Jae C. Hong/AP
Two Los Angeles Kings fans watch cyclists pass Staples Center in Los Angeles Sunday.

Kings ransom: With Lakers and Clippers out, L.A. grudgingly turns to hockey

After an astounding run through the playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings are in hockey's Stanley Cup finals. When Los Angelenos get over the Lakers' collapse, they might tune in.

The Los Angeles Kings are in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1993. Is this a big deal in the city boasting 16 NBA Championships? Yes, even if it pales by the comparison to the elation caused by the Lakers.

When Laker excitement is high – during big games, big championship series – cars speed down the boulevards to make their purple-and-gold car flags snap in the wind. They honk to make their point. The Kings? You have to go to a game to witness the real mania – which is deep but not as widespread. But give it some time, sports fans here say.

“There’s a lot of anger right now about the Lakers losing – maybe even more than the happiness that the Kings are in the finals,” says Vincent Bonsignore, sports columnist for the L.A. Daily News. “You turn on the radio, and they’re still talking about how to fix the Lakers and what trades to make.”

The NBA’s L.A. Clippers also became contenders after adding Chris Paul this year, and so add that barometer reading to the L.A. sports landscape – “steady drizzle” after they fizzled to a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.

“This will hit a crescendo, give it some time,” says Bonsignore. “We’re starting to see some Kings hats and jerseys coming out of the woodworks, it’s not like the Lakers, but these fans are extremely passionate. They had an incredible run.”

It was made even more incredible because no one saw it coming.

The Kings replaced their coach midseason after lots of struggling – primarily, figuring out how to score. Still tinkering as the end of the 82-game season approached, a trade for forward Jeff Carter seemed to make something click. Carter has been far from a savior, but with him the team has become more balanced and more difficult to defend – and goals have come, at last.

Even so, their postseason run has been nothing short of astounding. They entered the Stanley Cup playoffs seeded No. 8 of the eight playoff teams in the Western Conference. Since that point, they have won 12 games and lost two against the Nos. 1, 2, and 3 seeds in the West.

“Everything lined up, the stars lined, and it came together at the right point of the season,” Dustin Penner, who scored the series-winning goal against the Phoenix Coyotes Tuesday, told the L.A. Daily News. “We knew once we were in [the playoffs] that it was anybody’s game.”

There is not a sense of celebration in the air around Los Angeles, but if you scratch the surface, you can find it.

“You can’t tell on the streets, but hockey fans here really get into it,” says Wayne Sherman, a medical claims insurer who has lived here since 1982, reading the paper at a corner Starbucks. “This is not as big as when Gretzky was on the team in 1993, but it is still a big deal.”

Dan Lebowitz, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, says the Kings have done much to establish themselves as a viable and important franchise in an area of the country where hockey is not naturally indigenous.

“The Kings have established a marquee franchise with great tradition even though it’s not as long as the Lakers,” Lebowitz says. “They’ve done a lot for the sport of hockey, and Los Angelenos have responded by embracing them and investing them with a kind of passionate identity.”

Charlie Lavoie, a carpenter who moved to Pasadena in 1984 from Connecticut, considers himself a knowledgeable hockey fan after growing up watching the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers. He says the Los Angeles fan atmosphere is generally not what it is in the East. But he says the current fever is very high, partly because of a controversial statement by radio personality Roger Lodge of KLAA AM830.

“Roger Lodge said the Kings won’t win a game in the playoffs, and that alone has made every King fan in the city so ticked off that they’re tuning in to see Lodge get his comeuppance,” says Lavoie. 

“I got so sucked in, I wouldn’t miss a game even if it was only on radio,” says Lavoie.

The Kings will play Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals on May 30 at either New Jersey or New York. Los Angeles is in the final round for the first time since 1993, when Wayne Gretzky and the Kings lost to the Montreal Canadiens in their only finals appearance.

“The Clippers blew their chance. The Lakers blew their chance. This is it for Los Angeles,” says Lavoie. “People here need somebody to root for and this year it’s the Kings.”

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