For 45 years, Southland hockey fans have kept a dream on ice: the night their L.A. Kings would skate to clinch the Stanley Cup.
Game Four of the Stanley Cup Final is tonight at Staples Center. The Kings lead the series 3-0. A Kings win means Tinseltown, La La Land, whatever you want to call it … gets a new name: “Hockeytown.”
When the Kings aren't praticing at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, someone else is, like the dozens of kids — ages 10 to 18 — competing to win a spot in the youth travel hockey program. The action’s intense. Armed with sticks, the players take swipes at the ice, launching pucks into the air at lightning speed. For every shot the goalie doesn’t block, you’re grateful for the tall Plexiglass barrier that does … and thankfully, you’re standing behind it.
Coaches just selected Jonny Marzec, 15, to play with the L.A. Junior Kings in the upcoming season. Marzec is from the state of Washington; he’s humble and direct, just like the pros, as he talks about what it took for him to make the cut with the Junior Kings.
“Just do my own thing on the ice and stand out compared to other kids and work harder than others and try to do what I do best,” Marzec says. “Great plays, be a playmaker and occasionally get some goals.”
Marzec will tell you the hockey coaches here are among the most respected in Southern California.
There’s Joe Collins, who played years ago in the International Hockey League. On the ice, he drills his junior Kings on the fundamentals of the game: skating, shooting, passing and checking. Collins says he expects his players to skate as hard as veteran Kings.
“When you come into a facility like this and you see the jerseys of Dave Taylor or Marcel Dionne or Rogie Vachon hanging up, what it does is it just lets you know that there’s a certain expectation," says Collins. "And there’s a certain idea of what we think this game should be played and at what level.”
Morgan Metcalfe helps manage youth hockey at the Toyota Sports Center.
“The hockey in California over the last five, 10 years has gotten really, really good, he says. “A lot of kids have come out of this particular club and gone on to higher level hockey. Some of them have even been drafted by professional teams.”
It’s an exciting time for aspiring hockey players and for Kings fans — especially for the diehards who were loyal long before the team made this run for the Stanley Cup.
L.A. Galaxy soccer star David Beckham got a laugh during a recent visit in Montreal. He told reporters the City of Angels soon might be hockey’s new heaven.
“I think we’re the hockey town at the moment," Beckham told reporters. "Sorry, I don’t want to offend anyone.”
Before the Kings took on the Devils at Staples Center for Monday’s Game 3, longtime Kings fan Meagan Moureaux pondered the thought of L.A. as a “hockey town.” It’s always been that for Kings loyalists. And what about the formerly fickle?
“I don’t know. A lot of bandwagoners, I’m gonna say. I have friends that don’t even know anything about hockey, just all up on it now.”
Mike LoPata of West Hills remembers how exciting it was back in 1993 when Wayne Gretzky led the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final.
“People in this town know when to grab hold of something," LoPata remarks. "And if they choose to be a part of this, it makes it better for everybody and it’s exciting.”
Nicholas Condon will probably remember this time years from now. The 6-year-old from the Montessori Children’s World School in Beverly Hills loves the Kings and the team’s playoff run has him fired up to play hockey. His dad, Daniel, is his coach at Toyota Sports Center ice.
After they skate, Nicholas likes to stage mock interviews. Dad asks the questions; Nicholas plays the role of a big time pro hockey star, giving advice to the Kings.
“What do you think the team has to do to improve?” Daniel asks his son.
Nicholas answers “Passing. Try to pass to your team and try to be nice to your teammates.”
Share the puck and care for your teammates — you know the gods of Hockeytown are smiling at that. And if the Kings listen to Nicholas, soon we’ll all be smiling.