Supporting the Kings, Despite the Staples Center

Yes, Crappy Team Plus Even Crappier Venue Can Still Equal Love

Two weeks ago, after a second straight third-period collapse, I muttered to Steve, a fellow long-suffering Los Angeles Kings fan, “Rooting for the Kings is like rooting for the Cubs–only without the charm of Wrigley.”

That was probably an overstatement: After all, the Cubs have a title to their name. Not the Kings: Since entering the National Hockey League in 1967, they’ve made exactly one Stanley Cup finals appearance, losing to the Montreal Canadiens in five games in 1993. They’ve won their division once. And, until this week’s upset of the top-seeded Canucks, they had advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once since the Gretzky era.

Of course, the Kings don’t have a monopoly on decades of mediocrity. They’re not even the sorriest sports franchise in L.A.: That distinction belongs to Donald Sterling’s Clippers. What they do have is decades of mediocrity–without a home arena to distract fans from the on-ice happenings.

Don’t get me wrong: Staples Center (and its AEG cousin, L.A. Live) isn’t a crumbling pit like the Oakland Coliseum or Tampa-St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field. From where I sit in section 106 (behind the Kings’ goal) 10 games a year during the regular season and then during the playoffs, I’m close to several bathrooms and concession stands–all of which boast surprisingly short waits.

But even easily accessible French dip sandwiches, the “best” of Staples Center’s embarrassingly bland food options, can’t atone for its two sporting sins: it’s cavernous, and it’s corporate. Staples Center’s 18,000+ seats are so spread out that even luxury box goers could be forgiven for using binoculars. The 300-level fans above them are even worse off. And those luxury boxes are so predominant that Bruce Springsteen (hardly a paragon of indie rock) refuses to play Staples, insisting on the otherwise deserted Sports Arena.

But a funny thing happened over the last 12 years. While the Lakers were selling out every game and raising five championship banners this millennium, Angelenos quietly transformed Aramark-catered, celebrity-infested Staples Center into one of hockey’s best arenas–one where fans in licensed ($200!) jerseys outnumber inveterate iPhone checkers, where neighboring restaurants buzz with talk of third-line wingers rather than star sightings, and where the crowds arrive early, resulting in longer security lines a half hour before the game than five minutes into it. In short, Kings fans transcended Staples’ piped-in music and Jumbotron-directed cheering and became the fans L.A. supposedly lacks: knowledgeable, passionate, and, above all, engaged.

Ask a diehard, and he’ll probably say that it’s always been this way. But as a lifelong fan who left L.A. for almost a decade and came back last year, I can assure you: it hasn’t. When, or even if, a switch flipped is hard to say, but there’s no denying that the end of a decade of futility, coupled with the “win now” acquisitions of former Philadelphia Flyers linemates Mike Richards and Jeff Carter over the past year, invigorated the base. Finally, it seemed (and as the billboards implored), the time was now. Rebuilding was over. And if you win, they will come.

That interest in hockey waned after the team peaked in 1993 isn’t surprising, nor does it represent a moral failing on the part of Kings fans. L.A. isn’t Detroit, aka Hockeytown, USA–no one here wears skates before they can walk, and we’ve got other teams (and forms of culture and entertainment) vying for our attention. Yet the last decade has seen the development, on a smaller scale, of a Canadian/Northeastern hockey fan culture–and that’s what makes hockey in Staples Center circa 2012 so much fun.

And who knows? With any luck, I’ll have cause to change my refrain: “Rooting for the Kings is like rooting for the Red Sox–only without the annoying pink hats.”

Nick Soltman lives in Los Angeles and has rooted for the Kings, the Lakers, and the Dodgers since childhood.

*Photo courtesy of rwpeary.


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