LOS ANGELES — An earthquake strikes Eastern Canada and Los Angeles becomes the epicentre of the hockey world.
Both strange. Both true.
We are down to the final hours of the Taylor or Tyler guessing game that is being played out here in La-La land, with the NHL entry draft competing for attention with so many other sporting options and the movie industry. The city’s legendary traffic jams aren’t being caused by a rush to see hockey’s next wave of great, young players.
Instead, for Los Angeles sports junkies, the biggest question is whether Phil Jackson will stay or retire as coach of the National Basketball Association champions. Lakers baseball caps and Kobe Bryant T-shirts are being sold on street corners. On top of that, the NBA draft was held Thursday night, with fans mulling over who might go where.
On the diamond, the Dodgers are hosting the New York Yankees this weekend in one of baseball’s great rivalries.
And, of course, as every teenage girl in North American knows, Los Angeles also played host Thursday to the red carpet opening for the latest instalment in the Twilight movie series.
The NHL at least tapped into that marketing opportunity, with Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin and the rest of the top prospects being showcased as part of the cast of celebrities invited to the show.
As busy as the L.A. entertainment scene is, Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi wasn’t complaining about playing second fiddle. Rather, he was excited the NHL show was in town, too.
“For an American city, it helps the people have a greater understanding of the importance of the draft,” Lombardi said.
“In Canada, everyone understands it’s an 18-year-old draft, that most of the kids are coming from major junior hockey, but in the U.S. people’s perceptions of the draft is the NFL and the NBA, where most of the kids are from major college programs, and come directly out of college and play right away. In our sport, unless it’s an exceptional player, usually it’s a long process before they play (pro).”
Lombardi isn’t under any illusions that the draft, when held in a Southern U.S. market, will ever draw the attention that it does in Canada. But he senses an excitement from the Kings’ fan base leading up to this weekend’s events.
“The draft gives fans an idea of what’s involved in building a team,” he says. “It’s not like the religion it is up in Canada. I mean, you could hold the draft on the moon and Canadians would pay attention. But here, on the first day (Friday), the Staples Centre should be filled.”
The Kings’ play in the 2009-10 playoffs has helped considerably. After making the post-season for the first time in almost a decade and putting a scare into the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round, the youthful Kings are boasting that they’re only a step or two behind the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks — Chicago Lite, if you will.
“The game has changed,” Lombardi said. “There’s no better example than Chicago, and people have started to see what we’re doing. From January on, you saw full buildings (in Los Angeles).
“It’s hard to sell people on patience, but there was a significant boost since January. Going eight years without making the playoffs is tough, but people are coming back. I understand that fans could only hold on for so long.”
The Kings have a solid foundation built on a number of talented young players, but they could still be active on the trade front this weekend or when the free agency period begins July 1. Speculation about Ottawa Senators’ Jason Spezza possibly coming here hasn’t died down.
“You still need to make trades and sign free agents, and the key is that when you trade somebody, you have to have somebody to fill the hole you traded,” he said. “But the draft is the centrepiece.”
Luc Robitaille, the former Kings great who now serves as president of business operations, has seen the boom times with Wayne Gretzky and the dreadful stretches when the Kings appeared to be a lost franchise, without much hope.
Now, he’s smiling at the turnaround.
“Our season-ticket renewal rate is the best in 10 years,” Robitaille said. “Next year, we expect to set records for season tickets and sellouts. Our sponsorships are up — we’re hoping to set records across the board.”
Robitaille says the Kings have already sold 13,000 full season ticket packages. At this pace, the 2010-11 Kings will sell more tickets than during the heady days with Gretzky on board. Of course, Gretzky played in the substantially smaller Great Western Forum, rather than the Staples Centre.
The way Robitaille sees it, Kings fans appreciate that the NHL wants to stage a show here.
“It’s a working event,” he says. “A core base of fans want to be part of a special event in the game. The draft is a special event.”
Of course, it’s surrounded by countless other big events.
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