HOCKEY and Los Angeles would seem to go together like Morton Downey Jr. and MacNeil-Lehrer. Like a tuxedo and tassled loafers.
But in this land of Spandex and surfboards, beneath the palms and pulchritude, there is a new icon: the Los Angeles Kings.
Ever since the hockey team made its ignoble debut in garish purple-and-gold uniforms in 1967, going scoreless against Philadelphia, the Kings have mustered a modest but loyal following.
In 1988, the year the sport's marquee player, Wayne Gretzky, was traded to Los Angeles, the platoon of fans grew into a regiment and the regiment into a militia.
Now, with the Kings' improbable presence in the semifinals of the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in franchise history, it's suddenly Showtime in Los Angeles again - on ice instead of birch flooring.
"There is no doubt that hockey is at its peak in southern California right now," says Bob Miller, the broadcast voice of the Kings for 20 years. "You've really got everybody following it and talking about it."
Playoff tickets here are as coveted as a bleacher seat at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Academy Awards night. When 22,000 seats went on sale last week, they were gone in 47 minutes. Kings jerseys, updated to trendy silver and black, have supplanted Dodger blue and Laker purple in many neighborhoods.
Still, Los Angeles is no Toronto, where fireworks cascade inside Maple Leaf Gardens and local newspapers print special editions after important wins. (The Maple Leafs and Kings, who split the first two games in Toronto, resume their best-of-seven series in Los Angeles tonight.)
Nor is it Montreal, an urban hockey museum, where winning the Stanley Cup is expected. The Canadiens lead the New York Islanders in the other semifinal matchup.
Actually, a hat trick has long been something more than a magician's stunt with a rabbit here. In the 1930s and '40s, college hockey flourished in Los Angeles. Double-headers held at an outdoor rink in Westwood routinely drew 8,000 spectators.
Minor-league teams in the West have filled their share of seats, too. And the Seals, an expansion team in Oakland, had a short-lived career there before moving to Cleaveland and becoming defunct.
Since the late 1980s, though, interest in hockey has mushroomed with the arrival of Gretzky and other popular players. Ice rinks in the area are now usually booked round the clock. Roller-blade leagues, still the preferred form of hockey here, are ubiquitous. That other peculiar form of self-expression, vanity license plates, sport names like "EYES-HKY" and "5-4-FYTN."
Last year the Kings sold out all 40 home games - the first local professional sports franchise to do so. Even the Lakers, who share the Great Western Forum with the Kings, didn't fill all seats at the height of Showtime with Ervin (Magic) Johnson.
Then there is that official imprimatur of success in Los Angeles: gazing at stars. While the Lakers have Jack Nicholson, inky sun glasses and all, the Kings usually get John Candy, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, and lately Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
None of this, however, has done much to dispel, and probably has encouraged, the image that Angelenos still think a puck is that Wolfgang fellow who runs Spago restaurant. The stigma extends into the locker room.
"People say you can't win in this climate, that you can't play hard here," says first-year coach Barry Melrose. "That's totally bogus."
Melrose strolls behind the players' bench in Italian suits and sports a ducktail of shoulder-length hair. His style, though, isn't laid-back Los Angeles. It is lunch-pail work ethic.
"People say L.A. is the place where people go to end their careers," says Melrose. "That's bogus," too.
That did not silence the snickering when the league's newest team, owned by the Walt Disney Company, was scheduled to debut down the road in Anaheim next year under the name Mighty Ducks. But therein lies further evidence (Goofy to some, Dumbo to others) that hockey is no longer a Frost Belt phenomenon.
"When you think of L.A., you think of Hollywood and the beach and sunshine," says Marty McSorley, Kings defenseman and chief enforcer. "That is tough to get rid of."
The best way to change something, as Hollywood knows, is to change the ending. When Gretzky joined the Kings, he said he had two missions: to promote hockey in southern California, which he has done, and to bring Los Angeles its first Stanley Cup, which has proven maddeningly elusive.
He has helped bring the Kings to the playoffs in a year when many thought he couldn't do it anymore. Injury and age brought murmurs of retirement - from Gretzky as well.
But he has reemerged in the playoffs with the young legs that helped him set 58 league scoring records.
Skating with a gimmie-the-puck glide, he has added scoring to his other assets of playmaking and cotton-swab-soft passing.
The Kings, though, still have to get around the Maple Leafs, who have their own Great One, Doug Gilmour, and who are on a Mountie-like mission after 26 years without a Cup. Toronto excels at the disciplined, defensive style that usually wins playoffs. The Kings are offensive but erratic - more home-run derby than pitcher's duel. Then would come either Montreal or New York.
"L.A. hockey has come so far," says Gretzky. "It really is fun right now. But we know we still have our work cut out for us."