals before falling to eventual champion Chicago. And this year, despite a recent rocky patch, the Kings still boast a strong overall record and look to be in a position for another playoff run. Even though ticket prices remain relatively high (the average is $61), the sellout streak continues.
Taking a cue from the NBA, Kings games provide plenty of fun for fans. The action on the ice is fast and furious, while intermissions feature arena interviews and trivia contests. Famous Hollywood personalities often get into the act, with such celebrities as Tommy Lasorda and Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of KISS dropping the puck before games.
Robert Lessnick of Los Angeles has been a passionate Kings supporter since 1981. He's such a fan, in fact, that after the Kings won it all in 2012, he got a tattoo of the Stanley Cup inked on his arm.
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He's excited about this year's team.
"It looks like we can win the Cup again this year," he says.
And that's what it all comes down to, ultimately.
"Fans paying those kind of prices want their team to win," Miller says.