The Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League are performing at a transcendent level in the playoffs. Despite being the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference, the Kings are on the way to win the championship of the sport. They have talented young players who are exciting. Their players are fan and media friendly and seem the nicest personalities (off the ice) of any team sport. They are up 3-1 in the Stanley Cup series with New Jersey and playing spectacularly. Why aren't they riveting SoCal fans and winning the heart of the region? What's different about hockey?
When the Dodgers were in their first World Series in 1959 there was Dodger-mania. The games were played in the afternoon then and they wheeled televisions into our elementary school classrooms so we could watch. When the Lakers were in their championship years, car after car had Lakers flags flying and downtown shut down for a parade. When USC football is successful, Southern California is festooned with banners and memorabilia.
When the Anaheim Ducks won the title several years ago my friend Warren Moon called me from Seattle and said, "It must be wild and rocking down there." I responded that I had just driven down Pacific Coast Highway and it was sleepy and calm.
It doesn't escape anyone's notice that it does not snow in SoCal. There is not ice adorning every body of water in the winter time. Southern Californians go on snow trips as kids up into the mountains. I would always try to bring the snow home to share that amazing substance with my parents.
But when the bus hit the flats, the snow returned to its essential element. Ice skating is enjoyed by some, but is more a sport we watch during the Winter Olympics. There are fanatic hockey leagues here at the youth level, but participation is infinitesimal compared to AYSO soccer, Little League baseball, youth basketball leagues and skateboarding. And these sports are played by young people whose parents demanded they turn off the computer, video games and the text phone.
There are more junior Life Guards in our towns than hockey players in all of Southern California. It is not a high school sport and rarely played at the universities here. So generally, unless your parents are from the East, Midwest or Canada, we don't grow up with ice hockey. And neither did our heavy population of folks born in Mexico.
Americans tend to like sports which have finite acts of success or failure. There are numerous commercial breaks to hit the bathroom and discuss the action. Failing that, we like a lot of scoring. Hockey, like soccer, has continuous play and little scoring -- which does not fit our taste as well. While sports like the NFL grew along with television and are perfectly fitted to a screen format, hockey does not televise as well. The puck is small and except for aficionados, it can be hard to follow.
Seeing a game in person is an entirely different experience. I went with Kings owner Phil Anschutz and his wife to my first game some years ago and we sat next to the ice. A player came flying toward Mrs. Anschutz and the barrier actually bent toward her and it looked like she might be crushed! Hockey can be incredibly exciting in person, with a crowd to share it with.
Hockey has not been televised on a major network with real promotion capacity for some years. When we watch Fox or CBS, the promos for the NFL are endless. The NHL realized its Midwest-Eastern regional appeal some years back and began aggressive expansion into Sun Belt markets. It had momentum and garnered cachet as a "hot" event to attend. It looked as if the NHL would join the NBA, NFL, MLB and golf as a television and gate equal. And then it did the most self-destructive act possible. The sport engaged in a long, game-cancelling lockout. Twice. The league sabotaged its own explosive growth.
Instead of appealing games and athletes, the public was treated to acrimonious headlines and the specter of billionaires battling with millionaires over unfathomable sums. The public said, "A pox on both their houses" and the sport has never recovered. In roughly the same time period Major League Baseball quadrupled its gross receipts as the steroid-fueled home run races brought the sport back from its strike.
Hockey should recognize the lack of familiarity with the sport in Sun Belt states and do a better job of educating the public as to the rules and finer points of play. The NFL is constantly producing seminars and content that does exactly that with football. One of the promotional problems is that the bodies of the players are covered from head to toe. The players need star building based on interacting with the public out of uniform. The Kings have young stars that the area could relate to. The Ducks are locally owned and managed and they do some amazing promotional activities.
None of this is a denigration of hockey. I have many friends whose kids love participating in the game. One of our attorneys, Chris Koras, is from Canada and played professional hockey. I like going to Ducks games. I am attempting to explore why the NHL has not transfixed Southern California even with the most exciting young team in the sport. It will be interesting to see the impact on local fans if the Kings are able to win the Stanley Cup. It may jump-start hockey popularity. But don't be disappointed if Southern Californians don't take to the streets en masse to celebrate.
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