Are You Ready For Some Hockey??

25 September 2014

Domestic violence.  Racist owners.  *Derek Jeter's farewell tour.  In what has seemingly been an endless summer of controversies and off-the-field distractions embroiling most of the professional sports leagues in North America, we hockey fans should consider ourselves lucky to have the shortest offseason of each of them (well, unless you count NASCAR).  But to me, it seems like this has been the LONGEST summer break the NHL has endured - it feels like forever since the Kings won the Stanley Cup in dramatic fashion, yet it was only just over three months ago.  14 weeks, in fact.  But now…it's time for hockey...

(Hank Hanna / The Business of Losing Weight)
But how can you tell?  The kids are heading back to school.  The weather is starting to change (okay, maybe not here in Los Angeles, but you get my drift).  And yes, we're starting to see the first few signs that hockey is returning.  Here in southern California, it started even sooner, as the Stanley Cup has been making its way around the city all summer, courtesy of the Kings victory tour.


For the second time in three years, the Cup even appeared at my office, due to our "broadcast relationship" with the champions:

A "Cup" Cake?

As in 2012, the company pulled out all of the stops for its special "guest of honor", including a full-size replica cake!  Seeing as this was the FIFTH time that I've seen the Stanley Cup in-person, I instead looked to take advantage of a photo op with Bailey, the team's mascot.  As an added bonus, I got a few minutes to chat with Kings radio color commentator Daryl Evans, a former player with the Kings who is well known for scoring one of the most famous goals in team history:

Daryl is a wonderful man who's done a great job spreading the game here in southern California, and it was a real treat to talk hockey with him on that day:


Less than a week after seeing the Cup, my buddy Chad and I ventured down to Anaheim to see the "Futures Game" between the rookies/prospects of the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.  It was the second of two games between the teams, and tickets were a mere $5.  The Ducks would prevail in front of a crowd of about 4000 people, but the game itself was an afterthought: to us, it was just nice to be back in an NHL arena to watch some hockey, ESPECIALLY since the temperature hovered around 100 degrees that day.

We wandered around the concourse, and even made sure to take advantage of a "clearance sale" in the team store, which afforded me the chance to buy a couple of T-shirts and a cool Scott Niedermayer bobble head - he's probably my favorite Duck of all-time, even though my admiration comes from his years of playing in New Jersey.

I've always argued that it takes approximately one generation (20 years or so) for an NHL expansion team to really gain a foothold in the marketplace, and to prove that the sport can be accepted in a new environment.  Most southern California hockey fans understood how the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles in 1988 really started the trend of kids embracing the sport, but it was the creation of the (Mighty) Ducks five years later that really cemented hockey's presence in the region.  Now two decades later, we're starting to see the influx of California-grown talent into the NHL, especially in Anaheim: after selecting Long Beach native Emerson Etem in the 1st Round of the 2010 Entry Draft, the Ducks would follow up two years later by choosing Nicolas Kerdiles in the 2nd Round.

Though born in Texas, Kerdiles grew up in Irvine and was actually born during the Ducks' inaugural season.  He attended the University of Wisconsin, before leaving school early to sign with the Ducks in April, ultimately playing in a handful of minor-league games to close out last season.  I'd seen a few Wisconsin games on television, so it was nice to finally watch him in-person at the Futures Game - especially since he looked strong out on the ice, and is poised to gain some attention this year from the Ducks management.  I'd argue that even Kings fans should find themselves pulling for Kerdiles, as well as Etem, as a testament to the area's strength in developing young hockey talent.


The following weekend saw me head down to the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo to take in my first-ever NHL training camp, courtesy of that other local team - the reigning Stanley Cup champions themselves.  After their 2012 title, I attended the Kings prospect camp and was somewhat disappointed with the minuscule crowd, but that was certainly not the case on this day - several hundred people were packed into the intimate confines of their state-of-the-art practice facility.

It began at 11am with Saturday's morning session, which featured one half of the roster known as "Group B".  Some notable names who appeared during the 90-minute practice included veterans Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, as well as some of the team's future stars like Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.  I also got my first glimpse of 2010 1st Round draft pick Derek Forbort, who looked particularly impressive.  I've been to Arizona for Spring Training a few times, and this was quite similar: it's fascinating to watch professional athletes receiving instruction, especially the young guys desperate the make the team.

After a quick trip back home for lunch, I returned to El Segundo for the 2pm afternoon session, which featured the star-studded "Group A".  I now got to see Anze Kopitar, Jarret Stoll, team captain Dustin Brown, defenseman Jake Muzzin, and sniper Marian Gaborik skating through drills and thrilling the fans.  It was also great to see Adam Cracknell, who just signed with the Kings after spending the five previous seasons in the St. Louis Blues organization, as well as Trevor Lewis, who I would consider to be my favorite member of the team.  Last but not least, goalie Jonathan Quick - recently recovered from offseason wrist surgery - stood tall in net, and looked perfectly primed for the season to begin.

Kyle Clifford (in green) and others look on as Adam Cracknell makes a move toward the net

Goalie Jonathan Quick, receiving coaching tips in mid-stretch
After another 90-minute workout, it was time to leave the building - but not before I once again ran into Daryl Evans.  He actually recognized me from the previous week, and took a few minutes to continue our conversation about the state of hockey in southern California.  When I asked if it was the biggest crowd he'd seen at a Kings training camp, he agreed and reminded me how the older fans were rewarded for their long-suffering loyalty, and how the newer fans had a perfect point in which to start following the team.  I've seen that growth myself in the 10-plus years that I've lived here, and so I only hope it will continue with each passing season.

"So long from Kings camp!"


Well there's another couple of weeks until the season starts, so thankfully the NHL Network has helped to fill the void by airing live preseason games every day, culminating with the annual Frozen Fury matchup between the Kings and the Colorado Avalanche, live from Las Vegas on Saturday, October 4.  I'm very curious to see this game in particular, as rumors of the NHL possibly expanding to Las Vegas swirled around all summer, and I'd love to see a passionate crowd proving to the skeptics that hockey could thrive in the gambling capital.

So, to answer my original question: Yes, I AM ready for hockey.  As it should be.  Now let's drop the puck...

*[Editor's Note: I kid about Derek Jeter - he's a terrific baseball player who's had a tremendous career, but his name sure commanded the sports news cycle this summer]

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