How hockey became the sport of Kings in Hollywood

LOS ANGELES -- After his first preseason game as head coach of the Los Angeles Kingsin 1992, Barry Melrose opened his office door at the Forum to find Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell and a young Kate Hudson inside. Hawn and Russell were enjoying beverages out of Melrose's personal fridge.

Sometimes James Woods would show up. Or Mary Hart.

"It was like that every night," Melrose said.

Wayne Gretzky had been traded from theEdmonton Oilersto the Kings four years earlier, in the summer of 1988, and hockey was cooler than cool in California. The Kings, who began play 50 years ago as one of the 1967 expansion teams, had become the toast of the town. In that first season behind the bench in L.A., Melrose led the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, which they lost to theMontreal Canadiensin five games.

Last week, Melrose was back in Los Angeles for the NHL All-Star festivities, where Gretzky was ubiquitous -- meeting the press with fellow icons Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr, and coaching the Metropolitan Division to win the All-Star tournament.

Also at All-Star weekend was another key, but perhaps less-heralded, individual responsible for helping the Kings morph from West Coast hockey outliers into one of the NHL's most influential franchises: Luc Robitaille.

Selected 171st overall in the 1984 NHL draft, Robitaille was given old pants and gloves when he showed up for his first training camp with the Kings. That was followed by a quick dispatch back to junior hockey in Quebec, where he won junior player of the year honors. When Robitaille returned to the Kings in 1987, he found new pants, new gloves and a new jersey with his now-iconic No. 20 waiting in his stall.

"I never forgot that," recalled Robitaille, who would go on to win NHL rookie of the year that season. "I went, 'Man, this is meant to be.' The team is 20 years old, I'm 20 years old, and they gave me No. 20."

During his 19-season career, Robitaille won a Stanley Cup in 2002 with theDetroit Red Wings,and also played for the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers. But the highest-scoring left winger of all time is perhaps best remembered for three stints totaling 14 seasons with the Kings.

Plenty of Robitaille's contemporaries found careers in the game after their playing days ended. Steve Yzerman, Al MacInnis and Joe Sakic have settled into important, hands-on hockey roles. But it would be hard to argue that Robitaille's influence on the Kings as president of business operations -- on their brand recognition and, ultimately, on their success in the Southern California market -- is any less significant than what his colleagues are doing elsewhere.

Robitaille was active away from the rink as a player, learning about the entertainment industry, meeting with producers and music-industry types. It was a cross-pollination of sport and entertainment that remains a very real part of the Kings' identity to this day. Hollywood heavy hitters Jerry Bruckheimer, Will Ferrell and Tom Hanks are big hockey fans, and the Robitailles are often on the guest list for Hollywood premieres.

The foundation started by Robitaille and his wife, Stacia, Echoes of Hope, supports children who have graduated from the foster care system but lack resources and support as young adults. The Robitailles have, among other initiatives, hosted a charity hockey game at the Sundance Film Festival, where they draw up teams featuring entertainers and industry power brokers that cross the entertainment spectrum.

But to understand the Kings' identity, their place both in California and in the larger game, you have to look well beyond All-Star weekend celebrities Justin Bieber, Tim Robbins, Carly Rae Jepsen or Jon Hamm. Building an elite franchise is far more nuanced: to have a winner, you have to cultivate a marketplace that will support the franchise during its inevitable ebbs and flows.

It can be a complex and sometimes frustrating process. As much as Gretzky provided a mega-shot of adrenaline for what was a dormant hockey market in the early 1990s, there were difficult times after the Great One's departure, and the path to not just relevance but also the top has at times been exceedingly steep.

"The best way to describe it is we had the Gretzky era, and people were intrigued and interested," Robitaille explained. "But you didn't know what was going to happen once Wayne left, and unfortunately for hockey, the team didn't have a lot of success when he left. It's not like it died down, but it never grew, and I think what's happening now with hockey in California. It's got a lot of room to grow now. It feels like it's more here to stay, it's established. That's kind of the difference."

One of the first things Robitaille did when he first started working on the business side was to ask for his own office at the headquarters of franchise owner Anschutz Entertainment Group, where eventually he got a staff entirely devoted to the Kings. He was diligent at reaching out to former Kings to help boost the team's profile around the city, just as the Flyers have done for years in Philadelphia.

"Obviously bringing in the right players and winning, that's the No. 1 thing, but then the way you treat people is what's most important too," Robitaille said. "As you see, we're getting more and more alumni around and we're getting guys involved with our organization. There's a different passion in an organization when you do that.

"In the league, there's the Original Six, and then everybody treats the Flyers like they're an Original Six [team] because Mr. Snider did such a good job with the alumni," Robitaille said in reference to late Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. "And one day, I said, 'I'm sick and tired [of this]. We need to be better than them.'

"I don't know if we'll get better than them, but we're getting to that level where we're getting the talk from the league and from teams in Canada. The Kings are viewed in a different way."

During Robitaille's management tenure, the Kings have won two Stanley Cups and advanced once more to the Western Conference finals. They hosted a wildly exciting outdoor game at Dodger Stadium and, of course, welcomed the hockey world last weekend for the All-Star events.

Agent and friend Pat Brisson, who invested early in local arena enterprises and youth hockey ventures with Robitaille, said his longtime pal is synonymous with the Kings: "Luc is the face of the franchise."

That face of the franchise, now 50, is always looking for things that will benefit the Kings -- or the growing local youth hockey programs and players they sponsor at the team's soon-to-be-expanding practice facility in El Segundo.

The Kings this season took over the local flagship youth hockey program, the Junior Kings, and continue to ice triple-A youth teams that compete, along with Anaheim and San Jose, against the top youth teams in the country. In the past two years, no state has equaled California's growth in hockey.

No other NHL team sells more merchandise in its home arena than the Kings, and their in-house sales top those of their NBA brethren, the Clippers and Lakers, at Staples Center. The Kings' season-ticket base has grown an average of 9 percent annually the past five years. Over the same time period, corporate sponsorships have increased 13 percent year over year, as have television ratings.

Hall of Famer Larry Robinson concluded his distinguished playing career with the Kings in 1992 and then returned as head coach in 1995. He was on the ice -- albeit on the losing side, as an assistant with theNew Jersey Devils-- when the Stanley Cup was first hoisted in front of the Staples Center crowd in 2012.

It was painful, yes, but the former King also felt a measure of pride.

"We've always had tremendous fans here in Los Angeles," Robinson said. "We had a great following. I think [because of] winning the Cup, everybody's got the taste now. It's like a hockey player: Once you get that taste, you want it again."

Melrose coached Gretzky and Robitaille during L.A.'s early brush with greatness in the early 1990s, including that loss to Montreal in the 1993 finals, and said the Kings have evolved into an elite organization.

"They are one of the best-known, well-marketed teams in the NHL," Melrose said. "If you're building a franchise, I think L.A. is one of the ones you want to emulate."

Marcel Dionne's 18-year Hall of Fame career included 11-plus seasons with Los Angeles. Herecalled how the no-frills Kings flew in coach class during the early days and often had to leave injured players behind on the road for treatment because they didn't have a proper medical staff. What Dionne, who never won a Stanley Cup but was honored last weekend as one of the top 100 NHL players of all time, sees now is Kings fans who waited decades getting the ultimate payoff for their support.

"There was always a hard core of fans here, but if you don't win, how can you be competitive with USC, UCLA, the Dodgers, the Angels?" Dionne said. "It's winning, winning, winning. When they turned it around and won that first Cup, you could see it coming."

Robitaille has had a rare vantage point on the Kings' odyssey. He waited until late in his playing career to win his one and only Stanley Cup, but he knows what it means for those outside the dressing room -- from the Kings' sales staff to the fans -- to have shared in that journey.

"When you win [while] on the [business] side, you realize that some people have been paying two, three, four, five thousand dollars -- some for 30 years -- and they live and die with the team," Robitaille said. "They actually drive their car on a certain road for good luck. As a player, you never think about that. You just think that if you win, people are going to show up. You don't realize the passion of the fans."

That's something you only learn from having lived it with them, from the boards to the boardrooms.
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