Hockey / Sports

The ice is greener in Southern California hockey

LOS ANGELES--As the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, a high-profile position in a passionate hockey market, Mike Richards couldn't go anywhere -- to a baseball game, a restaurant, a club -- without being recognized.

That changed when he was traded to the L.A. Kings in 2011.

As he arrived to appear on a Los Angeles radio station, during his first season, he told the receptionist his name was Mike. "What's your last name?" she asked.

He politely supplied it, and she laughed in embarrassment when she realized he was the special guest for one of the shows. Richards seemed more amused than offended. "That wouldn't happen in Philly," he later told a TV documentarian.

With the exception of Wayne Gretzky, whose 1988 trade to the Kings brought a touch of star power, hockey players haven't become "A-list" celebrities in Southern California. They're rarely recognized on the street beyond the South Bay and Orange County communities where most of them live.

But that may be changing, if slowly.

On Saturday, as the region's two NHL franchises -- the Kings and Anaheim Ducks -- face off against each other for the first time in a postseason, their popularity has never been higher. Each has been a Stanley Cup winner in the last decade, and the victor in this best-of-seven series will advance to the Western Conference final, one step removed from another shot at a championship.

If nothing else, their success has proven that it's possible to play great hockey without having to drive to the rink through snowdrifts. And live in a place where it's still possible to keep a low profile.

Finnish-born Ducks winger Teemu Selanne ranks among the most prolific scorers in NHL history but can spend two hours at South Coast Plaza and be approached by only 10 people. Fellow Finn Saku Koivu, subject to constant scrutiny when he was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, can go for a walk in Laguna Beach on a day off "and no one says a word to you."

But anonymity isn't such a bad thing when you're surrounded by lots of sunshine and a growing fan base that expects its team to contend for the Stanley Cup.

"I might be biased here, but this has got to be the best place in the league to play, with how well we're treated, our fan base, how everything has been turned around," Kings forward Jarret Stoll said.

"There's various things to do in L.A., yes. If you want to get distracted you probably can, but if you're going to get distracted you probably won't be in the league very long."

Both teams enjoy stable ownership, excellent practice facilities, and on-ice success.

"I think now it's the best of all worlds for a player," said Brian Hayward, the Ducks' TV analyst and a former NHL goaltender.

Players once considered Southern California a distant hockey outpost. Now many want to play here and stay here.

The Kings signed goaltender Jonathan Quick and standout defenseman Drew Doughty to long-term deals and the Ducks signed Ryan Getzlaf, a finalist for the league's most-valuable-player award, and Corey Perry to eight-year extensions a year ago. Perry, the league's MVP in 2011, was tempted to go back East. He opted to play for a contending team and be able to go out in public without being hounded, as would happen in Toronto. "I like it here. Those are factors," he said.

Los Angeles wasn't always a popular destination.

Jim Fox, a former Kings player and longtime television analyst, credits Gretzky for popularizing the game here and General Manager Dean Lombardi for creating a culture that demanded excellence since he took the job in 2006.

"I bear responsibility for some of that," said Fox, who played for the Kings from 1980 to 1990. "I don't think it was taken as seriously as it should be. And it started from the ownership.

Jerry Buss owned the Kings from 1979 to 1986. During that time he paid more attention to his NBA franchise, the Lakers, Fox said. That did not go unnoticed in the NHL.

"Lack of success on the ice filters down and filters into the league in terms of who wants to come," Fox said.

But after Gretzky got here, Fox said, things got serious. It changed how fans and the media looked at the team and then how the players looked at themselves, he said.

Hayward, who played in the NHL from 1982 to 1993, said that when he was with Winnipeg he and his teammates would check the dates of their trips to Los Angeles to find out when they could escape the brutal winters. Once they arrived, they were bothered by the sub-par ice and less-than-luxurious conditions at the practice rink the Kings then used in Culver City.

"I can tell you that my first impression of L.A. was that it was behind everyone else," he said. "I wouldn't have thought it would be a destination for star-quality free agents."

That view changed with the construction of a practice facility in El Segundo and the opening of Staples Center. Fox also cited as significant the Kings' 2009 free-agent signing of defenseman Rob Scuderi, who had just won the Cup with Pittsburgh. Scuderi became a key figure in the Kings' Cup run in 2012, though he left last summer to be closer to family in the East.

When NHL players saw Scuderi leave Pittsburgh to play for the Kings -- and win -- their perception of Southern California hockey changed favorably.

"Players talk more now than they used to," Fox said. "We hardly talked to the guys on the opposite teams. Now they do and word gets out."

After this playoff series, it might be difficult for Kings and Ducks players to remain quite so anonymous. But the series could be the best thing that has happened to hockey here since Gretzky's arrival drew new fans and triggered a huge growth in youth hockey.

In January, the night before the Kings and Ducks played an outdoor game on a portable rink at Dodger Stadium, Hayward counted 18 TV cameras at a media skating session. "And I thought, 'This is awesome. What is it going to be like if the Ducks and Kings ever play?'" he said of a playoff matchup. "And I think we're going to find out and they will have that exposure that we've all craved for the sport."

(Times staff writer Lance Pugmire contributed to this report.)

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