SoCal punctuates its hockey renaissance with All-Star Game
LOS ANGELES (AP) Jari Kurri arrived in Los Angeles 26 years ago, just in time to join Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille in propelling hockey to a new level of prominence in Southern California.
Kurri moved to Anaheim five years later, when the Mighty Ducks' first playoff team proved that a land without winter could support two NHL teams.
When the Finn returns to LA these days for scouting trips or time with old friends, Kurri remains impressed by hockey's enduring prominence in the sprawling, sunny metropolis that will host the NHL All-Star Game this weekend.
''The weather is nice, and there's a good atmosphere and a lot of fun,'' Kurri said at Staples Center recently. ''The Forum was a lot of fun to play at in those days. You can't beat that feeling. ... Today, coming to the game, you look outside at all the people wearing the jerseys, and there's two Stanley Cup (banners) in the rafters here, and Anaheim has one, so that's pretty amazing for hockey in California. I'm happy to see that it's a global game now.''
Indeed, Los Angeles is the NHL's oldest warm-weather team and a feel-good story in a league that has struggled to sink its flag deep in the Sun Belt. Staples Center, which has been sold out for 228 consecutive Kings games, seems an appropriate location for hockey's midseason showcase of its top talent during the league's centennial season.
As one of the four Second Six expansion teams celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year, the Kings are a symbol of the steady growth that has pushed the NHL into a period of overall financial stability. While other Sun Belt teams labor to match their more traditional neighbors' revenue and success, the Kings and Ducks have solid ownership and thriving fan bases - partly because nothing sells a sport like a winning record.
Southern California has been in a hockey renaissance since 2012, when the eighth-seeded Kings unexpectedly steamrolled the competition on the way to the franchise's first Stanley Cup title. Los Angeles won 10 playoff series and two Cups in an incredible three-year stretch, supplementing its healthy hard-core following with millions of casual fans in a town that loves a parade.
The Ducks haven't added a second banner to the one recognizing California's first Stanley Cup in 2007, but they also rose to perennial championship contention in the past half-decade. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and a steady stream of young talent have won the last four consecutive Pacific Division titles, finishing one victory shy of the 2015 Stanley Cup final.
''We've been having a lot of success here in LA, and they've obviously done the same, at the same time,'' said Drew Doughty, the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman who grew up rooting for the Gretzky-Kurri-Robitaille Kings from Ontario. ''It's a great time for the sport down here.''
Several seasons of consistent success haven't spoiled Southern California's fans, who stuck with plenty of irrelevant Kings teams and several well-meaning Ducks rosters that lost while wearing all types of cartoonish jerseys. The Kings have earned at least 95 points in six consecutive non-lockout seasons, while the Ducks cracked 98 points seven times in the past 11 years.
The SoCal renaissance could be waning: The Kings are a playoff bubble team this season after failing to win a round in the past two years, while the Ducks fired successful coach Bruce Boudreau last summer after another postseason disappointment.
But with next year's arrival of owner Bill Foley's expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the league is hoping for another Sun Belt success story similar to Phil Anschutz's Kings and Henry Samueli's Ducks. Foley is friendly with both ownership groups, and he has gathered tips for building a fan base and making money on a wintry sport in the Southwest.
But first, the league's All-Stars will celebrate in Hollywood this weekend.
The NHL will unveil its choices for the top 100 players in its history on Friday night, followed by a skills competition on Saturday and the 3-on-3 divisional tournament that passes for an All-Star Game on Sunday.
''It's always an honor to get to go, and it's even more special to be at home,'' Doughty said. ''It's a real tribute to our organization and the history here.''
Although the Washington Capitals' 14-game point streak ended with a loss to Ottawa on Tuesday night, nobody was playing like Alex Ovechkin's crew heading toward the break. Washington jumped atop the overall NHL standings with a 12-0-2 surge since late December, even surpassing Columbus in the Metropolitan Division.
The season is all but over for the Colorado Avalanche, who head into their first-half finale at Vancouver on Wednesday with six straight losses and just two victories in their past 18 games. Coach Jared Bednar is preaching optimism and progress, but nearly every player on the roster is thought to be available in the right trade, including captain Gabriel Landeskog and high-scoring center Matt Duchene.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Chicago at San Jose, Jan. 31. The second half of the season begins with 28 teams in action, and the marquee matchup pits the last two Western Conference champions at the Shark Tank.
Points: Connor McDavid, Edmonton, 56; Goals: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh, 28; Plus-Minus: Ryan Suter, Minnesota, plus-28; Ice Time: Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg, 27:18; Goals-Against Average: Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota, 1.91; Wins: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus, 28.
Follow Hockey Writer Greg Beacham at www.twitter.com/gregbeacham