KINGS of the South Bay
After winning two Stanley Cups in three seasons, the Los Angeles Kings are slowly becoming hockey royalty.
- Written byRich Thomas
It’s mid-September, exactly 24 days before the puck drops on the Los Angeles Kings’ 2014–2015 title-defending season. Players, coaches, announcers, staff and hundreds of die-hard fans have gathered at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo for the Kings’ annual Hockey Fest celebration. It also happens to be one of the hottest weekends of the year, and the majority of attendees are dressed in black.
Welcome to hockey in LA.
Before a day full of activities kicks off—including autograph sessions, a youth hockey clinic and a press conference featuring kid reporters—the team is introduced. One by one they make their way through the crowd and onto the stage as their names are read over the PA system. From the waist up they’re outfitted in their home jerseys, but from the waist down it’s a different sort of uniform: shorts and flip-flops.
Welcome to hockey in the South Bay.
The Toyota Sports Center is where the team meets, trains and practices, but more importantly, it’s within a five-mile radius of the officially unofficial team bar, the restaurant where they eat their pre-game meal and the LAX lot where they park when traveling to and from away games. Every player on the current roster—including announcers Jim Fox and Daryl Evans—lives in the South Bay, most within a 10-minute bike ride of one another.
In many ways, the congratulatory championship banner that hangs across Sepulveda Boulevard in El Segundo serves as a sort of gateway to a hockey microcosm festooned with Kings hats, car flags, window stickers and license plate frames. Although the Kings have a South Bay connection that goes back to the late ’80s, the local communities have taken their support of the franchise and its players to another level since the team took home their first-ever Stanley Cup two seasons ago.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF BERTING
HOLDING COURT Alec Martinez, Matt Greene and Jarret Stoll
“You go to the grocery store, the dry cleaners, the mailbox—you’re feeling the support behind you,” says Kings center and year-round Hermosa Beach resident Jarret Stoll. “The people here treat you like their own, and we really appreciate that. It makes us feel like we’re from here.”
Rob Blake, the Kings’ longtime team captain and current assistant GM, remembers moving straight to Manhattan Beach after he was drafted by the team in 1988, mostly on the recommendation of Kings defenseman (and hometown friend) Marty McSorley, who had come to LA in the trade for Wayne Gretzky. At the time, the Kings practiced at the Culver City Ice Arena, and players were scattered as far south as Palos Verdes and as far north as Brentwood.
“I’d say the main reason players started living in the South Bay,” says Rob. “He not only lived there, but he got involved in the community and was big into beach volleyball and things like that. I think that’s why the community started embracing Kings players.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF BERTING
THE VANGUARDS Nelson Emerson, Glen Murray and Rob Blake
For a young kid from rural Canada, beach life isn’t a tough sell: beautiful weather, beautiful people leading active, healthy lifestyles, and a laid-back community atmosphere similar to the small town he grew up in. As Rob puts it, “The high-end stuff without the big, fancy tag. They can put on a pair of shorts and flip-flops and go to the nicest restaurant in town.”
Michael Zislis, owner of The Strand House—a favorite restaurant among players and staff—shares the sentiment. “They act no different from the next person,” he says. “They dress casually, are down-to-earth and humble, and they don’t throw their names around.”
“You get recognized down here more from just being neighbors than playing hockey,” says defenseman and assistant captain Matt Greene. “Nobody really bothers you just because you’re a King.”
Matt and I are sitting on the patio at The Green Store in Hermosa, not too far from his home. Not too far from any player’s home, really.
When he was first traded to LA six years ago, he remembers hanging out on 21st Street and overhearing some guy behind him rant on and on about how the Kings had just traded star defenseman L’ubomír Višnovský for “two guys who he didn’t know who the hell they were.” One was Jarret Stoll; the other was Matt. “That was tough,” he laughs.
Photos courtesy of Dave Fratello, MB Confidential
These days it’s a different story. Halfway through our interview, he’s approached by a fit, attractive woman and her French bulldog, Shanti. “Dustin was in class today,” she says. “And Myles brought in a few goalies.” They talk a bit longer about training camp and personnel for the upcoming season before she heads off.
“Yoga instructor,” he says. “I started getting hurt a little bit, to where I couldn’t lift as much as I used to. A lot of people around here started coming up to me and telling me to try yoga, so I started going with Jarret . It’s amazing how much it loosens you up. She comes in once a month on a day off and puts the team through a workout. It’s awesome.”
There you have it. Just a 6-foot-3, 230-pound bruiser from Grand Ledge, Michigan, extolling the virtues of yoga and the healing properties of the Pacific Ocean. And what about the rest of the guys?
Jarret has a couple of paddleboards at home, and you can find defenseman Alec Martinez cruising down The Strand on his longboard most weekends. (You won’t find him in the ocean, though. He’s not a fan of the sharks.)
When he’s not tossing around the baseball with his son, Jackson, forward Justin Williams is most likely on the links. Jeff Carter? According to Matt, it’s hard to keep a shirt on him in the summer. He could be anywhere.
“The first week I got here we had a couple days off, and I asked some of the guys if they wanted to golf,” remembers Justin. “They said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’ll check the weather and make sure we’re okay.’ They looked at me like I had six heads. ‘What are you talking about? Of course it’s gonna be okay.’ The weather said sunshine for the next seven days.”
The Kings blazed through the 2012 playoffs, taking unprecedented and commanding 3-0 series leads in all four rounds. This year’s Cup did not come as easily. The Kings became the first team in history to reach the finals after having played three consecutive game-sevens, all on the road.
But they never panicked. They don’t panic. They’re calm. Mellow. Shorts and flip-flops. What you see on the ice is a direct result of what happens off the ice, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a player to tell you any different.
Eat, drink, sleep, skate, train, bike, swim, carpool, practice, play, win, lose, decompress. Everything is close. Everyone is close.
“It feels like a college team,” says Matt. “Everybody’s meeting up for dinner or lunch. You’re with the guys at all times, and if you’re not, you’re running into them at restaurants and bars. Guys legitimately care about each other.”
“I can almost guarantee that it’s the best setup in the league,” says Jarret. “In Edmonton, there were guys that lived 45 minutes away from the practice facility and then another 20 minutes from the airport. We all live together, and it makes us a closer team. For us to have this little community, I think it’s a huge reason we’re the type of team we are and why we’re winning.”
That community—our community—has only galvanized the bond, whether it’s showing solidarity with a passing “Go Kings Go” or 4,000 fans showing up to the airport at 1:30 a.m. to welcome the team home from a winning road series. Then there are all the banners, window signs and even construction tarps bearing supportive Kings messages. Mike Bouchard, owner of Gasser Lounge in Redondo Beach, even had a “Go Kings Go” speech bubble painted next to his mural of Johnny Cash, the original Man in Black.
“When the Kings were making their run in the 2011–2012 season, I just had the craziest feeling it was actually going to happen,” says Mike, whose thunderous goal horn has become infamous in North Redondo. “I was trying to show our team spirit, and I figured painting it on the building was the boldest way to do it.”
When the Kings stepped up their game during this year’s playoff run, Mike did the same, installing more red goal lights, strobe lights, a foam machine and a massive projection screen at the bar, all topped off with a custom-made, 10-foot Kings flag for the roof. When Alec Martinez scored the game-winning, Cup-clinching goal 14:43 into the second overtime, it was like midnight on New Year’s Eve all over again.
Manhattan Beach native and Kings Live host Alex Curry was fortunate enough to accompany the team on both of their victory parades this year, and while Downtown LA was truly a spectacle to behold, she recalls a different sort of energy along the South Bay route—a closeness that couldn’t be measured simply by the physical distance between player and fan.
“You go down The Strand, and you see your neighbors, your mailman, local people from the local pub,” remembers Jarret. “That was special.” Maybe not as special as the time 10,000 people in the Hermosa Beach Plaza sang “Happy Birthday” to him during the 2012 parade, but yeah, pretty damn special.
Contrary to what some bitter, East Coast armchair fan with a closet full of Original Six throwback jerseys might have you believe, this is not manufactured fandom, though it is by design … thanks in no small part to Kings president and general manager (and Manhattan Beach resident) Dean Lombardi.
“I came back here eight years ago, and Dean had just taken over as GM,” remembers Rob. “I remember sitting in his office and him telling me what he wanted to accomplish and how and where he wanted to get the staff and all the players set up. I went away and finished my career and saw it from the outside when they won the Cup the first time. Then I was fortunate enough to be involved with it this year and see everything that he had taught or preached along the way come full circle.”
Off the ice, all that hard work has come full circle in a different sort of way. For most fans, the journey began on August 9, 1988, when Wayne Gretzky pulled a white and silver sweater over his head. For others, it started in 1967 at the Long Beach Arena, when the team took the ice for the first time ever. And for some, especially here in the South Bay, the journey is just beginning.
“I got a couple of neighbors, pure watermen—all of a sudden their kids are coming over wearing Kings jerseys, and the parents are like, ‘Thanks a lot, man. We got ice skating lessons next week,’” laughs Matt. “It’s cool to see real fans being made, not because it’s the cool thing to do, but because they’re cheering for their friends.”