Why I’m a Fan of the Kings: Are You a Gretzky Baby Too?

“He explained that Gretzky was like Babe Ruth, except he was still playing and <em>still that good</em>.”

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In hockey circles, it has come to be known simply as The Trade. Anyone reading this is familiar enough with the story by now: Bruce McNall, fresh off his acquisition of the Los Angeles Kings from Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss, was relentlessly in pursuit of the game’s biggest star to centerpiece his franchise. A trade was consummated, the re-branded Kings earned their place at the Los Angeles sports table, and hockey on the west coast became a reality.

I was 7 years old the day that trade was announced. I was aware of hockey as a game, much in the way I was aware of soccer, baseball, football, and so on. At the time, the only sports stars I was familiar with were Joe Montana, Magic Johnson and Fernando Valenzuela. It was my dad who told me why the Gretzky acquisition was so important. He explained that Gretzky was like Babe Ruth, except he was still playing and still that good.

So in one of the most formative years of my young life, for the first time I sat and watched a full NHL game. While the Great One is what compelled me to sit next to my dad on the couch and watch this complicated sport played with skates and sticks, it was the sheer explosiveness of the game that reeled me in as a fan for life. The combination of blades and ice made it the fastest sport on Earth. It was aggressive. Even violent. The players had long hair, making me think of them more as rock stars than athletes.

It was the late 80’s, remember. Heavy metal music and professional wrestling were the two primary things my 7 year-old self defined as cool. Hockey encapsulated both of those things perfectly, except it was real. No dramatized, pre-determined “matches”. No horribly acted, clichéd music videos. Real athletes, doing truly amazing feats in real time, with real drama and real consequences.

Gretzky led the Kings to a second-place finish that year as he won yet another Hart Trophy. They beat his former teammates in Edmonton in the first round before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup winners, the Calgary Flames. While Wayne never would lift the Cup while wearing a Kings sweater, that first season was enough to convince me that hockey was indeed the coolest game on Earth, and the Kings would be the team I live and die with, long after The Great One would move on from Los Angeles.

Watching this team win two Stanley Cups in the last few years was not just gratifying due to years of hopeless failure. It was the changing of the landscape in Los Angeles, seeing that familiar (though modernized) black-and-silver emblem on folks casually walking down the street. It’s been the ability to walk into a bar and have the game already prominently displayed on the screen rather than having to ask if they could switch off one of the three televisions featuring professional poker.

Those outside Los Angeles are quick to throw around the word “bandwagon”. And that’s just fine. Because I remember jumping on the original Los Angels Kings bandwagon, riding it all the way to two Stanley Cup victories, nearly 30 years later. The 7 year-olds who discovered this team for the first time in 2012 are bound to suffer some ups and downs, just as myself and many other Gretzky-babies did throughout the 90’s. Win or lose, I hope they continue to join us at the Staples Center. Or as I did for most of my youth, sitting on the living room floor, following the little black puck and learning the nuances of the game. Because there is no better show in town.

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